Designing the First Year class aims to restructure freshman experience

Some students are critical of class structure

In Designing the First Year (DFY) at MIT, a new class this semester, students and faculty are tasked with restructuring the first-year experience.

The aims of the class are to “understand the needs for the first year and what should we change to make it better; to apply rigorous design frameworks to help generate really good ideas for change, both big and small; and to engage the community in that discussion along the way,” Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz said in an interview with The Tech.

Last fall, Waitz organized a team of 20 people who met twice a week in order to design the class. Waitz commented that he focused on incorporating student input into this “really difficult organizational change process.”

Waitz compared the class’s efforts with the efforts of a typical faculty committee — the usual way of approaching this kind of institutional change at MIT. “If you add up all of the TAs, the teaching team, and the students, we are at around 600-700 people-hours per week. By comparison, the typical faculty committee might work several hundred hours per year,” he added.

On the Vice Chancellor’s website, DFY is described as “design-intensive,” "team-based,” and “project focused.” The students are tasked with identifying the various stakeholders involved in the first year experience at MIT, and using design methods from various MIT schools to present their recommendations to the senior administration.

The class is composed of workshops and weekly lectures, in which students learn about the design process and educational policy. The structure of the class is described on the syllabus as “two spirals [that] will expose the students to a full cycle of observation, framing, concept generation, design, and validation.”

One of the main projects the class has been working on is a needs assessment of stakeholder groups, such as the students in living groups.

“Many departments across MIT might approach [this class] differently; that’s one of the strengths of having a diverse set of instructors. What’s unique about this is that the design challenge is for a complex socio-technical problem,” Bryan Moser ’87, senior lecturer of system design and management and one of the co-instructors, said in an interview with The Tech.

Student Lab Assistants (SLAs) invited to the teaching team by Ian Waitz contributed to the initial design effort. Currently, they aid the teaching staff and provide mentorship to the students.

“A lot of people have a vision of how MIT is supposed to run. What you end up discovering when you talk to a lot of different people is that there are so many different paths and so many different experiences,” Edward Fan ’19, one of the SLAs, said in an interview with The Tech.  “Honestly, I have to give huge props to Ian for coming up with this structure. This idea of giving students the opportunity to really shape the MIT experience is very unique.”

Another SLA, Alexa Martin ’19, expressed excitement about the class opening up new discussions about the first year at MIT. Martin is the current UA Vice President and next year’s UA President. Kathryn Jiang ’20, current UA secretary and next year’s UA Vice President, is also an SLA.

“This class is exciting because it gets students involved who generally wouldn’t be involved in student government; it’s tapping into another group of people who wouldn’t have been tapped into otherwise,” Martin said.

However, the structure of the class has also been criticized by some students.

“There is a clear dissonance between the advertised expectations of the course and the reality of the course,” Kelvin Green II ’21 and Mimi Wahid ’21 wrote in a Google Document, which was sent by Green in an email to the class March 1 and later forwarded to The Tech.

Green and Wahid commented that the course seemed to be more rigid than expected, with students being asked to interview ill-defined stakeholder groups and then create “a needs assessment within an existing structure that has been provided for us,” contrary to their hopes of “re-designing” the first year.

The students in the course also did not receive adequate preparation or instruction “on educational design and have instead been taught more about product design,” Green and Wahid continued.

Both Green and Wahid have since dropped the class.

The course “didn’t seem valuable because it didn’t feel like I was contributing to something that would have an impact on the freshman experience,” Wahid said in an interview with The Tech. “It was difficult for me to see what good would come out of the class as a whole or my involvement in the class. I wasn’t sure if what we were doing was genuine.”

Green’s email to the class also asked other students to submit their thoughts, so that their collective experiences could be shared with the instructors.

“I had a lot of questions about what educational design is, and Professor Justin Reich provided me with so much help and so many resources. But we weren’t really living that in the class; it felt like I was on a different planet. Until I reached out through the survey, I didn’t fully realize that other people were going through the same experience,” Green said in an interview with The Tech.

“This is a complicated and unique class to begin with. And I think that part of that gap [between the students’ expectations and the realities of the course] is because these students are so passionate,” Moser said. In an initial survey of the students’ motives to take the class, the most popular answer was that they wanted to improve MIT.

Both Moser and Maria Yang ’91, professor of mechanical engineering, stressed the importance of being able to think about others’ needs and opinions during the design process.

“In the face of complex problems, humility is required. At least early on, there is a patience to try to observe not only one’s point of view or bias, but to spend some time to really look at others and see where they’re coming from, what their needs might be. The first few weeks of the class, we really asked students to set aside that particular thing that they might have come to the class with,” Moser said.

DFY is a twelve-unit class in Mechanical Engineering and Comparative Media Studies only offered Spring 2018; it is also a HASS-E and counts towards the design minor. The class is open to all undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in MIT, and currently has around 50 students.