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When Knowledge Overtakes a Core

October 16, 2006

After two years of study, a faculty panel proposed Friday that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopt major changes in undergraduate education. Among them:

  • Updating the traditional core of science subjects, giving students more choices and more hands-on science. The shift would end MIT's long-standing practice of having all students take six common science courses -- a change that institute officials say is necessary because the explosion of scientific knowledge has made it impossible to cover all basics in any introductory sequence.
  • Ending the use of Advanced Placement credit to place out of requirements except for calculus.
  • Changing the requirements in arts, humanities and social sciences so that students would start with "foundational" work in those areas.
  • Encouraging all undergraduates to consider study abroad and making sure that students feel this is possible -- both educationally and financially.

Some of the issues MIT is grappling with -- the reality that relatively few math and science majors study abroad, the need for core science courses to somehow reflect the explosion of knowledge in recent years without eating up the entire curriculum -- are of importance to many universities with strong science orientations.

MIT's reforms, if adopted, would represent the most significant overhaul of its curriculum in decades. The changes could be influential far beyond Cambridge, given the institute's prominence in science and engineering education. And they come at a time that a number of colleges are rethinking what students should be required to learn. A faculty panel at Harvard University this month unveiled a plan to change general education. And across the country, the California Community Colleges last month upped the mathematics requirements for all students.

"We are very proud of the idea that a truly educated individual comes out of MIT," said Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering and one of the members of the panel that prepared the recommendations. The science core "has always been a strength of an MIT education," Newman said, but after much reflection, she said, the committee decided that "there is just too much information" for any core to cover it all.

A series of meetings are being planned to review the report -- and the question of making the science core more flexible is expected to be the most closely examined question. A faculty vote would eventually be required to approve any changes.

Rethinking Requirements

"Within MIT, the issue has to do practically speaking from moving from a highly prescribed curriculum to one with choice," said Charles Stewart III, another committee member, who is a professor of political science and associate dean of humanities, arts and social sciences. "What does it mean to say you can graduate from MIT without having taken X," with X now being any number of potential subject areas.

Currently at MIT, all students take nine courses in their general science requirement. Six courses are identical for everyone: two semesters of calculus, two semesters of physics, one semester of chemistry, and one semester of biology. There is no menu within those courses -- the same material is covered for everyone. The remaining three courses consist of a laboratory course and two science electives.

In its place, the new plan would halve the required common courses to: single variable calculus, multivariable calculus, and mechanics. Then students would pick five courses from a category of six broad subjects: chemical sciences, computation and engineering, life sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and courses focused on "project based experiences." These categories would each get several course offerings that could meet the requirement. The courses would not be identical, but all would essentially be introductions to broad fields of study. For instance, within physics, one course might focus on electricity and magnetism and another on waves, Stewart said.

In their 158-page report, committee members made clear that for science education, the idea of a core in which everyone takes the same subjects may retain its popularity, but may not be workable. Committee members reported that professors believe in the core, and that many had subject areas -- such as probability and statistics, neuroscience and algorithmic reasoning -- that they thought should be added. The committee also noted that common cores tend to be disciplinary, and many emerging fields in science aren't.

"When knowledge grows, a natural temptation is to take the easy route by simply piling new requirements on top of the old," the report says. "However as we have heard time and again, the MIT curriculum is already bursting at the seams. Therefore, we are faced with the need to provide for greater coverage of 'fundamental science' within the core curriculum without increasing the footprint of the science requirement within the four years at MIT."

The committee also enters the growing debate nationally about AP credit -- and suggests a change in MIT's policy of letting individual departments decide whether or not to let students count AP credit toward various requirements. The committee notes that MIT historically has recognized that some students benefit from advancing rapidly in their educations, in part through the use of AP credit. But the committee says that there is "a growing body of evidence" that students who earn top AP scores and place out of institute introductory courses ending up having "difficulty" when taking the next course. The exception to this is calculus, where a top score does typically indicate that a student is prepared for the next course at MIT.

As a result, the committee wants MIT to accept only calculus scores in the future, although it suggests that MIT-created tests could be used to grant credit in other subjects.

In the non-science fields, MIT is also reconsidering the role of introducing freshmen to areas of knowledge. The institute is largely leaving in place a system in which students must take courses from the arts, humanities and social sciences and then complete a sequence of courses in one area (sort of a minor).

But the institute is moving away from the distribution requirement model, and instead trying to treat the courses that students will take in the various subject areas as "foundational," meaning that they will be broader and intended to introduce wide branches of knowledge. Courses will also be specially designed for freshmen, and will be linked to out-of-class events at MIT (lectures, symposia, club activities).

Stewart said that the shift in approach came from talking to students and faculty members. They reported that the individual courses students were taking to fulfill their requirements were popular, but that there was not a sense that the courses as a whole added up to something significant. "We want this requirement to have an impact on the overall culture of the place," he said.

Sending Students Abroad

Another major thrust of the report is to urge MIT to take study abroad much more seriously, making it realistically possible for all MIT undergraduates who want to spend time in another country to do so. Between 15 and 20 percent of MIT undergraduates currently study abroad at some point during their degree programs, at a time that many other research universities have twice those rates, and some liberal arts colleges have study abroad as part of the experience of upwards of half of all students.

Where MIT fits the norm is that -- across types of institutions -- science and engineering majors are much less likely to study abroad than are students in other subject areas.

Science and engineering students typically report that their requirements -- for degrees and majors -- are so intense that they can't afford to take a semester abroad unless they are willing to extend their time as an undergraduate. In addition, many students and professors at MIT are convinced that in their fields, they have the best departments in the world, so why go elsewhere?

The report offers the usual list of answers -- the international economy, the international basis for science, etc. -- and then outlines approaches MIT (and potentially other science and technology universities) could use.

MIT has been experimenting with programs in which the institute -- and individual departments -- plan appropriate curricular offerings so that students can enroll with confidence that their programs will stay on track. An MIT exchange program with the University of Cambridge, in Britain, is considered a model that may be expanded or replicated.

Beyond such programs, the report also says that departments and faculty members need to be more flexible. Relatively few departments, the report says, plan their requirements with any thought to the impact they may have limiting study abroad. The report urges MIT to have each department produce a "credible roadmap" that would enable students to fulfill requirements and still study abroad.

Experts on international education were ecstatic that MIT's curricular review was calling for such changes -- and predicted that they could have an impact on science and engineering programs elsewhere.

The Institute for the International Education of Students, a nonprofit group that operates a series of programs for American students abroad, has recently started several efforts specifically to get non-liberal arts students participating in greater numbers. Mary M. Dwyer, president of the organization, said the problems MIT is taking on are hindering study abroad for many who would benefit.

"There are two major barriers," she said. "You have faculty attitudes. Most faculty don't believe that the same course content can be provided of equal quality anywhere else in the world. And you have requirements. Students are so overly engineered that they have little time to study abroad."

If MIT can scale up the Cambridge exchange and similar efforts, Dwyer said, the model could take hold. "If they can create that integration, it would be a breakthrough," she said.

Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, led the Congressionally created panel that last year released a call for many more students from all fields to study abroad. In an interview Sunday, he said that the MIT report could be "very significant."

"For MIT, one of the outstanding science and engineering universities of the world, to take this position, is truly excellent," he said. "This is going to send a strong signal to many other institutions."

 

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