Paul Penfield, Jr., EECS Education for the Future, EECS MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Cambridge, MA, Volume 1, Issue 1; January, 1999.

EECS Education for the Future

by Paul Penfield, Jr.

As you read this newsletter, we're initiating a change of leadership in the MIT EECS department. After almost a decade as Department Head, I'm pleased to turn things over to the next team, headed by Professor John Guttag.

People have asked me how our educational programs have evolved over the past ten years. The mission of our department is, of course, to educate students, and there have been changes in all three levels of degrees -- bachelor's, master's, and doctoral.

These programs serve different needs. The doctoral degree is for people who want careers in research, scholarship, teaching, and related fields on the frontiers of knowledge. The master's level is for people aiming for a career in the practice of engineering. And our bachelor's degree programs prepare students for a variety of careers, including, but not limited to, engineering.

Successful Master of Engineering Introduced

In 1993, after many years of study and preparation, we introduced our five-year Master of Engineering program for students who want an engineering career. This is now our flagship program, taken by two-thirds of our undergraduate majors.

The M.Eng. program is seamless across five years. Students have flexibility in planning and don't have to spend the first four years getting a bachelor's degree and then one year working on the master's. M.Eng. students can postpone an undergraduate requirement until the fifth year, for example, in order to take a graduate course that may be offered only in their senior year.

The program is also seamless across the many technical domains of our department. Unlike some other universities, MIT has a single department of electrical engineering and computer science, and M.Eng. students can pick their own areas of specialization.

Reform of undergraduate curricula

Our bachelor's degrees serve students who want an entry-level position in engineering or who want a solid grounding in electrical engineering and computer science as a basis for entering other fields, such as medicine, law, journalism, or management. This strong, technologically-based education is ideal for preparing students for their future life, regardless of where circumstances take them.

We regard these programs as a modern form of liberal education -- modern in that science and technology are present in large doses, and liberal in the sense that students aren't being directed to specific sectors of society or even to specific professions. This education opens many doors, rather than limiting students to one particular door.

During the design of the M.Eng. program, which is intended to guide students into engineering, we thought about the role of the undergraduate programs. We had (and still have) two such programs, one in EE and one in CS. Previously, they had different structures and different requirements, but by focusing on what they had in common, we were able to combine them in what amounts to a single program with specializations in EE or CS. Once we did that, we realized that some students would be well served by delaying their specialization, and we designed a third program for those don't want to be either electrical engineers or computer scientists, but rather engineers who can freely rove this whole domain.

In 1996, our undergraduate programs were scheduled for accreditation review. We weren't sure whether the accrediting agencies would take kindly to the flexibility inherent in the third program mentioned above. All three degree programs were duly accredited, however, and the new program was even accredited retroactively so as to cover graduates from the previous two years.

The accrediting agencies aren't the only ones who like the new program. Our students do also. It's the most popular of the three undergraduate programs, now attracting more enrollment than the other two combined.

Doctorate program reexamined

The doctoral degree is for people who want careers based on research, teaching, or scholarship. Our program has always been built around a deep research experience with an "apprenticeship" to a faculty member. While preserving this important aspect, we're implementing several reforms in the admission, advising, and qualification of students. In the process, we're facing the question of how to structure our very large department so as to provide welcoming, smaller environments which will promote student research most effectively.

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