The first year is a critical time for students because it provides the foundation for the rest of MIT—and beyond. Concerns about the first year at MIT have been noted as far back as the report of the Lewis Committee in 1949 and have appeared in subsequent faculty reports over the decades. While changes have been made to some aspects, there has not been a holistic review of the first-year experience. When Ian Waitz, previously the dean of the School of Engineering, took on the newly created role of vice chancellor in 2017, he was tasked with engaging students and departments across MIT to create the most inspiring and effective educational atmosphere possible. Designing the First Year at MIT is one of those efforts; Spectrum asked Waitz to explain the thinking behind the creation of the class.
Why does the first-year experience need to be redesigned?
IW: Each year we attract a stronger and stronger cohort of students to MIT. We dazzle our admits during Campus Preview Weekend with authentic problem-solving opportunities, only to have them spend much of their first year in traditional lecture-based courses with insufficient opportunity to explore majors and careers. Further, today’s students, educational practices and technologies, and the world itself (new job sectors, the rapid pace of innovation, the global economy) are different from even a few years ago, so we need to keep up. Another way I think about it is: Do we offer the best first year on the planet? If not, then why not? And how can we get there?
Why is this class a good format to address the problem?
IW: It’s a very MIT way of tackling something—from the ground up, collaboratively, and with the kind of creativity and rigor that we expect of our students. Further, it is a very hard problem, and for MIT students, the harder the problem, the better. We have 50 brilliant young minds working 12 hours a week on how to improve the first year, with guidance from faculty and staff across all five schools. Including the students, the teaching staff, and mentors, we are employing greater than 700 people-hours per week. That is more than a typical faculty committee might do in an entire year. So we have some real gearing. Plus, it’s a lot of fun working with the students.
How does this class continue the tradition of student involvement at MIT?
IW: The class gives the students a stake in the education of future students. Most of the students in the class said the reason they signed up was they want to give back to MIT and make a great place even better. They are passionate about making a difference here, as they are in just about everything they do. Likewise, many of the alumni I have spoken to about this effort have said: How can I help? That’s the MIT way.
MIT draws students with widely varied backgrounds. The first year has traditionally been a time for students with weaker backgrounds to catch-up with others. This should not be lost in any change.