Opinion guest column

Mens et … mens?

Rethinking the freshman year science core

The very first class I attended at MIT was 7.012, four and a half years ago in the fall of 2011. I remember how excited my fellow freshmen felt in Maseeh dining that morning, how tightly the Infinite was packed with students finding new classrooms, and how crowded 26-100 was once my friends and I got there. But looking back on that first class, I cannot actually recall much of what the professor said. Or really much from any other 7.012 lecture. Or from 18.02 lectures that fall or 5.111 lectures the following spring. Why is that? I have a fairly good memory, and in four years it shouldn’t seem reasonable for me to forget the material. I suspect that I don’t remember what was taught in these three classes because all of them were rigid lecture-based classes. Although these were core freshman science classes, there was little to no student engagement through hands-on learning.

These classes — 7.012, 5.111, and 18.02 — are effective in teaching freshmen how to do college: how to work with peers, take notes in lectures, ask for help in office hours, turn in psets by the deadline, and manage one’s time while learning to live without one’s parents. These are invaluable lessons, but does learning these skills mean that I can’t also learn material I would remember a couple years later? I remember that I finished freshman year disheartened, feeling that I had spent a whole year at MIT without really growing my appreciation for biology, chemistry, or math.

What astonishes, frustrates, and disappoints me about MIT’s freshman science core is the fact that there is no lab component to 5.111. I learned and retained more information in high school AP Chemistry than in 5.111. To draw a comparison, my high school found the resources for each student to perform multiple lab experiments each week. I’ll never forget the weeks of anticipation leading up to the Sodium Trashcan Experiment in which we dropped a 30g chunk of sodium into a trashcan filled with water. We all stood on the soccer field and watched the lid soar over 300 feet into the air as an explosion boomed throughout the whole campus. In addition to blowing the lid off the trashcan, we made predictions, took measurements, and carried out calculations to understand the heat transfer that occurred. It’s these kinds of experiences that explain why I remember almost everything I learned in high school chemistry.

When I visited my high school chemistry teacher after freshman year at MIT, he asked me about my chemistry labs. He was stunned to learn that a college would choose not to have a lab component in their Chemistry 101 equivalent — especially MIT, supposedly the bar-setter for innovation in science and learning. There are countless exciting and engaging ways for students to experience the world of chemistry; why don’t new MIT students see them first-hand? Why don’t MIT freshmen have hands-on experiences in chemistry, biology, and calculus?

I’m glad to hear that 3.091 has recently become much more hands-on, but I can’t comment on it from experience. And, of course, there’s TEAL. It’s funny that while TEAL seemed to top the list of “Most Complained About Things” during freshman year, the material taught in 8.01 and 8.02 is what I actually remember best from the technical GIRs. I can still visualize how a magnetic field might act in different situations and remember how to set up a Gauss’s Law problem. As much as students gripe about TEAL, I would bet 8.01 and 8.02 are more ingrained in most recent graduates’ minds than 5.111 and 7.012. So why aren’t these other departments experimenting with their introductory teaching methods the way that physics has? When MIT’s motto is mens et manus, why are the core freshman science classes all mind and no hand?

While MIT is dedicated to pushing boundaries, certain boundaries here are not yet being pushed. The freshman science core is an example. These core classes are critical in an MIT education, especially because they are directed toward freshmen that may be searching for their calling in science. As the first academic experiences that MIT students go through, shouldn’t these classes serve as stellar examples of the innovative, forward-thinking, hands-on place that MIT strives to be? Shouldn’t they be setting the bar for what introductory science classes around the world should be like?

Current and former students: I encourage you to ask yourselves these questions and voice your thoughts and concerns. In early February, President Reif sent an email to the MIT community about “MIT and the future of education.” Right now is the perfect time for all of us, especially students, to start thinking about the future of the freshman science core, the end goals for these classes, and the link between the teaching methods for these classes and their intended goals. But we must do more than think about the future of these classes; we must also act on our thoughts and actively push the boundaries further. Thinking and then acting: that’s the spirit of mens et manus.

Georgia Van de Zande is a Master’s candidate in the Department for Mechanical Engineering.

Dianne Sedlar about 8 years ago

I have been a corporate trainer for over ten years. I wholeheartedly believe in Bloom's Taxonomy of learning. The higher you go on the pyramid, the more retention there is. Lectures (and most e-learning) is low on the pyramid. A good instructional designer moves you from the bottom of the pyramid toward the top. Labs do the same thing. Excellent observations, Georgia!


John about 8 years ago

An MIT trend has been to teach more and more applied mathematics and call it physics and engineering. Every decade there has been more emphasis is on abstraction and less on the real world that motivates the problem solving in the first place. Recently I compared the textbooks for the MIT Mechanical Engineering introductory solid mechanics course examining texts from the 1920s, the 1940s (my father-in-law's era), the 1970s (my time at MIT) the course today. The trend has been from practical problems that give insight to contrived problems that are exercises in equation manipulation. There is no room for the "hand" when the mind is lost in the math.