Proposed undergraduate curriculum balances rigor, flexibility

Task Force report completes work begun in 1998


Press Contact

Patti Richards
Email: newsoffice@mit.edu
Phone: 617-253-2700
MIT News Office

MIT is today releasing faculty recommendations for the most far-reaching changes to its undergraduate curriculum in the past half-century.

The Institute's Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons has spent the last two and a half years in a comprehensive review of MIT's educational mission and core curriculum. It recommends new requirements in science, mathematics and engineering as well as in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The task force also endorses an increased role for international educational experiences in the undergraduate years.

In endorsing the report of the task force and recommending its consideration by the Institute's full faculty, MIT President Susan Hockfield said, "MIT has a tremendous institutional tradition of innovation. The changes to our core curriculum proposed by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons respond creatively to changes in science, technology and the world around us and will ensure that MIT continues to educate the leaders the world needs."

The curricular proposals address the explosive growth in scientific and technological knowledge over the last half-century; the need for graduates to be confident participants in what MIT's founding president, William Barton Rogers, called "the humane culture of society"; and the global context in which today's students will live and work.

The task force was chaired by Robert J. Silbey, MIT's Class of 1942 Professor of Chemistry and dean of science. Commenting on the recommendations, Silbey said, "We stand at a critical juncture in higher education. Our graduates need the skills to navigate a world in which the pace of discovery and innovation is faster than ever before. The task force aimed to design a core curriculum that maintains MIT's characteristic intellectual rigor while allowing students the flexibility they need to enter exciting new areas of science and technology and giving them an even stronger grounding in the humanities, arts and social sciences."

The major recommendations of the task force are as follows:

  • In the future, students will take eight subjects as part of a new science, mathematics and engineering requirement. Three of these will continue to be prescribed as in the past (single-variable calculus, multivariable calculus and classical mechanics). The remaining five will be selected from a very small and tightly regulated number of subjects organized into six foundational technical categories: chemical sciences; computation and engineering; life sciences; mathematics; physical sciences; and project-based experiences. Students will have to take at least one course from five of these six categories. The new requirement will replace the existing science core and related requirements.
  • The current requirement in the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) will be more clearly articulated to provide a rigorous foundation in the first and second years for the further study of human culture, expression and social organization. First-year students will generally take one foundational elective affiliated with a new Freshman Experience Program, focusing on broad topics that require multiple perspectives to be grasped deeply. The first and second years will also include foundational HASS electives, distributed across the humanities, arts and social sciences. Juniors and seniors will continue to pursue a concentration in the humanities, arts and social sciences, as they do now.
  • ��The task force has also urged MIT to make it clear that acquiring a global educational experience is essential to an undergraduate education. This will require expanding current international education programs that have proven successful in the MIT environment, as well as developing strategies to create new opportunities that are especially relevant to an environment that emphasizes science and technology. The ultimate goal is to allow any MIT undergraduate who wishes to participate in a meaningful experience abroad to be able to do so.

MIT's current core curriculum is based on a model first developed by the faculty in 1950; the central requirements have been periodically revised since then. In recent years, the Institute has launched a number of innovative new major and minor programs while intensifying its commitment to undergraduate internships in research and professional settings on its Cambridge campus, in the United States and abroad.

The recommendations of the current task force build on the work of MIT's 1998 Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which was co-chaired by Dean Silbey. Taken together, the two reports serve as a decade-long reassessment of the Institute's undergraduate curriculum and student experience. In addition to its central curricular proposals, the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons also recommends initiatives and administrative changes that will help MIT sustain educational innovation.

The Institute's faculty will discuss the task force recommendations beginning on Oct. 18. If the full faculty endorses the spirit of the report and its recommendations, it will charge the Faculty Committee on the Undergraduate Program with refining the recommendations over the course of the next 12 to 18 months.

The Committee on the Undergraduate Program would work closely with the office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, the deans of the Institute's five schools, and individual departments and academic programs. The final changes to the core curriculum would then come back to the full faculty for approval.

More information, including the full report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, is available at web.mit.edu/committees/edcommons/documents/task_force_report.html.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2006 (download PDF).


Topics: Administration, Education, teaching, academics, Faculty, Students

Back to the top