School of engineering to pilot interdisciplinary course roads

This fall, MIT’s school of engineering will pilot a new format for guiding students’ educational path, as an alternative to existing majors, minors, and concentrations. Dubbed “threads,” this new course structure aims to allow students to explore interdisciplinary interests in project-centric curriculums.

The threads program is the brainchild of the New Engineering Educational Transformation (NEET) initiative. The core committee, which has developed the program over the course of the past year, comprises eight faculty members from eight different departments and an executive director, Amitava Mitra.

The two threads that will be piloted for the 2017-2018 academic year are “Autonomous Machines” and “Living Machines,” and will be available to rising sophomores in select majors. The NEET team aims to attract 20 students per thread this fall.

The Autonomous Machines thread focuses on building “mechanical systems, software, and autonomy algorithms for real world robots,” according to an announcement draft sent to The Tech by Mitra. Students in courses 16, 2-A, and 6 will be eligible.

The Living Machines thread, as advertised in the draft, will have students building microscopes, cell signaling sensors, and “guts on a chip”: devices inhabited by microbes to mimic the human gastrointestinal system. Students in courses 20, 2-A, and 10 will be eligible.

Students who participate in this first iteration of the threads program will still graduate with a diploma in a major of their choice, but will instead take a tailored set of classes chosen from all the different majors involved in the central theme of the thread. According to Mitra, the existence of a “flex” options in most engineering departments allowed the NEET committee to avoid changing degree requirements to accommodate the new threads.

When Mitra spoke with The Tech July 27, he indicated that the curriculum for the pilot threads over the next three years was subject to change as the NEET team considers feedback from the inaugural sophomore class. As of the time of printing, the subjects for the upcoming year have still not been finalized.

Based on conversations with Mitra and draft documents, classes will be largely culled from the current catalog of sophomore courses in the relevant majors, and will incorporate a project-centric class during the spring semester. Classes directly relevant to the pilot threads may not be scheduled until participants’ junior years due to the six to nine months necessary to develop new classes.

Mitra conveyed to The Tech the NEET team’s goal of developing curricula that do a better job at linking engineering education to application than current offerings at MIT, or indeed at any university across the world.

A significant part of the proposed method of improvement appears to involve industry practices and inputs more heavily in the curriculum. Mitra said that industry partners will be engaged to provide advice to students taking a NEET project class, noting that students listen more to newly-graduated employee in prominent companies than to venerable faculty members.

Mitra also brought up the idea of building in more progress reports into semester-long project classes. To what degree existing project classes will be changed for NEET threads is still unclear.

Upon joining a thread at the end of their freshman year, participants can defer their choice of a major to the end of their sophomore year.

Asked what the difference was between joining a thread instead of simply selecting “undesignated” on the major declaration form and taking whatever classes are of interest, Mitra cited features such as specialized advisors, a defined community, and project-oriented classes as advantages of choosing the former.

The impetus behind NEET, according to Mitra, was a combination of concerns that MIT wasn’t innovating enough and that MIT could provide much more to its students.

When asked how the “threads” might address the more chronic and underlying issue of poorly-taught technical classes, Mitra voiced his hopes that changing the teaching landscape at MIT is a long-term evolution that NEET can help to address by promoting collaboration between departments through the interdisciplinary nature of threads, as well as by providing project-centric classes to make existing education “more relevant.”

According to Mitra, faculty members from whom the NEET team solicited feedback have cautioned that trying to extrapolate success in a pilot run to an entire department will be difficult, and have recommended having dedicated lab instructors for all NEET threads — and all departments, if possible.

And student feedback, Mitra said, often focused on a desire for more clarity concerning the tangible advantages NEET threads might provide to participants.