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Education under the microscope

Panel to review undergraduate curriculum

A new faculty task force will review MIT's core educational requirements as well as other aspects of the undergraduate experience that are common to all MIT students, President Charles M. Vest announced.

The group, chaired by Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Science Robert Silbey, will report its findings and recommendations to the faculty within two years. The Task Force on the MIT Undergraduate Educational Commons will undertake the following steps:
--Review MIT's educational mission statement, including its supporting educational and societal context, and then reaffirm or modify the statement as appropriate.
--Derive from the educational mission a specific set of goals for the education of all undergraduates.
--Develop common curriculum requirements for all undergraduates.
--Develop and recommend to the faculty the formal structure of the undergraduate curriculum, expressed in a set of General Institute Requirements (GIRs) or an alternative.

"Our students study in a campus community of rich diversity in every dimension, and graduate to work and lead in a global society," Vest said. "They follow career paths (some of which are very different from those followed by our graduates only a few decades ago) which often call for an understanding of many cultures and intellectual traditions.

"It is time for MIT to reflect on its undergraduate education given this context, the ever-increasing centrality of science and engineering to our world, the changing demography of our students, and the advance of pedagogy and learning methods. In particular, we must review and affirm the future course of our undergraduate educational commons--those experiences of learning and discovery that all our students share in common, and that give basic definition to an MIT education."

MIT is one of the few American colleges and universities with extensive common curricular requirements for all its students. The 17-subject GIRs evolved over the past 50 years, although the basic structure of these requirements has remained much the same.

All undergraduates are expected to take specific subjects in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics as well as at least one HASS subject each term. A semester of molecular biology was added to the GIRs in 1991. Several years later, the faculty approved the establishment of a communication requirement to provide additional writing and speaking experience.

In addition to the GIRs, the educational commons at MIT includes activities such as UROP (the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) that, while not required, are considered by most faculty and students to be important components of MIT undergraduate education.

Professor of Physics and Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine presented the case for a review of the undergraduate educational commons at an MIT faculty meeting last fall. He recommended that the review consider students' changing intellectual and societal interests, and that it address concerns within some academic departments about the current scope and content of the core requirements and a general desire among faculty to broaden the exposure of entering students to the range of options available to them at MIT.

Among the faculty, there is "strong consensus that an MIT undergraduate education must continue to provide a deep, common grounding in science and math," Redwine said. "We are not trying to fix something that is broken." However, he added, "today's MIT students have experiences and interests that are different in important ways from those of students in decades past."

Redwine said faculty members have discussed questions with him such as: How can we broaden students' exposure to engineering during their first year? To what extent should the GIRs promote cultural literacy and to what extent should they be a foundation for further study in a major? How can we help students explore the full range of opportunities at MIT?

The group met for the first time in January to establish its agenda for the next six months. "We need first to establish a common and comprehensive understanding of what our students learn and how they learn it," Silbey said. "This spring we'll be in data collection mode, trying to understand as much as possible about our students and their current experience at MIT."

Silbey, who co-chaired the Task Force on Student Life and Learning in 1998, said he expects that the new task force will build on the work of that earlier group.

The 24-member task force includes students and faculty from around the Institute. Faculty members are professors Rafael Bras of civil and environmental engineering (CEE), chair of the Faculty Policy Committee; John Brisson of mechanical engineering; Thomas Greytak of physics; W. Eric Grimson of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS); Paula Hammond of chemical engineering; Diana Henderson of literature; Kip Hodges of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; Chris Kaiser of biology; Tomas Lozano-Perez of EECS; Albert Meyer of EECS, chair of the Committee on Curricula; Haynes Miller of mathematics; David Mindell of the Program on Science, Technology and Society; Heidi Nepf of CEE; Dava Newman of aeronautics and astronautics; Redwine; J. Mark Schuster of urban studies and planning, chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program; Charles Stewart of political science, associate dean of humanities and social sciences; and J. Kim Vandiver of ocean engineering, dean for undergraduate research.

Hodges, Newman, and Stewart will serve as associate chairs of the task force. Student members are Elizabeth Greenwood, a junior in mathematics); Jessica Rhee, a sophomore in physics; Christopher Suarez, a sophomore in EECS; and John Velasco, a junior in political science. Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret Enders will serve as staff director to the effort.

The task force will maintain a web site at with updates on its work. Members will seek input from the entire MIT community, including alumni, as well as perspectives and advice of the appropriate committees of the faculty, particularly the Committee on Curricula and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. Members also will gather information from outside MIT, including other colleges and universities, graduate and professional schools attended by MIT graduates, and employers who hire MIT students.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 17, 2004.

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