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Biological engineering may become Course 20

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Biological engineering faculty put forward an ambitious proposal for a new Course 20 at the faculty meeting held Dec. 21 in the Stata Center's Room 141.

Founded in 1998 as a new academic unit, the Biological Engineering Division received approval in February 2005 to accept undergraduate majors. The course number its faculty propose to use has been unassigned for nearly two decades.

Changing or renaming a course occurs only after careful deliberation by the faculty and generally in response to developments in science and engineering practices.

Only one course has remained constant throughout the Institute's history -- Course 2 (mechanical engineering) was named in 1868. A handful of others are close behind, including Course 5 (chemistry), named in 1869; Course 4 (architecture), named in 1873; and Course 8 (physics), named in 1875. Many others have been renamed as education and practices have changed. One example is Course 3, established as mining engineering and metallurgy in 1868. In 1940, mining engineering was discontinued, and metallurgy took over Course 3. Today's Course 3, materials science and engineering, was named in 1975.

The history of Course 20 reflects similar developments. Established in 1946 as food technology, it was renamed in 1961 to nutrition, food science and technology, refined in 1963 to nutrition and food science, and known from 1985 to 1989 as applied biological sciences.

The Committee on Curriculum and the Faculty Policy Committee have both approved the division's request for a course number, which was endorsed by Dean of Engineering Thomas Magnanti. Professor Douglas Lauffenburger, the Whitaker Professor of Bioengineering and director of the Biological Engineering Division, presented the proposal to the faculty.

He said the division had to meet the following six criteria to attain a course number:

  • The entity wishing to assume a course number should hire, promote and tenure its own faculty.
  • The entity should have a clear place in the MIT organizational scheme.
  • The entity should be assured of reasonable permanence and the dean of the school should attest to its permanence.
  • The entity should be authorized by the Corporation to grant degrees, preferably both graduate and undergraduate.
  • The entity should be authorized to admit graduate students, serve as the focus of registration for them, teach all of the core required courses, offer the exams needed to qualify for degrees and qualify the students.
  • The entity should not contain or be contained within another entity with a course number.

Lauffenburger noted that Dean Magnanti had asserted in his endorsement memo to the Committee on Curricula and the Faculty Policy Committee that biological engineering had met each of the criteria. The division now has 20 full-time equivalent faculty (with a total number of more than 40 members) and more than 125 doctoral students. The new S.B. has an initial cohort of about 30 students, Lauffenburger said.

The division is requesting Course 20, Lauffenburger said, because it is "just about the lowest open number, and it's a nice round and resonant number," and also because of its history as the number for the former Department of Applied Biological Sciences.

Magnanti spoke in support of the motion, calling biological engineering "a very vibrant unit by almost any measure." He added, "For example, the Ph.D. program is, I believe, one of the most competitive to get into at MIT."

Professor Steven Tannenbaum of biological engineering, a Course 20 alumnus from the time when it was the Department of Food Technology, said he thought alumni would approve of the number being reactivated.

The faculty will be asked to vote on the proposal at its next regular meeting on Feb. 15.

The faculty also heard two reviews of M.Eng. programs, one in civil and environmental engineering, and the other in logistics. At MIT, M.Eng. programs offer a one-year master's degree and are targeted at students who plan to work in industry, rather than academia. A number of M.Eng. professional programs were begun in the late 1990s, and reviews were begun in 2001 to monitor their continued viability. Three programs have been eliminated since that time, said Magnanti -- aeronautical engineering, ocean engineering and nuclear engineering -- and one has been added, in manufacturing.

Patrick Jaillet, the Edmund K. Turner Professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, presented the review of the M.Eng. in civil and environmental engineering, a nine-month program. He noted that companies that were hiring students from the program "like the way we are educating these students." He concluded that, "Yes, indeed, this program is a central mission of the department."

Professor Yossi Sheffi of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems, who is director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics, presented the review of the M.Eng. in logistics (MLOG), also a nine-month program. The program is popular, selective and profitable for the Institute, Sheffi commented.

"We see a lot of universities around the world following in our footsteps and we help them establish their own programs," he said. All of the 2005 graduates received job offers within two weeks of graduation and saw salary increases averaging 60 percent, not including bonuses, he said.

"It is clear to us that we could run a program three to four times this size," Sheffi said.

Professor Daniel Hastings of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, commented, "We see the MLOG program as one of our core programs." At the time of the meeting, Hastings was the director of the Engineering Systems Division. He will become the dean for undergraduate education on Jan. 1.

In other business, the faculty approved a change to the rules for electing members to standing committees that was proposed in response to the 2005 spring elections, when nominations were made off the approved slate for the first time in memory. The change is designed to provide the faculty with more information about candidates nominated off the slate, said Professor Bruce Tidor, associate chair of the faculty. The change passed unanimously on a voice vote.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

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