Working group recommendation on computation thinking requirement discussed at faculty meeting

Proposed GIR could require changes in freshman credit limit

The Working Group on Algorithmic Reasoning and Computational Thinking's recommendation for a computational thinking General Institute Requirement (GIR) was discussed at the March 21 faculty meeting.

The working group, which was created in April 2016, was chaired by Chancellor for Academic Advancement Eric Grimson and organized by Dean of Digital Learning and former Chair of the Faculty Krishna Rajagopal and Dean of Undergraduate Education Dennis Freeman.

The group’s recommendations are based on their March 2017 report, A Computational Thinking Requirement for MIT Undergraduates. The report includes three possible implementations of the GIR: a single, Institute-wide subject; a subject designed for a major; and an interdepartmental computational thinking requirement followed by a disciplinary computational thinking class.

The last option is a “six-plus-six” unit computational thinking module. The first six-unit class would provide an introduction to computational thinking, similar to Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python (6.0001). The second six-unit class would be a department-specific follow-on, which can be  “satisfied in a number of different ways, provided by or coupled to each student’s major,” Duane Boning, chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, said in an interview with The Tech.

A subcommittee would be charged with setting the educational goal for the six-plus-six subjects and what subjects would count towards the GIR. According to Boning, “CUP has not delved deeply yet into what computational thinking means, but we think that it includes modes of thinking that convey ways of structuring a problem and describing what the steps are to solve it.”

The first part of the faculty meeting presentation was by former Chair of the Faculty Krishna Rajagopal, who recapped the working group's findings and recommendations. Then, Boning detailed the CUP deliberations of the report.

Boning mentioned that the pros and cons of adding a computational GIR still need to be understood. “When do students need to take this requirement? There are already challenges with taking 6.0001 in the first year and the interaction with the first year credit limit is still being figured out,” he said.

With the current credit limit, students taking an advising seminar or participating in a UROP for credit, for example, might not be able to complete the requirement. Also, freshmen are typically discouraged from taking five classes (instead of four) in a semester. The working group has been attempting to find a way to work around the credit limit in order to make the computational GIR more accessible.

According to the slides presented by the working group at the faculty meeting, the three options for adjusting the existing degree requirements to accommodate a new GIR are: to not create the computational GIR, reduce the REST (Restricted Electives in Science and Technology) requirement from two subjects to one and replace it with the computational GIR, or to only require students to complete only six of the potential seven science GIRs.

However, this would mean that departments would not be able to assume that students have completed the Science Core as a prerequisite for later subjects.

In addition, the GIR would have to take into account the already high numbers of students enrolled in course 6 classes. 91 percent of the 2016–2017 graduating class completed some form of a computational subject, according to the slides presented during the faculty meeting, and there were over 750 students taking higher-level programming classes such as Fundamentals of Programming (6.009) and Introduction to Machine Learning (6.036). This raises questions about how the computational GIR might differ from the Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python (6.0001/6.0002), and how it will affect students’ course loads.

According the slides presented at the meeting, the only majors that would exceed the 198 units of credit specified in the rules and regulations of the faculty are Chemical Engineering (Course 10), Chemical-Biological Engineering (Course 10-B) and Engineering as Recommended by the Department of Chemical Engineering (Course 10-ENG).

Some voiced concerns about how a new GIR, especially one with an aspect determined by the majors, could affect major exploration.

“My only concern is with the second 6-credit course — the student (assumingly a freshman) [would] have to decide what field in computer science they would want to pursue,” Stuti Vishwabhan ’20 said in an email to The Tech, “[and] that may be difficult at such an early time in college.”

“I think that there is a cultural thing of a lot of freshmen taking the same classes their freshman year. It’s kind of neat that I know that just about everyone in this class (18.02) is taking 8.02 and if half of them weren’t taking it this year, it would be harder to tie things together,” Mathematics Professor Lawrence Guth commented in an interview with The Tech.

Update 5/10/18: Previously, this article misstated that the Working Group on Algorithmic Reasoning and Computational Thinking presented their findings at the March faculty meeting. In fact, the presentation was from the former Chair of the Faculty and the Chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. 

The article also neglected to mention the other two options for the GIR, which are a single Institute-wide subject and a subject designed for a major.