IAP course Designing the First Year proposes improvements restructuring GIRs and learning communities

Vice Chancellor Waitz: a theme for the class was to think ‘blue-sky’

Nine students participated in the two week 2019 IAP course “Designing the First Year Experience: Fun-Sized” sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC). The course was a continuation of the spring 2018 course “Designing the First Year at MIT,” with the same underlying concept of using design principles to create ideas for improving the first year.

The course resulted in around 40 ideas that the OVC will now be sifting through.

The students in the class, who ranged from freshman to graduate students, split into four teams and met every day for three to five hours to develop action plans that they showcased in a final presentation, according to Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz in an interview with The Tech. All groups supported their action plans by drawing on what literature shows are “high impact practices in education,” which lead to more engaged and successful students.

One team created a Garden of Ideas exploratorium in combination with an “MIT4U” application to facilitate awareness and exploration of majors earlier on. At the exploratorium, students would be exposed to a large breadth of projects and demonstrations, be able to look them up in the MIT4U App, and be shown relevant courses and majors to help them reach a finished product.

Dipo Doherty G explained the basis of the exploratorium, saying in a video-recorded presentation forwarded to The Tech, “This is taking a very granular approach. We’re going to work from the end product and get the students to understand what concepts that actually go into this product. And last but not least, curiosity, because that’s what drives passion, and passion drives innovation in our students.”

Another team’s project, GIR Up, would “redefine and restructure the first-year GIR experience” by replacing final exams with a “culminating and interdisciplinary project.” One example of an interdisciplinary project Janice Tjan ’22 gave during her team’s presentation was combining the concepts of analyzing shapes in vector spaces from 18.02 and Newton’s second law from 8.01 to “create virtual roller coasters” using MATLAB.

Other ideas included REFLEX, which would introduce 3-unit quarter-long major exploration classes and a new first-year learning community that would be an incubator for educational excellence.

The original spring course was a 12-unit HASS-E and design minor credit class that focused on exploring changes that could improve the first-year experience. It culminated in small policy adjustments for a large number of students, such as the new first year experimental grading policy that allows the Class of 2022 to designate up to three General Institute Requirements as Pass/No Record after their first term.

The students taking the IAP course benefited from being able to access six months worth of data collection and stakeholder interviews from the spring, Waitz said. In contrast to the spring course, the IAP course focus shifted to more radical changes for a smaller group of students, honing in on implementing changes within learning communities.

“We felt that a good theme for this class was to think ‘blue-sky’ and about inspiring a love of learning, so we sort of gave them encouragement in that direction. We also told them — not in a restrictive way — to think about ideas you could test with a small group of students, and we think that will be important in moving ahead with anything that’s a more significant departure from the current system,” Waitz said.

According to Waitz, some ideas could be tested in existing learning communities as early as next fall, whereas introducing a novel learning community entirely would take at least another year.