MIT reviews what, how it teaches - School cites changes in science, students

By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 3/17/2004

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, widely considered the nation's top science and engineering school, is launching a two-year review of its undergraduate education, examining its required courses and other student experiences in light of new developments in science, as well as the changing interests of students.

The review, which will be watched closely by other science and engineering schools, will take a sweeping look at MIT's demanding roster of required courses, developed more than a half-century ago when MIT was an engineering school populated chiefly by men.

MIT needs to study how teaching methods and the frontiers of science have been transformed in recent years and how those changes should be reflected in the curriculum, officials said.

"There's much more biology in much of the research that we do," said Dean of Science Robert Silbey, who will lead the review committee. "There's much more interest in economics and social science among our students than there was 20 years ago. It is important for any great university to ask: What are its students like? And how should we go about preparing them for life?"

The review begins as Charles M. Vest's 13-year presidency draws to a close. Other top schools, such as Yale and Harvard, are also reexamining curriculum, and Harvard plans to release a report on its review later this spring.

MIT's core curriculum, the courses required for all students, is one of the most demanding of any American university, with required subjects taking up about half of an undergraduate's time in college. Half of the curriculum, known as the General Institute Requirements, is in math and science, while half is in humanities, arts, and social sciences. The curriculum has undergone periodic changes, but never a total overhaul.

Robert P. Redwine, dean for undergraduate education, said that many professors are interested in exploring how to offer core classes that link different disciplines.

"If students are studying engineering of a certain time, it may be desirable to look at how that affects society," Redwine said. "We understand that is not easy to do, but it's important to look."

MIT's review will be closely watched by rivals, such as the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford's and Princeton's engineering schools, said David Botstein, a renowned geneticist who taught at MIT for two decades and now heads a genomics institute at Princeton.

"I think the nonengineering schools won't give it a second thought, because they knew MIT students work three times harder than theirs," he said. "But in the engineering community it will have influence. The pecking order is well understood."

Since MIT developed its current requirements, the face of the school has changed dramatically. Women now make up 43 percent of MIT's student body, more than double the proportion of 25 years ago.

Based on self-reporting, the school's population is 28 percent Asian-American and 17 or 18 percent African-American, Hispanic, and Native American, Redwine said.

Today's students also have much wider interests than their predecessors, he said. The campus had about 100 student clubs five or six years ago; today it has 400, he said. The 24-member review committee, appointed by Vest, doesn't have a mandate to make any specific changes. But teaching methods will be a major focus of the curriculum review, Silbey said, with the 24 members of the review committee examining nontraditional classes already offered at MIT. For example, the physics department has converted large freshman classes from a lecture format into a studio in which students sit around tables in small groups with laptops.

The review committee, made up of faculty and students, will spend the next two years collecting data, conducting surveys, and consulting with educators and employers outside MIT. Recommendations will ultimately be voted upon by the faculty.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.