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Faculty discuss improving teaching, undergraduate experience

Teaching was the focus of the March 21 faculty meeting, where the faculty continued its discussion of the recommendations of the MIT Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons.

If approved, the changes to MIT's undergraduate curriculum will be the most far-reaching of the past half-century.

Among other recommendations, the task force called for a series of actions that task force members believe would improve the quality of undergraduate education at MIT.

Charles H. Stewart, department head and professor of political science, and Dean for Undergraduate Research J. Kim Vandiver outlined ways that faculty could become more engaging as teachers and more involved in mentoring students. They spoke about the need to double the number of faculty that currently advise first-year students and discussed changing the requirement for students to earn two separate undergraduate degrees vs. two majors.

Other items that "excited faculty interest" when the task force was developing its recommendations included creating a reading period before finals; redefining orientation for incoming students to include more faculty involvement; and the need to improve maintenance of existing teaching spaces and develop new ones to accommodate the increased hands-on learning and other recommendations contained in the report.

There are currently 66 faculty members who advise first-year students, serving around half of the incoming class. The faculty discussed whether students need more of a mentoring relationship with their advisors than a guidance counselor relationship. Faculty discussed whether advising should be considered when salary reviews come up, to create incentives for faculty to add advising to their already busy schedules.

"We realized we had great teaching at MIT. We also want to continually improve," Vandiver said. He outlined a proposal to change from the standard model of weekly lectures, recitations and problem sets to consider an approach in which lectures were reserved for material that gave students the "big picture and got students excited" and "provided a framework" for the rest of the knowledge being presented in the class, because students sometimes need help weeding out the important concepts from the mountain of material being covered.

And recitations, Vandiver said, could become more geared toward helping students understand and practice the material under the tutelage of an expert. "We experts tend to forget what the novice finds difficult," he said.

Faculty members questioned whether class time, and laboratory time in particular, was exceeding the number of hours described in the course catalog. Some students are spending up to 25 hours a week to keep up with labs that are slated for 15 hours.

In other business, the faculty entertained a motion to disband the Faculty-Administration Committee, a change requested by the chair of the committee because its charge--dealing with relationship issues between administration, faculty and other academic staff with teaching responsibilities--is covered by the Faculty Policy Committee.

The faculty heard discussion of a proposal to change the Division of Biological Engineering to the Department of Biological Engineering. Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering, said that a five-year review of the division, which was presented in spring 2006, recommended that the division eventually receive departmental status.

A biomedical engineering minor was established in 1995, a Ph.D. program started in 1999 and an undergraduate major launched in 2005. It is now the largest undergraduate major at MIT. Last year, the division became Course 20. The proposal will be voted on at a future meeting.

Stewart read a resolution on the death of Stephen M. Meyer, political science professor, expert in national security issues and passionate advocate of global biodiversity, who died of cancer Dec. 10 at age 54. "As a scholar and courageous human being, Steve was one of the best," Stewart said. "Let the faculty of MIT record its profound sense of loss and sympathy to his family." The faculty held a moment of silence in Meyer's memory.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2007 (download PDF).

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