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The MIT Apprenticeship Program
We need to determine what value we must offer our students and the
world, now and in the future, that is worth their considerable
investment of time and money in us. It will turn out that this is
not an obvious proposition: it is time dependent. I perceive that
we are nearing a discontinuity where the old vision of our purpose
will suddenly stop being appropriate so it will be necessary to
Our current contract with society is based on a rather problematic
coupling between apparent educational attainment and individual
economic success. While this may have been appropriate in the
past, it is tenuous basis for the future.
So the university faces some serious problems going forward. The
rise of the MOOCs makes our traditional educational mechanisms
obsoelete. Our degree structure, based on the silos of school
and department, provide an educational environment that is
paradoxically both too narrow AND too diffuse for the challenges
that our students and their society will face in the future. And
this is occurring at a time when the economic value of specific
technical knowledge has become astronomical, judging from the
offers my undergraduates get for summer jobs from leading
Fortunately, MIT has special advantages, that make it likely that
MIT will survive where others fail. Most important is our small
student-to-faculty ratio: we have only four undergraduates and
six graduates per faculty member, allowing us to transform our
educational system into a tutorial/apprenticeship system, which
is arguably more effective than the current classroom system.
We propose to construct a degree-granting program at MIT that is
organized around apprenticeship and interdisciplinary team projects.
Our program is inspired by the individualized instruction that
students are given in the tutorial system used at Oxford and
Cambridge, but modified to fit into the MIT environment of
entrepreneurial students and faculty.
This is an updated proposal, originally formulated in 2000 by Hal
Abelson, Tom Knight, Arthur Steinberg, Gerry Sussman, and Jack
A major goal is to develop teaching strategies that challenge
students, by getting them to participate in integrated, open-ended
projects. The projects will be difficult and will require the
students to learn a great deal about several subjects at once. But
most important, a student will feel a strong sense of accomplishment
by completing such a project. We want a student to be excited enough
to tell his parents and friends what he has been up to and what
has been learned. We expect these projects to start out as vehicles
for communicating basic scientific and engineering principles, and to
expand, through UROP-like experiences, to become research projects
suitable for SB and PhD theses.
Essentially, students will be serving apprenticeships in a number of
areas represented by the projects. When they encounter material that
they need to know for making progress on their project then they will
be directed to it by the teacher in charge of the project, and perhaps
engage in a tutorial on it. At the end of this process students will:
-- know how to find out whatever they need to know on their own;
-- be well-versed in team-work;
-- have good presentation skills (both written and oral);
-- have a good start on life-long learning;
-- have a sense of the fields represented by the projects;
-- have the real-world experience of completing complex, multi-faceted
The intention of this program is to build a new community inside of
MIT that can inspire undergraduates to achieve excellence in
intellectual pursuits. We hope that this idea can be expanded to
include much of the current structure of MIT, but even if it cannot be
so expanded we expect that it can provide an intellectual home for an
important segment of the faculty and student population.
The idea has two parts:
We propose a program with approximately 10 students per faculty
member, which is similar to the current average teaching load of
faculty (approximately 1000 faculty now teach approximately 10000
undergraduate and graduate students). We wish to begin with a
small group of freshmen and then continue with them through their
4 undergraduate years, adding a new 50 freshmen each year, to
reach a steady state of 200 students. Students are instructed by
a small community of faculty members, covering all of the fields
in which this program can grant degrees.
The instruction in this program is organized around a sequence of
projects. The projects are team projects, each involving a small
number of students. Each student participates in several such
projects at a time: probably 2 projects per semester (though some may
stretch into a full year) for a total of 8-10 projects over four
years. Projects are chosen with the aim of ensuring both adequate
coverage of basic concepts and depth in a few areas. Each project is
interdisciplinary and is supervised by a committee of faculty
consultants, who are masters of their respective fields.
Students may also attend classes in the ordinary way, but attendance
in classes is optional. The instruction in our program should be
sufficient to cover all of the material required for the education of
our students. However, to be certified for a departmental degree
program a student must pass an appropriate examination for the core
subjects that the department requires for its degree program. These
examinations may be the final exams for existing classes or
advanced-standing exams when available and appropriate.
Each student has at least 2 faculty mentors who direct his
program and help him to get a sufficiently broad and deep education.
A student may, after sufficient accomplishment, apply for a degree.
To be certified for the degree the student must prepare and present a
formal academic portfolio, which documents the examinations that the
student has passed, the projects that have been completed, and the
auxilliary results, such as published papers, patents obtained, or
artifacts constructed, that can be used as evidence of accomplishment.
Accompanying the portfolio will be an academic resume which recounts
what the student did at MIT while here. It will be the student's own
assessment of what he has learned and experienced. If these are
deemed sufficient then the student's final project will be a
presentation, like a job interview, before a faculty committee. This
will require a good deal of preparation, and will be a summation of
what he has done, and why he should be granted a degree for it.
We expect that this kind of apprenticeship education will be rather
more intensive than the traditional classroom format. We imagine that
students will spend a great deal of time together with faculty, eating
meals together and working on faculty research projects, as in UROP.
Content: Examples of Projects
1. Computation of the orbits of Solar-System bodies given observations
of their positions in the sky at given times. Such a project
involves learning and using most of linear algebra, elementary
calculus and differential equations and the elementary mechanics of
particles. It has substantial historical aspects, with technical
and philosophical readings from Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,
Newton, Laplace and Gauss. This project involves development of
experimental and observational technique, including the analysis of
both systematic and random errors. We expect that a student
completing this project will be able to find astronomical objects
with a telescope, to make measurements in appropriate coordinate
systems, to estimate the measurement errors, to make the
transformations of coordinates to other coordinate systems (with
transformations of the error bars) and to understand enough of the
physics to compute and improve a probable orbit, using the methods
of Laplace and Gauss. Student understanding will be supported by
formalization of the methods as computer programs.
