On a Liberal Education for the 21st Century
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In her opening address for Technology Day, MIT President Susan Hockfield lays out MIT’s ambitious agenda for addressing energy and the environment, and for transforming society’s approach to human health and disease.
Hockfield describes MIT’s new Energy Research Council, which will attempt “to produce transformational advances” not just in technologies but in policy. Some promising areas of research have already begun: new battery designs that will dramatically improve energy storage; and new types of photovoltaics, which “may make renewable energy cost competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies.”
Just as MIT’s Radiation Lab of the 1940s helped launch the electronics revolution, so Hockfield hopes MIT’s efforts to meld life sciences and engineering will bring about a comparable revolution in medicine and health. She describes a “great circle” of research labs forming a “cauldron of collaboration” on campus.
While MIT has an established record of excellence, warns Woodie Flowers in his address, it must “face the brutal facts.” The world has changed, and engineers can no longer follow the same path in education and training. He points to some recent studies that show MIT graduates don’t see much connection between their studies and the work they do in the world.
“Learning differential equations is training; learning to think using the insights from differential equations is education – they are profoundly different,” Flowers says. He recommends a new tack at MIT: a shift away from big classes where “we pretend students learn what we say,” to “active learning.” He suggests creating a Draper Labs of Learning. “Make choices—pick biology, electro-mechanical, energy, and get the best people on the planet involved,” Flowers continues. “Do world-class stuff to compete with movies.”
Establish more internships, and develop lifelong symbiotic connections with alumni. Enable students to “encounter structured ways to learn new things,” and give them opportunities to tackle big problems, especially in another part of the world. Focus on creativity and synthesis rather than analysis, says Flowers, and emphasize leadership and team participation. “We have an ethical obligation to focus on what we do with them to help them have a comparative advantage,” he concludes.
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