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The What, Who and How of DUE: Concourse

The Concourse freshman learning community is a 'school within a school'
Students gather during the lunch portion of Concourse's signature Friday seminars.
Students gather during the lunch portion of Concourse's signature Friday seminars.
Photo: Jon Sachs/MIT SHASS Communications
From left, freshmen Kira Street and Zeo Liu
From left, freshmen Kira Street and Zeo Liu
Photo: Jon Sachs/MIT SHASS Communications

This is the 7th in a series of articles from the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) that answers the questions: What does that office really do? Who works there? And how does the office advance/impact education at MIT?

As one of the four freshman learning communities at MIT, Concourse provides a guiding environment for first year students, emphasizing one-on-one guidance, small classroom sizes and a strong sense of community. It is often referred to as a “school within a school,” built on a foundation of peers, advisors and professors.

The 40-year-old program focuses on the integration of humanities into MIT’s traditional science- and technology-based curriculum, teaching students that most technical courses have a mutually beneficial interaction with the humanities and social sciences. While still fulfilling their MIT core requirements, students have the opportunity to reflect and search for deeper meanings as they shape their futures. Anne McCants, director of Concourse, emphasizes the importance of this approach: “I think that to be truly educated, and to fulfill our real potential as scholars, it is not enough to know many things, or to be able to do many things, valuable as that may be. We actually have to know what those things are good for (how they nourish life and well-being), and it is the humanistic disciplines that school us for those questions.”

Why do students choose Concourse?

Each year, Concourse selects 40 to 50 students to participate in the program. “With limited space it is important to select freshmen who will thrive in the learning community’s environment,” says Concourse advisor Paula Cogliano. Participating students are incoming freshmen with an interest in incorporating a humanities framework to their MIT education.

“MIT students are great at finding their own support groups filled with experience and wisdom," McCants adds. "Concourse offers freshman opportunities essential for navigating MIT that they don’t have to go searching for.” By providing students with the support they need as first-year students, it gives them time to adjust to the MIT workload, and build meaningful relationships with peers, professors and advisors.

Signature Friday seminars are just one opportunity students have to bond with the community. Every Friday afternoon all members reconnect in collaborative conversation over lunch. In addition to conversing with Concourse professors and advisors, students hear from an MIT faculty guest speaker each week. This gives freshmen the advantage of engaging with professors they may take classes from in the future.

Alumni are vital to the program

“Upperclassmen [alumni of Concourse] are crucial to the program,” Cogliano explains, because they keep the program fresh. Peer-to-peer interaction is an integral part of the program, and upperclassmen carry particular clout when it comes to interacting with freshmen. Whether they return to the program as tutors, teaching assistants, associate advisors or as part of the student-led social planning committee, upperclassman participation is greatly valued.

The social planning committee is especially favored because it brings together current and past students to plan academic and social events. Pizza and P-Sets Evenings, a regular academic event held in the Concourse lounge, is an opportunity for first-year students to get help with problem sets from upperclassmen. Social events include brunches, movie nights, fondue nights and theater outings.

Dynamic, small classes and individualized advising

When teaching Concourse classes, professors are known for their interactive teaching styles. Ester Lomeli ‘13 agrees: “The classroom dynamic is amazing! And because of the fact that there is a small number of people in your classes, you are free to ask questions even in lecture, ensuring that you never walk out of a lecture confused.” Since Concourse is community-based, students feel comfortable approaching professors to discuss class-related questions or topics of interest. Professors are known for their dedication to get to know each student and provide individual attention, and this one-on-one time is common and encouraged.

At the same time, Concourse advisors, including professors and administrators, serve as a reliable support structure for incoming students who might be overwhelmed by the size and expectations of MIT. In order to effectively serve students, advisors use a group-advising model based on team collaboration. They meet weekly to compare notes, provide support and discuss how to further help students.

Plans for the future

In the near future, Concourse hopes to expand alumni participation into social, academic and advising events. The department also intends to collaborate with other freshman learning communities at MIT: Experimental Study Group (ESG), Terrascope, and Media Arts and Sciences (MAS). They will begin to share resources and create room for productive partnerships to benefit their unique communities.

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