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Faculty discuss widening international programs

A faculty committee looking into ways to expand MIT students' access to cross-cultural and international experiences recommended doubling existing opportunities from around 300 to 600 by the 2008-2009 academic year. The goal is to eventually increase by a factor of three or four the 15 percent of MIT student who currently take advantage of such experiences.

Linn W. Hobbs, professor of materials science and nuclear engineering, and Hazel L. Sive, professor of biology, reported the recommendations at the Feb. 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 endorsed an increased role for international educational experiences in the undergraduate years.

Noting that new MIT models for global experiences currently exist in pilot phases, ready to be expanded, the committee recommended a fivefold increase in opportunities to around 1,500 by the 2010-2011 academic year, which would provide almost every undergraduate a chance to work, travel or study abroad at some point during his or her four years at MIT.

One committee member said that because MIT is a global institution, it's important for undergraduates to understand very different learning and work styles and gain a global toolkit that includes a competency to work in other cultures and to develop leadership skills across cultures.

While MIT already provides such opportunities through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Cambridge/MIT Exchange and other programs, Hobbs and Sive acknowledged there are barriers to participation. These include a lack of student awareness of the programs, a limited number of slots, lack of flexibility to miss a semester on campus, lack of encouragement by mentors and a financial penalty for the large number of students who contribute to their tuition by working on campus. To address some of these concerns, the global MIT web site is now live internally.

The committee also recommended the development of an umbrella global education program and the creation of an Office of Global Education to advertise and facilitate international and cross-cultural education.

In previous meetings, the faculty voted to elicit campus-wide feedback on the task force's report. These have focused primarily on the recommendations regarding math, science and engineering requirements, so faculty chair Steven R. Lerman, the Class of 1922 Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, directed Wednesday's discussion to the recommendations on changing the general Institute requirements within the School for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and on international experiences.

Currently, eight new experimental classes are being developed, some interdepartmental and possibly interschool.

In a separate agenda item, Provost L. Rafael Reif said that the names of a core group of faculty members who will explore the issues facing faculty from underrepresented minority groups on campus will be announced soon. The most important goal is to improve our numbers of underrepresented minorities, he said, because MIT is committed to understanding the experiences of minority faculty.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2007 (download PDF).

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