2. Design, analysis, and construction of a nontrivial analog
electrical system, such as a high-fidelity FM radio receiver.
Starting with the essentials of electricity and magnetism and
device physics, to develop electrical circuit models and techniques
of circuit analysis. Failure of circuit analysis when
lumped-parameter models are inadequate. Approximation and rule of
thumb in design. Tolerances and sensitivity to variations in part
values. Analysis in terms of signals and systems. Linear systems
theory. Construction techniques and packaging for reliablity and
performance. A student completing this project will have
assimilated the essentials of electromagnetics, such as
quasistatics, wave phenomena, and simple antenna theory, in
addition to a deep understanding of analog circuits. The student
will be exposed to concepts of information theory and must also
learn calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations,
some partial differential equations. There is also a rather rich
history of the development of electronics, including some
understanding of intellectual-property issues such as patents,
copyrights, and trade secrets.
3. Development, construction, and documentation of a complete major
computer-software and, perhaps, hardware subsystem, to the stage
where it might be suitable for marketing. This involves learning
about effective organization, design for maintainability, ease of
installation, reliability, and abstraction. It also involves a bit
of market analysis, consideration of intellectual-property issues,
and production of both online and printed documentation. The
students involved in this project would have to construct and
present their product along with a plausible business plan for
marketing it. Although construction of an economically successful
product is not required or expected, this project requires
preparation of the materials to the level that would be expected
from a professional in the field.
4. Demonstration of the failure of Bell's inequality with correlated
photons. Such a project requires an understanding of the
elementary quantum mechanics of light. It also requires
substantial knowledge of classical mechanics and statistics in
order to understand how the classical expectations are violated.
There is substantial knowledge of linear algebra, differential
equations, and optics needed to understand the project. The
project includes background experiments that lead up to the Bell
test, including the single-photon, two-slit experiment, and the
photoelectric effect. Understanding the significance of the
experiment to the history and philosophy of science requires
reading papers by Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, Planck, and Bell.
This experiment requires development of laboratory skills and
techniques of data collection and error analysis.
5. Design, analysis, and construction of a complete digital
communication system, such as a CDMA or cell phone system.
Information theory and systems issues are paramount here. The
project starts out with design of digital circuits and systems,
proceeding through the architecture of computer hardware and
software. Problems of load balancing appear at every level of the
design process. There are also problems of design for reliability,
with internal error checking, end-to-end protocols, and appropriate
use of redundancy.
As in project 3 above, engineering projects such as 2 and 5 may
require that students develop a business strategy for setting up their
project as a business. They will need to learn aspects of market
research, marketing, sales, finance, and organizational structure,
culminating in writing a business plan for their new venture. Then we
will have a panel of MIT alumni who have experience with new
businesses evaluate and critique the plans. Perhaps new businesses
will emerge from some of these projects.
6. Time-keeping. Review the evolution of the clock/watch from beginnings
in tower-clocks of the Middle Ages, through Huygens, Tompion,
Graham, John Harrison, Le Roy, Breguet, and on through various
19th-century developments with special focus on the chronometer,
thence into electric and quartz clocks/watches, and finally atomic
timekeepers. Work in machining, gear-cutting, watch repair;
physics of oscillators, including the problem of isochronicity and
the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, friction/bearings, choice of
materials, temperature and atmospheric effects, piezo-electric
effects, half-life of the excited states of the cesium atom.
Relations to astronomy and celestial time-keeping. Issues of mass
production, interchangeable parts, marketing; why Swiss superceded
British watchmakers in 19th century, then were themselves beaten
out by U.S., Japan, and how they have regained pre-eminence:
business practices. Time zones, Greenwich, and politics. This
project culminates in students building their own time-keepers, and
competing for a prize to make the most accurate one.
7. The automobile. Evolution of car and its systems: Benz, Otto, De
Dion, Ford, Sloan, Harley Earl, Ohno and Toyota, Honda, California
customizers, modern conglomerates. Interplay of engineering and
marketing; how dominance is established and maintained in the auto
business. Engineering vs. bean-counting and risk management.
Taylorism and other business practices; production regimes
(assembly line, lean production, agile production, custom) and
competition. Recycling of cars, new materials, new energy sources.
Zero-emissions vehicles. In addition to business practices and
history, there is a large component of materials science,
mechanical engineering and physics in this project. Students must
design and build a major automotive component, and figure out how
to market it. A similar project could be constructed around the
airplane, or ship.
8. Religion. Students study a wide range of religious traditions:
Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism,
Lutheranism and other Protestant sects, Animism, Shaminism, among
others. Reading and discussion of major texts to understand the
theologies, as well as the evolution of the institutions of
religion and their social hierarchies. Readings also in
anthropology of religions. Project is to develop their own
religion with canonical texts, attendant mythologies, theologies,
and institutional structure.
9. The City. Readings and discussion in sociology and history of
urbanization: Mumford, Jacobs, Fustel de Coulanges, Wheatley,
Weber, Kevin Lynch, Rykwert, Adams, Park and Burgess, Hohenberg and
Lees. Field trips to look at urban systems: transportation,
utilities, sewage and water, roads, education, government,
neighborhoods. Field-work on associations, communities, schools:
how they work, differ, functions, efficacy. Project is the design
and implementation of a solution to an on-going problem posed by
some neighborhood members.
A similar project could focus more specifically on schools, with
readings on the development of the public school system and various
philosophies of education. Field-work includes observing in various
classrooms, and then making an arrangement to design and teach a unit
Other projects will be constructed for Biology, Chemistry, and