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Aero/astro's Unified Engineering is largest on OCW site

Say the words Unified Engineering or Course 16.01 in the hallways of NASA's headquarters or the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and at least a few heads will turn.

Mention this famous course from MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to any of the department's alumni of the last 30 years and you are certain to get a response.

The challenging course is the bane of sophomore year for aero/astro majors. It combines the disciplines of materials and structures, computer programming, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, propulsion, signals and systems, and systems and labs, into a year-long course designed to introduce the systemic nature of aerospace engineering.

And it is by far the biggest course ever published on the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) site. Its inclusion marks a major publishing milestone for OCW and a major opportunity for the aero/astro department to share its unique pedagogical approach with the world.

"Unified Engineering is the signature course for aero/astro at the undergraduate level and it embodies the essence of aerospace engineering education at MIT," said Professor Wesley L. Harris, the head of the aero/astro department. "The opportunity afforded us to publish Unified through OCW brings benefits to the students, to the faculty involved in the teaching of the materials, and to others outside of the department and beyond MIT. We are better equipped to continuously improve Unified Engineering now that it is so easily accessible to all our faculty."

Professor Steven R. Hall, a 2002 MacVicar Faculty Fellow, is a lead instructor on the course. He and professors Charles Coleman, Mark Drela, Kristina Lundqvist, Mark Spearing, Ian Waitz and Peter Young contributed material to the online course.

"Starting three or four years ago, we really began to transition to an almost web-only system. We had been building the site using Dreamweaver [a popular web-publishing software], and if you look at our current site and compare it to what is on OCW, it is fairly similar. We tended to organize each discipline as a matrix, with each lecture topic and the corresponding homework, tests and problem sets," said Hall, who took a much lower-tech version of Unified as a student in 1978-79. "We always had the philosophy that the course would be open to the world, and OCW lets us do that."

Unified has been a requirement for Course 16 students since 1973, and nearly 2,500 students have struggled through its problem sets. The new course site features more than four times the volume of educational materials of a typical one-semester MIT course — about 1,500 different files, including video course introductions by Coleman and Waitz, lecture notes, assignments and video footage of the semester project.

The publication of Unified on Sept. 17 brings the total number of courses available to 906.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).

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