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May/June 2016

Innovations in the Educational Opportunities for MIT Students

Krishna Rajagopal

In this last Faculty Newsletter of the academic year, I will take the opportunity to update you about recent and ongoing developments on three fronts – fronts that are distinct but that all relate to innovation in the educational opportunities that we offer to MIT students.

Curricular Innovation

The MIT Faculty are in the midst of an extraordinary wave of curricular innovation. This academic year has seen the creation of one new PhD program, one new Master's degree, four new SBs, and seven new undergraduate minors, offering our students many new educational pathways through MIT. By a large factor, this is more new programs than in any previous year in memory. In addition, there are a number of departments making substantial changes to their curricula. For example, this fall Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) will be rolling out new versions of their 6-1, 6-2, and 6-3 majors, redesigned to offer students greater flexibility. 

Looking at the varied new offerings across MIT, there is no single driver for this wave of innovation. Many respond to student interests and demand. Some have grown from departmental processes of assessment and improvement. Some are new products created by faculty who are launching new MIT initiatives. Some are interdisciplinary in new ways, offering students new paths through MIT that cut across departments.

But, although giving students the flexibility and opportunities to adapt their degrees to their interests and anticipated careers are common themes, many of the new offerings fit squarely within a discipline while reflecting the evolution and diversity of their departments. All have in common that each represents a substantial effort by a large group of faculty members, both in the planning and in the execution to come. I thought it appropriate to conclude the academic year by celebrating these innovations from so many MIT faculty in sum by enumerating the new programs.

PhD Program in Social and Engineering Systems
This new Doctoral program, launched by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, focuses on addressing concrete and societally significant problems by combining methods from engineering and the social sciences.

Master of Business Analytics
MIT Sloan, with the Operations Research Center, introduced a new one-year Master's program tailored for recent college graduates who will pursue a career in the data science industry, applying data science to solve business analytics challenges.

15-1: SB in Management
15-2: SB in Business Analytics
15-3: SB in Finance

The new Course 15 curriculum provides more choice, flexibility, and the opportunity for greater breadth or greater depth of study in business and management topics including, in particular, preparation for careers in data analytics or finance.

14-2: SB in Mathematical Economics
This new major is designed for students interested in mastering technically and theoretically oriented topics in economics, including game theory, microeconomic theory, and formal econometrics. 14-2 majors will gain the mathematical and theoretical preparation needed for subsequent graduate study in economics.

Minor in Computer Science, offered by Course 6
The computer science minor provides a strong background in the fundamentals of programming, algorithms, and discrete mathematics, giving students the knowledge and skills needed to make effective use of computer science concepts and computing technology in their future careers.

Minor in Design, offered by Course 4
The design minor provides a hub at MIT where students who see the value of design as an approach to problems within their major can learn the conceptual foundations, core principles, and skills of design in dynamic studio settings, develop a sensibility for visual and physical form, and contribute to new ways of designing that are applicable across a spectrum of areas.

Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, jointly offered by the School of Engineering and MIT Sloan School of Management
The E&I minor will prepare students to serve as leaders in the innovation economy, providing them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to develop, scale, and deliver breakthrough solutions to real-world problems.

Minor in Statistics and Data Science, offered by the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
The minor in statistics and data science focuses on providing students with a working knowledge base in statistics, probability, and computation, along with an ability to perform data analysis.

Minors in Management, Business Analytics, and Finance, offered by Course 15 
These new minors correspond to the new Course 15 majors above.

Sub-Term Subjects

Over the past academic year, a subcommittee of the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) chaired by Prof. John Fernández has been analyzing the emergence of undergraduate and graduate sub-term-length subjects across the Institute, looking at overall trends and understanding the motivating aspirations and goals as well as the pedagogical value of such offerings and their effects on student learning and student life.

I am very grateful to the members of the subcommittee, listed below, for the considerable effort they have put into collecting data: conducting surveys, focus groups and interviews; and distilling, analyzing, and synthesizing their findings. They have produced a draft report describing what they have learned about the current scope of sub-term curricular offerings and the motivations behind them, as well as overall trends regarding sub-term subjects, their intended and potential growth, and their impacts on students, faculty, and the curriculum.

The draft report is available here. I urge all of you to have a look. If you have comments, please send them to: subterm-subjects-reply@mit.edu. If you wish to help the subcommittee in shaping the final version of its report, please email them by mid-June.

The subcommittee has heard from both faculty and students that sub-term subjects enable students to take more subjects, including subjects with specialized or focused content and electives that were seen as well-suited to a sub-term length, with consequent flexibility and opportunities for adaptation as students find their pathways through MIT. Sub-term subjects are largely neither notably more nor less stressful for students than full-term subjects, but there is less time to learn the content and it is more difficult to recover from a poor test or problem set result. There is also less time for students to get to know faculty and TAs, and vice versa.

The subcommittee report is only the beginning.

The subcommittee has provided us with a list of best practices and a list of recommendations. Best practices include clear communication between instructors and students on the rules governing sub-term subjects, especially Add and Drop dates, department vigilance in providing the necessary resources for successful teaching and learning through sub-term subjects, and novel ways via which to offer some flexibility to students in the weighting of grades between assignments and exams so as to mitigate the “less time to recover” downside of subjects of short duration. Recommendations include giving students a clear understanding of the grading policy for the class and ensuring that at least 30% of a student’s grade is recorded and communicated to the student by Drop Date.

After hearing feedback, the members of the subcommittee will finalize their recommendations and suggested best practices. I hope that as faculty and departments consider teaching and introducing sub-term subjects, in their planning over the coming summer and then in the coming years, we will all consult these sections of the report.

