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Faculty approve flexible engineering degree for undergraduates

Approval of AeroAstro program adds a new dimension to engineering education.

Institute faculty voted yesterday to approve a flexible degree to be offered by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to undergraduates who are interested in a more multi- and interdisciplinary engineering curriculum.

The proposal will create a new degree within AeroAstro — 16-ENG — and graduates of the program will earn an "SB in Engineering," as recommended by the department. The new option in AeroAstro is part of a broad, schoolwide effort through which any of the School of Engineering's academic departments will be able to offer their own flexible "ENG" degree program. Undergraduate students who pursue these flexible majors will receive a more interdisciplinary engineering education, but one that still features the rigor and technical depth of the school's traditional engineering degrees.

The flexible degree program addresses students' interest in tackling major global problems, such as energy, transportation, climate change and poverty, according to Subra Suresh, dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering. "This program will also allow students to pursue topics that are inherently interdisciplinary — like robotics, computational engineering or transportation — in greater depth," Suresh said. In addition, the option is intended to lower perceived barriers between engineering and other fields that can be pursued at the postgraduate level. "Studying engineering at MIT can be a gateway to many things," he added. "MIT students are interested not only in a disciplinary engineering degree, but also in addressing broad and complex problems that affect the world, and we can help them by making an engineering degree more appealing and more suited to this wide range of application — while preserving depth and rigor that characterize an MIT education."

AeroAstro's Course 16-ENG was in large measure inspired by Mechanical Engineering's Course 2-A, a customizable degree program that has been offered by MechE since 1934 and gained ABET accreditation in 2002. Both degrees are structured around a core set of subjects offered by the department. Students then complement that core with a broad concentration area comprised of different subjects drawn from across the Institute. For example, an AeroAstro student who concentrates in energy could choose to take courses from an exhaustive list of subjects based in MechE, the Sloan School of Management, the School of Science or the School of Architecture. Among AeroAstro's suggested 16-ENG concentrations are energy, robotics and control, environment, engineering management, space exploration and computational engineering — with others being developed.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings said that the new degree program is an explicit recognition by the Institute of the national need for engineering education that goes beyond narrow disciplines: "For energy, climate change and international development, these issues aren't uniquely about engineering. They also involve politics, economics, systems thinking — you name it. Students need to know about all of these areas to make progress."

Not only are MIT students more interested in such cross-disciplinary pursuits, but MIT research as a whole is also much more interdisciplinary than it was 30 years ago. "This culture of multi-disciplinary research is one of MIT's great strengths, and the flexible degree programs are simply another expansion of this culture into education," said Cynthia Barnhart, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering, and professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems.

Developing the degree

The AeroAstro proposal was developed after Suresh became dean in July 2007 and formed several strategic planning committees to consider the direction of the school. One committee recommended developing flexible engineering degrees for students who wanted a multidisciplinary approach to their education without having to take additional classes on top of their already demanding course load.

Suresh asked Ian Waitz, head of AeroAstro and the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor, to lead a separate committee of six engineering department heads to explore this possibility. That committee unanimously proposed a schoolwide flexible degree program into which individual departments can choose to opt. "You have to have that grassroots-based interest in serving departmental and students' needs when developing curricula at MIT," Waitz said. "For a field like aerospace, that has historically been multidisciplinary, this degree makes sense," he added.  This degree program, which will be offered in parallel with traditional degrees, was approved by all the appropriate Institute committees before it was presented at the faculty meeting.

AeroAstro was interested in developing a flexible degree as soon as possible so that sophomores could enroll in it this fall. Working closely with colleagues from Mechanical Engineering — Mary Boyce, head of MechE, John Lienhard, department head for education, and Peko Hosoi, an associate professor in MechE — Waitz and David Darmofal, an associate professor in AeroAstro and associate department head, developed their flexible degree along the same lines as Course 2-A. The customizable degree offered by MechE has seen dramatic growth in enrollment in recent years. About 45 percent of MechE's incoming sophomores chose the degree option this year, according to Boyce, who said that this growth does not detract from enrollment in the department's other degree options.

Another reason AeroAstro moved so swiftly to get the degree approved was to make sure that enough data would be available to support accreditation by ABET in 2013. Waitz stressed that this accreditation is important for flexible engineering degrees at MIT in order to validate the technical rigor that is consistent with the school's other accredited degrees. "If anything, we think the degree will be even more challenging and rigorous," he said, adding that his department recognizes that increased mentoring will be required now that students have more choices available to them.

From the school's perspective, the program offers an opportunity to coordinate subject offerings across departments and schools, which will help to identify holes and eliminate redundancies in the curriculum.

Suresh has established a standing committee with members from each department to enable curriculum coordination for the new degree program, which will be closely monitored with careful and aggressive evaluation after three years.

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