MIT’s Progress on Updating Undergraduate Curriculum: 3 Questions

At the end of February, the establishment and kickstart of the Task Force on the MIT Undergraduate Academic Program (TFUAP) were announced by Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education Ian A. Waitz and Faculty Chair Mary Fuller. This initiative addresses a vital recommendation from the Task Force 2021 and Beyond RIC1 (Undergraduate Program) and leverages the expertise of various prior foundational working groups—some dedicated to the existing General Institute Requirements (GIRs) and others focused on updating recent studies for the review’s purposes.

During this conversation, task force co-chairs Adam Martin, a biology professor, and Joel Voldman, the William R. Brody Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, share insights on the TFUAP’s objectives, methodology, and upcoming actions.

Q: The task force has an ambitious mandate, encompassing the review of the current undergraduate academic program with a keen focus on enhancing both the curriculum and pedagogy. Could you elaborate on your approach?

Martin: To provide context, the undergraduate program comprises various elements, such as majors, electives, experiential learning opportunities, and notably the GIRs—among the most recognizable acronyms at MIT! The GIRs encompass core science courses, humanities, arts, and social sciences classes, specific science and engineering electives, and a lab prerequisite, each serving distinct purposes that align with majors and minors in unique ways.

Faculty members, whether Institute-wide or within a specific department, dictate certain aspects of the academic program. Conversely, students can tailor their academic experience by selecting from a wide range of curricular and co-curricular offerings at MIT, in consultation with faculty and staff advisors. The task force will take a comprehensive look at these elements, considering both MIT’s universal educational requirements and the range of options offered as students navigate their academic journeys.

As part of this holistic approach, the TFUAP will scrutinize both content and pedagogy. While the covered content remains crucial, our objective is to provide undergraduates with the esteemed education they anticipate. Equally important is the teaching methodology. The adopted pedagogy should be inclusive, grounded in research, and crafted to help students grasp not only what they are learning but also why they are learning it—how it links to their majors, future careers, and personal lives.

Voldman: The characterization of our mandate as “ambitious” in your question is worth noting. We share the sentiment that the task force’s work is indeed ambitious, albeit in a slightly different context than implied. Our belief is that besides addressing the nitty-gritty academic program requirements, our responsibility is to consider the bigger picture. What are the broadest possibilities? How can we push boundaries—the quintessential MIT ethos?

Q: The task force is building on a substantial foundation of previous work, benefitting from significant achievements endorsed by Task Force 2021 (TF2021). For instance, how does the establishment of the Undergraduate Advising Center, and the overarching goal of providing enhanced personal and professional support to all students, align with the potential revisions to the undergraduate curriculum?

Martin: Your observation is spot-on—our efforts are enriched by extensive dialogue over the years dedicated to the undergraduate academic program, particularly in the past decade. These discussions encompassed the 2014 Task Force on the Future of Education, the 2018 Designing the First-Year Experience Class, Task Force 2021 and Beyond (TF2021), the Foundational Working Groups associated with the RIC 1 implementation focusing on the existing MIT undergraduate program, and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. The valuable insights from these past committees and their findings will undoubtedly shape our deliberations.

Historically, evaluation groups of the undergraduate curriculum also addressed related topics like undergraduate advising or classroom modernization. Delving into any of these three areas individually is an ambitious undertaking by any measure! What distinguishes the present scenario is the progress made in these other crucial domains, allowing the TFUAP to singularly concentrate on curriculum and pedagogy. For instance, thanks to recent accomplishments by TF2021 and others, we have introduced a new advising structure for all undergraduates via the Undergraduate Advising Center.

Our vision for the TFUAP involves a highly collaborative process that invites inputs from diverse stakeholders across MIT and beyond. We encourage community members to share their perspectives via email at tfuap@mit.edu. Additionally, we will engage with student groups, alumni, individual faculty, faculty collectives, and administrative personnel throughout the Institute to incorporate a range of viewpoints.

Q: Undoubtedly, one of the challenges facing TFUAP will involve grappling with pressing contemporary issues such as the ascendancy of computing and AI, climate change (deemed an existential threat to our societal norms by President Kornbluth), and the evolving landscape of learning (online, hybrid, etc.). How do you approach these factors in your deliberations?

Voldman: That’s an astute query! While our endeavors are nascent and the journey has just begun, we acknowledge the overarching influence of these and other concerns. For example, we are cognizant of the influx of students into computing-centric programs and courses and must deeply contemplate the ramifications. Furthermore, we aspire for a curriculum that equips students to tackle contemporary and future global challenges alongside adapting to shifts in technology and tools to address these challenges. It is imperative that our students cultivate agility, curiosity, lifelong learning habits, collaborative spirit, empathy, and innovative problem-solving acumen.

As we collaborate with the MIT community to shape the next iteration of an MIT undergraduate education, establishing a framework that accommodates the prevailing challenges and opportunities while remaining adaptable to a dynamic world is paramount.

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