SEAS Seeks to Improve Teaching

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is reconsidering its approach to graduate education with the hopes of enhancing students’ experience by providing more personalized guidance and resources.

The school’s Graduate Education Task Force, co-chaired by professors Gu-Yeon Wei and Eric Mazur, will evaluate all stages of the graduate experience from the application process to research and course requirements for Ph.D. students.

In the last few years, SEAS has focused on revitalizing its undergraduate experience through measures such as creating stand-alone mechanical engineering and electrical engineering concentrations as well as implementing nontraditional teaching methods.

Now, with a growing number of undergraduate students taking courses at SEAS, the school hopes to address specific concerns regarding the nature of graduate education. Faculty members will tackle issues including the need for a universal teaching requirement for graduate students and address ambiguities regarding the qualifying exam and admissions process.

According to Mazur, SEAS hopes to assess the extent to which its graduate curriculum is meeting the needs of students, especially at the Ph.D. level.

“The main goal is to build a better sense of community for the graduate students and to make the entire process as clear as possible,” Mazur said.

Some of the measures currently under consideration are directly inspired by those taken at the undergraduate level, including the incorporation of hands-on, interactive learning methods into the curriculum. “We have a lot of demand from the graduate students to have more demand-centered active learning classes,” SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray said.

But with other issues, the experiences and needs of graduate students tend to differ from their undergraduate counterparts. For instance, there is a much greater emphasis proposed on graduate research.

“Many grad courses are more interactive by nature—they’re smaller and less structured around problem sets and exams. Rather, students’ primary objective is research,” Wei said.

Moreover, while the College as a whole tends to take responsibility for ensuring that incoming undergraduate students are well-supported, the task tends to fall on individual advisors at the graduate level. This fact places a great deal of emphasis on the adviser matching process undertaken by SEAS faculty at the beginning of the spring semester.

Among the initiatives being considered to refine this process is the expansion of the SEAS Connect system, which matches incoming students with higher-level graduate students. The school also hopes to clarify the planning of study tracks for graduate students by expanding the number of model Ph.D. tracks available for different fields of study.

Furthermore, professors hope to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of research by increasing collaboration with other Harvard schools, including the Graduate School of Design and Graduate School of Education.

“The really wicked problems of the world do not have solutions that are specifically technical or policy-focused but rather overlap domains,” Executive Dean for Education and Research Fawwaz Habbal said.

The school currently collaborates with the Law School on matters of cyber-security and with the Business School on issues such as the commercialization of the sciences. SEAS may expand this collaboration into the establishment of explicit degree relationships amongst the different schools. “Harvard is really a very unique place where students can interact with colleagues from very different fields—it makes sense to utilize these relationships,” Habbal said.

The task force plans to spend another year reviewing these issues with the greater SEAS faculty. Its recommendations will be implemented over the next few years.

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at aabu@college.harvard.edu.

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