Paul Penfield, Jr., John V. Guttag, Campbell L. Searle, and William M. Siebert, EECS Plans Major Curriculum Changes, The MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. V, No. 2, pp. 1, 16-17; October, 1992.

EECS Plans Major Curriculum Changes

Paul Penfield, Jr.
John V. Guttag
Campbell L. Searle
William M. Siebert

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is planning some major changes in curriculum, both undergraduate and graduate. Our plans require two new degrees, the Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) and Engineer in Computer Science (E.C.S.). Motions to authorize these degree names will be introduced (by the School of Engineering) and discussed at the November faculty meeting, and then voted on in December.

The motions themselves are relatively straightforward, but the changes they are designed to permit are rather fundamental and far-reaching. We believe that these changes are of importance to the entire MIT community, and we hope that the motions will stimulate a wide discussion.

Our plans extend the length of the professional degree from four to five years. The need for this extension can be explained in two ways.

First, four years isn't long enough for everything we think is essential. Modern advances in electrical engineering and computer science are putting enormous pressure on the curricula. In past years, when new material was deemed important enough to be added to our curricula, we removed other topics to make room. We don't think we can do this any more, without jeopardizing our coverage of scientific and engineering fundamentals, basic skills, or exposure to current practice.

Second, we have observed for some time that the majority of our S.B. graduates go on for a master's degree, either right away or within a few years. Clearly they are telling us that more than a bachelor's degree is needed. Moreover, their employers seem to agree: many students receive company fellowships for full-time master's study, or release time and tuition assistance for part-time study. And for 75 years we have run the successful VI-A internship program, which leads to the simultaneous awarding of master's and backelor's degrees after five years.

We believe that the majority of our undergraduates will benefit from a fifth year of study. Knowing they have that opportunity, they can plan an integrated, seamless five-year program of study and avoid the inefficiencies that come from hitching together two separate programs.

We will notify EECS majors, at the end of their junior year, whether they are invited to stay for a fifth year and pursue the new professionally-oriented degree, Master of Engineering. We will admit those who we think can handle graduate subjects, making the decision on the basis of the cumulative grade average. Our best estimate is that about 80% will be invited, and that about two thirds will take advantage of the opportunity.

The new program resembles current undergraduate programs more than current master's programs. The fifth year will be similar in style to the first four years, i.e., classroom-oriented. It will not be research-based, although there will be a thesis. Passing from the senior year to the first graduate year will be much like the transition today between junior and senior years, and not like the current transition into graduate school.

While we believe the new M.Eng. program to be an ideal preparation for a career in electrical engineering or computer science (or some mix of the two), we also recognize that many students, for a variety of valid educational or personal reasons, will stop at the S.B. level. These students will receive an excellent foundation for a satisfying, productive life, starting in any of several ways -- an entry-level position in electrical engineering or computer science; graduate school elsewhere; or professional education in another field, such as medicine, law, or management. Each student who completes an M.Eng. program will automatically qualify for one of the bachelor's degrees.

Coupled with this change, we will eliminate our research-oriented master's program. Over the years, master's theses done in our department have become more and more ambitious, often resulting in publications in archival journals. The average length of a master's program is currently five terms. Such a long program discourages some applicants, and the students who are taking so long are occupying places that could be made available to other qualified students.

The master's program is used today for two purposes. Students seeking an engineering career benefit from some experience, including a thesis, beyond the bachelor's. And students seeking an academic or research career use the master's program as a step toward the doctoral program. Neither purpose requires such a lengthy thesis experience. Our new program, with an honest 24-unit thesis, will satisfy both of these needs.

So in brief, we are planning to:

  1. Keep our accredited bachelor's programs with only minor changes;
  2. Introduce a new, professionally oriented master's program;
  3. Eliminate the research-oriented master's program;
  4. Keep our doctoral program unchanged.

The new plan gives our students a new opportunity, not now available, without removing any current options. Most of them will be guaranteed admission to the fifth year, to seek a master's degree. They do not have to participate; if they want to stop with the S.B. they can.

Students who want more than the M.Eng. degree can apply for regular admission to our graduate program, just as they currently do. We will judge such applications on the basis of whether the student is capable of completing a doctor's thesis. To keep the doctoral program unchanged, we will offer regular admission to the same number of students as we do today.

We will also continue to admit students from outside to our graduate program, using the same criteria as today. Since our M.Eng. program is an integrated five-year program starting with the GIRs, students from outside will not qualify for this new degree. Instead, we will award them the S.M., as we do today. However, the thesis experience will be shorter, like the new M.Eng. theses.

Those who want a research experience beyond the master's level but less than the doctor's level can seek the intermediate Engineer's degree. We propose adding the new degree Engineer in Computer Science to our current degree Electrical Engineering.

What are the implications of all this for the rest of MIT?

First, we will break a standard paradigm that governs MIT and most other universities, namely that the shift from classroom-oriented to research-oriented education coincides with the change from undergraduate to graduate status, at the end of four years. We want this shift to occur after five years, not four. This can be thought of as a step toward having professional engineering education more centered at the graduate level, as is the case for many other professions.

Second, our plans might prove contagious. If we are right that a professional education for engineers needs at least five years, then in time others will come to believe it also. Probably EECS is not different in this need from other engineering disciplines, and MIT is not inherently different from other excellent engineering universities. In the future many more departments, both at MIT and elsewhere, may offer integrated five-year programs leading to a professionally oriented master's degree.

Third, our plans reopen the question of the relative roles of the Institute-mandated common experience, embodied in the GIRs, and the individual departmental programs. There are those who believe we should have set aside part of the fifth year for courses dealing with leadership, professional ethics, economics, management, or the humanities. Our new curriculum actually has much more flexibility and freedom of choice than our current S.B. programs, but it does not require any increase in nontechnical areas. Many of us feel it should. We would welcome suggestions on how to do this.

Fourth, there is concern that the new plan might prove to be so attractive that many more students will want to major in our department. If that happens, we may face an enrollment crisis similar to that of ten years ago. It would not be in the best interest of MIT to have a student population any more unbalanced toward EECS than it is now.

All these issues deserve to be fully discussed in the context of the motions to be made at the November faculty meeting. We hope that all the readers of The MIT Faculty Newsletter will participate in this discussion.

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