The subcommittee found that most sub-term subjects are essentially half a term in length. So, for the specific case of half-term subjects, the subcommittee also includes an initial proposal for new rules concerning start and end dates, Add and Drop dates, and final exam periods. The subcommittee has concluded that rules of this nature are needed for half-term subjects, so that all of us – faculty and students teaching/taking full-term subjects and half-term subjects – have a common and clear set of expectations regarding these matters.

The goal of the subcommittee in making proposals for new rules is to provide an initial template for discussion and refinement, which will happen in the fall. Rules of this nature intersect the domains of five faculty committees: the Committee on Academic Performance, Committee on the Undergraduate Program, Committee on Curricula, Committee on Graduate Programs, and Faculty Policy Committee. Consequently, the subcommittee membership includes at least one member from each of these committees. It will be these committees in full that will formulate any proposed new rules, likely in the fall, before bringing them to an Institute Faculty meeting if their discussions converge. These committees will see the subcommittee proposals, once finalized after the comment period between now and mid-June, as a starting point. They and I look forward to your input as this process begins.

After you read the report, I believe that you will join me in thanking the subcommittee for going the extra mile to gather many and varied data, both quantitative and qualitative, to formulate a comprehensive analysis. All the while, the subcommittee has kept a clear-eyed focus on the pedagogical value of sub-term subjects at MIT and on efforts to enhance and support the emergence of sub-term subjects in ways that maximize the benefits to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and teaching assistants.

Subcommittee membership: John E. Fernández, FPC Member, Course 4, Chair; George Barbastathis, FPC Member, Course 2; Zoya Bylinskii, CGP Member, Graduate Student, Course 6; Brian Canavan, Office of the Registrar; Scott Hughes, CAP Member, Course 8; Joseff Kolman, FPC Member, Class of 2017, Course 17; Anne McCants, CUP Chair, Course 21H; Roy Welsch, CoC Member, Course 15. Tami Kaplan, Faculty Governance Administrator, Staff to the Subcommittee; Jagruti Patel, Director, Special Projects, Office of the Chancellor; Kate Doria, Research Analyst, Office of the Provost.

Study Group on Algorithmic Reasoning and Computational Thinking for MIT Undergraduates

For many years, at least since the 2004-2006 Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons chaired by Prof. Robert Silbey, various MIT faculty members have asked whether – and if so, how – MIT should ensure that all its undergraduates learn algorithmic reasoning and computational thinking. Dean for Undergraduate Education Prof. Denny Freeman and I have charged a small group of faculty members to conduct an in-depth study of this topic, beginning by asking what the phrases “algorithmic reasoning” and “computational thinking” mean in the context of the education of MIT’s undergraduates across all five Schools, including how they encompass an intellectual framework in addition to skills. We have asked them what, if any, is the common framework that people across MIT mean when they speak of computational thinking and algorithmic reasoning, as well as in what ways the diversity among the meanings of such phrases in different disciplinary contexts is important. We have asked them to determine the extent to which algorithmic reasoning and computational thinking are already being taught, and whether they see a rationale for making this an explicit expectation of all our graduates – and, if so, with what learning objectives and measurable outcomes.

The members of the study group are Profs. Eric Grimson (EECS; Chair of the study group), Deepto Chakrabarty (Physics), Michael Cuthbert (Music and Theater Arts), Peko Hosoi (Mechanical Engineering), Caitlin Mueller (Architecture), Jim Orlin (Sloan), and Troy van Voorhis (Chemistry). The charge can be found here.

As you will see from the charge, this is a study group, not an implementation group. Nevertheless, depending on what this group finds, their analysis may provide the foundation for subsequent advances in how MIT students are educated. The charge provides examples of several kinds of potentially actionable next steps in curriculum development that the work of the study group could prompt, after they have done the analysis requested by the questions in the charge. Examples of options they may consider include modules that could be incorporated in existing GIR subjects, new subjects or modules intended to be accessible to any MIT undergraduate, and a model in which departments make discipline-specific choices for how to achieve overarching MIT-wide goals via more advanced subjects or modules designed for students in a particular major. Dean Freeman and I hope that the answers provided by this in-depth study, together with any subsequent curriculum development that it prompts, will serve as valuable input to any future discussions of our GIRs.

Dean Freeman and I have set up an email address, computation-study-group@mit.edu, via which you can send your thoughts and advice to the study group. We invite you to read their charge and share your input by mid-June. Please focus your feedback on the specific questions that the study group will be considering. If their work prompts further discussion by faculty committees and/or by an implementation group of some form, there will be further opportunities for broader input.

Dean Freeman and I are pleased that all of the members of the study group either volunteered or responded with enthusiasm when contacted. This leads us to think that there may be other topics related to undergraduate education where an in-depth study by a five-School group could provide valuable input to future advances in the education of MIT undergraduates – topics that are focused in scope but at the same time cut across all five Schools. As we see the work of this study group unfold, we are open to discussions of charges for other potential study groups with potential volunteers.

I am very grateful to the members of this study group for committing their time and energy to this work. I look forward to learning from their collaborative efforts.

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As this academic year rich with new beginnings reaches its conclusion, I wish all of you a happy, invigorating, and productive summer. Looking ahead to next year, we can all anticipate seeing MIT’s newest educational initiatives taking flight, and to continuing our discussion of these innovations and more, as MIT faculty continue to explore and develop new pathways for MIT students.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXVIII No. 5, May/June 2016