Designing the First Year at MIT

First Offering
Spring 2018

44 undergraduates
10 graduate students

Bruce Cameron SM ’07, PhD ’11, director, System Architecture Lab
Bryan Moser ’87, SM ’89, academic director and senior lecturer, System Design and Management program
Justin Reich, assistant professor of comparative media studies; executive director, MIT Teaching Systems Lab
Glen Urban, David Austin Professor in Marketing, Emeritus; MIT Sloan School of Management Dean, Emeritus
Maria Yang ’91, associate professor of mechanical engineering; faculty ambassador for MechE undergraduates

From the Catalog
This subject will explore the process of design while working on a specific challenge: the potential to significantly improve and innovate on the MIT undergraduate first year. Students will learn about the design process, ranging from the identification of needs and goals to developing concepts and modes of validation. Stakeholder needs identification will involve reaching out directly to the MIT community. Students will be responsible for project deliverables including a stakeholder needs assessment, analysis of integrated curricular and cocurricular changes in a tradespace of options, and final report and presentation. Students will also be exposed to principles of curriculum design and pedagogy as they develop a holistic perspective to the design of the MIT first year.

  • The last substantial change to the structure of the first year at MIT was in 1964.

Although the first-year experience (FYE) at MIT can be fulfilling and energizing for some students, many others feel it needs significant improvement. A review of student, staff, faculty, and alumni views conducted in preparation for the class highlighted key areas for improvement, including more curricular flexibility and opportunities to explore different majors and careers, enhanced advising and mentoring, and greater emphasis on inspiring topics. Many students also voiced a desire for more personal support in making the transition from high school to the unique MIT culture. This class, which aims to address these challenges, was created by a team of some 30 students, staff, and faculty led by Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz.

  • Alexa Martin ’19: “Everyone comes to MIT with different backgrounds, and everyone goes through different paths during their time here. Despite this I find it really interesting that many people still face the same issues and have the same needs.”
  • Moser: “It’s ‘mens et manus,’ learning by doing—what better way to solve this problem?”

Sample Lectures, Readings, and Resources
Week 9 lecture and assignment: Outcomes and Learning Dynamics in the First Year; Re-Framing the Solution Space: Decisions and Options
Week 14 lecture and assignment: Leadership, Communication, and Preparing for Change; Reflections on Design
FYE Data Book: current student demographics and pathways through MIT
FYE Research Resources: online summary of findings on subjects ranging from the purpose of college to an examination of the first year at other universities

The bulk of the problem-solving happens during weekly workshops. Teams of graduate and undergraduate students work with a faculty mentor to assess needs and create ideas. The course follows a typical “design spiral” to explore needs, generate concepts, identify key decisions, and validate options in an iterative fashion. This approach stimulates the students to observe the first year as a system, encouraging students to seek visionary and impactful changes across stakeholders (rather than minor improvements preconceived prior to framing the complex, interwoven set of challenges in the first year).

  • Including the principal instructors, more than 30 faculty and senior staff mentors are participating, with representation from all five MIT schools.

During the first spiral, each team will gather data on the needs of a different stakeholder group and develop concepts. During the second spiral, “teams of teams” will iterate on and synthesize the information and ideas generated during spiral one.

  • Lead TA Ben Linville-Engler SM ’18: “It’s an opportunity for these groups to be a little bit more vulnerable around each other than they might be in a student-government-versus-MIT-administration type of situation.”

By the end of the semester, the students will have decided on suggested changes to the first-year experience that will be presented to the MIT community, including student groups, the faculty, the Academic Council, and the MIT Corporation. Suggestions could be curricular, but could also include changes to the cocurricular and extracurricular aspects of the first year.

  • Linville-Engler: “Recommendations might be adjustments to existing things, such as recording GIRs as Pass/No Record, but I also think there could be some completely abstract, very different approaches.”
  • Martin: “People seem to care about soft skills, building character, having sufficient support and exploration, gaining confidence, and many other factors that can’t be implemented by just adding more to the curriculum.”


  1. In the background paragraph above, all the goals listed were equally valid in 1961 when I graduated. For example, curriculum flexibility was important to me. I eventually changed from Course 5 to Course 21 to allow myself a broader education. So the goals listed do not change much. But, as the world changes, implementation should also change. How do you create flexible rules for implementing concepts? A friend of mine who attended MIT, but graduated from BU in 1962, was advised by his BU advisor to not become a computer programmer. A study he read said that the computing needs of the USA would be met by 50 computers and 500 programmers! In 1967, I became a computer programmer on the Apollo Project, and co-wrote the navigation program that the astronauts used to go to the moon and back. In 1961, if you had told me that I would do that job, I would have thought it a great joke. Seeing the future in any endeavor does require a clear vision!

  2. Alexandra Joanna Kent

    I think that the pass/no record system for the first year should be kept.

  3. Win

    Changes in the courses based on students’ experiences shown to the community are crucial roles to those who presented even the first year fresh students at M.I.T.
    Flexible learning a.k.a. dynamic courses require from the young learners can be a benefit to the real world. Hoping that it is also useful to all those who are around the world.

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