Proposed Changes to GIRs Would Revamp HASS Requirements

Motions to implement changes to the General Institute Requirements, including the addition of more varieties of core science subjects and the elimination of HASS-D designated subjects, will be made at the next faculty meeting in November.

Proposed changes will be based on recommendations made by Education Commons Subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. If approved by the faculty by a vote in December, the changes would represent the culmination of four-and-a-half years of efforts to reform the GIRs and the first major Institute-wide curricular revamping since 1964, according to Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings ’78.

The changes, the first of which would affect the class of 2014, would formally group the GIRs into two categories: the Science, Math, and Engineering (SME) requirement, and the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science requirement. The SME requirement would include the same science core subjects as the current GIRs but would include more “flavors” of each basic requirement, similar to the current group of classes that satisfy the biology requirement.

Additionally, the committee has proposed a two-year pilot of a new subject under the working name “Elements of Design,” which might later be added to the SME requirement depending on the success of the trial.

The general requirement of taking eight HASS subjects would remain the same, but restrictions within these eight classes would be simplified: HASS-D-designated subjects would be eliminated and, instead, all HASS subjects would be divided among three categories, humanities, arts, and social sciences. Students would be required to take one class in each of these categories. HASS concentration requirements would remain the same.

Trials of new “First-Year Focus” humanities subjects targeted at first year students would be run over the next two years, after which they might be incorporated into the HASS requirement.

Balancing flexibility with core requirements

Members of the Educational Commons Subcommittee expressed a desire to strike a balance between encouraging curriculum innovation and preserving the elements of the current GIRs that faculty feel are successful.

“The GIRs aren’t broken,” said Hastings. “You can’t conclude that we’re trying to fix a broken system, but you can conclude that there needs to be some more focus in some areas and some more flexibility in others.”

Co-chair of the committee and Political Science Department Chair Charles H. Stewart III echoed this sentiment: “We’re not in a state of crisis but there are lots of ways to do better … We were wrestling with how to make the curriculum more dynamic, adaptable, and flexible, while retaining the rigor and success that almost everyone agrees the current curriculum has.”

Committee members said they hoped that opening up the GIRs to more varieties will encourage professors to teach core subjects in new and innovative ways.

“We want to include as much excitement as early as possible [in the curriculum],” said Robert P. Redwine, co-chair of the committee and professor of physics.

Implementation in phases

The subcommittee has designed its proposals to be approved as a package but implemented in phases.

The most immediate changes would go into affect for the class of 2014 and include elimination of the HASS-D designations.

Other changes, including some of the more controversial proposals, would first be implemented in pilot programs before any permanent additions to the GIRs would be made. Sections of the proposal falling under this category include the Elements of Design class and First-Year Focus classes.

Mixed reactions among faculty members

While most of the HASS proposals were received well among faculty, opinions on the proposed changes to the GIRs vary widely: some believe the recommendations are too conservative and will restrict students while others think that the increased flexibility will damage the current strength of the core.

Donald R. Sadoway, who teaches Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry (3.091), welcomes increased variety in the GIRs: “More variety is a good thing,” he said, “because healthy competition of ideas is good for the students.”

Other professors are more skeptical about the idea of GIR flavors: John McGreevy, one of the professors for 8.022, the more rigorous version of Physics II, said, “I think flavors would be hard to implement for 8.01 and 8.02.”

Both Sadoway and McGreevy wanted to hear more about the idea of the design class before forming an opinion about it. “I’d like to hear more about the design class,” said McGreevy, “though I do think it will be hard to convince the faculty to add a requirement.”

“I’d need to see some more details,” said Sadoway.

Professor Alar Toomre, who teaches Differential Equations (18.03), also expressed skepticism about adding the requirement: “These issues have been wallowing around for a few years now,” he said. “It’s hard to change the curriculum too much because you need all of the current GIRs. The design course has its appeal, but it cannot come at the expense of some of the more fundamental things.”

Other faculty members fear that the change will negatively impact their departments’ abilities to preserve their curricula with the possible GIR changes: “Most of the disagreement that stands out relates to how this might affect departments that require a lot of units,” said Hastings.

“Change for anybody is always a bit of an anxiety producing thing,” said Stewart. There’s definitely some fear of the unknown, especially for faculty, particularly faculty who have designed classes that fit within a system that’s been here for 20 years.”

Still, said Stewart, overall he is “very optimistic” about the approval and implementation of the recommendations.

Proposals long in the making

The Educational Commons Subcommittee was established last October with the charge of refining and revising the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons’ recommendations for curricular reform.

The Task Force had worked on its own recommendations for reforming the General Institute Requirements between 2003 and 2006 that it formalized in a report in October 2006.

The original recommendations of the task force would have changed the GIRs much more radically than the Subcommittee proposes to: only Calculus I and II and Physics I, would have remained requirements. Students would have also selected one subject each from five of six categories: math, physical sciences, chemistry, life sciences, computation and engineering, and project-based first-year experiences, effectively allowing student to opt-out of one of the currently required science core subjects.

Members of the committee attribute the less radical proposal to a desire among faculty members to preserve the common science requirement.