For Departments, Areas, and Concentrations

Below we outline considerations that Science Departments, SEAS Areas, and STEM Concentrations should consider regarding their curricular plans and recommendations for community building. Our goal is not to provide hard-and-fast rules by which to make decisions, but rather to help prompt thoughtful prioritization of efforts. Furthermore, although these considerations are written primarily with the undergraduate curriculum in mind, many can be similarly applied to graduate curriculum planning.

Curricular planning: what courses should we teach?

Curricular guidance from the Office of Undergraduate Education

The Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE) has created some general guidance for curricular planning for the fall term.

What high-priority courses should definitely be offered?

Some examples of courses that definitely should be offered:

  • Key concentration requirements (including courses that serve other concentrations). Many of these courses are large-enrollment courses that will require significant investment of resources (time, technology, etc.) to make them excellent online.
  • Courses that are particularly effective at engaging students online, such as small courses that involve a lot of student-student and student-faculty interaction.
  • Courses that take advantage of students living remotely. Examples:
    • Environmental sampling or testing local air, soil, water, . . . 
    • Specimen observation and/or collection
    • Engineering solutions to solve local problems
  • Key pre-professional courses (e.g. pre-med) and courses required for accreditation (e.g. ABET).
  • Courses that already have substantial resources that support online learning (e.g. a course that had previously been taught by the instructor at DCE, or with a HarvardX counterpart).
  • Courses with a substantial future “payoff” for developing online materials (e.g. a course that could be a big DCE or HarvardX course in the future).

Are there courses that perhaps should not be offered?

Some courses might be bracketed and offered in the future:

  • Courses whose key learning goals would have to change substantially if the course is offered remotely. For instance, if a primary goal of a course is that students will become proficient with a specific piece of apparatus only available on campus, that course probably should be bracketed.
  • Courses that would require substantial resources and modifications to achieve excellence online, but whose enrollments and/or connections to the concentration or graduate program goals may not justify these investments. For instance, it is difficult to engage students over Zoom with straight lecturing, so a lecture course may need to be adapted to make it much more interactive. In contrast, a course that is more discussion-based can often succeed online without much modification.
  • Courses with highly unpredictable enrollment.
  • Courses that have a hands-on component might be split: perhaps the hands-on part of the course could be pushed into the future, with (say) 3 credits earned in this semester and 1 credit for the hands-on part in the future. This should be carefully considered because:
    • the timing of the future on-campus portion will be unknown.
    • achieving the learning goals may depend on timely completion of the hands-on component such that an alternative at-home lab or simulations are more appropriate.
    • completing (or not) some version of the hands-on component may impact the next course in a sequence and/or when a student can take that next course.

Are there other factors that may impact the curriculum?

  • Consider coordinating with peers at MIT because students can cross-register for MIT courses, and cross-registration will be much easier for online courses compared with on-campus courses.
  • Coordinate course needs with other departments, areas, and concentrations. For example, if peer departments already offer a similar course, consider having the instructors team up to offer just one of them. 
  • Consider that the uncertainty about student enrollments, and the varying appeal of particular types of courses in a remote context means a range of possible enrollments (from very large to very small) in each course.
    • What courses would be worth teaching even if enrollments are tiny?
  • What course development would be valuable even if we are on campus?
  • Prepare to “brace” the teaching roster in case instructors get ill. Each course should identify who could take over (e.g. TF, preceptor, co-instructor, alternate faculty).

For concentrations: creating community and supporting students

How can we create community within our concentration?

  • Create spaces for online “hangouts” for concentrators. For example, a concentration-wide: 
    • Slack space
    • Zoom chat channel (might require some additional Zoom functionality)
    • closed Facebook group
  • Add student profiles on concentration pages, like a “Humans of X” feature on the concentration website. (For an example, see the CPB-MCB site.)
  • Sponsor social meetups, like study breaks, with fun activities or themes (share your pet; wear your best Harvard gear; trivia games, perhaps customized to the concentration; sharing talents or hobbies)
  • Launch journal clubs, “science story of the week,” study breaks, “happy hours.” Encourage and support students in creating these kinds of activities.
  • Create special events for various subgroups, such as:
    • prospective concentrators (freshmen and sophomores)
    • new concentrators
    • thesis writers
    • graduating seniors
    • students interested in particular graduate or professional degrees after college
  • Create a calendar of research-related activities that might be appealing to undergraduates, such as department/area seminars, occasional research group meetings, etc. Unlike physical meetings where room capacity is a concern, students can easily join a Zoom link to “attend” these kinds of meetings.
  • Organize opportunities for students to interact informally with faculty outside of the classroom, for example:
    • Get-togethers modeled on “Classroom to Table”
    • Other informal gatherings, such as “coffee breaks” (Computer Science) or “fireside chats” (Statistics)
  • Host concentration “town halls” to discuss policy changes and other topics of high concern to students, e.g. changes to thesis policies, changes to summer research opportunities.
  • Organize pre-semester Conversations with Concentrators. The Director of Undergraduate Studies, concentration advisor, and/or other faculty members can meet with cohorts of students in small or large groups well before the semester starts for:
    • Casual conversation, for example, half-way through the summer. These casual meetings might continue through the fall semester. The goal is to socialize, see how students are doing, and establish connections among fellow students.
    • Town Hall meetings to bring students up-to-date on various aspects of planning. For example: 
      • For (prospective) thesis writers about how to approach a senior thesis in these different circumstances and provide them information about the process throughout the year. 
      • For sophomores who are considering your concentrations
      • For freshmen through juniors who are concentrating or have expressed an interest in concentrating, and who may be looking for research opportunities.

How can tutorials (credit/non-credit) help to foster community?

Here are some examples of concentrations that use tutorials to help create community within the concentration:

  • HEB sophomore tutorials, for credit. Students meet weekly; the goal is to learn how to read and understand scientific papers, and get introduced to big ideas in the field. Required of concentrators.
  • MCB/CPB tutorials, non-credit. Upon joining the concentration, students are paired with a Tutor (MCB faculty or other researchers (e.g. HMS, HSPH, fellows)) for the duration of their time in the concentration. They meet one-on-one or in small groups every 2-3 weeks during the academic year. See pamphlet for more details.
  • Neuroscience tutorials are year-long half courses, often taught by advanced graduate students, postdocs, or Medical area faculty. They meet weekly, are limited to 12 students, and count as an advanced course. 
  • Physics weekly research seminars (Physics 95) on Wednesday evenings aimed at junior/senior undergraduates. Each week one or two faculty give short talks highlighting some of their research, and then stay to socialize with students afterwards.

How can we support student engagement in research?

Particularly for students who are not yet embedded in a research lab, this fall will present additional challenges for students to identify potential research opportunities, either as an extracurricular activity (including HCRP or Faculty-aide funded) or as research for credit. Consider lowering the barrier for identifying research opportunities by:

  • Reaching out to faculty in your field (both within and outside departmental boundaries as appropriate) during the summer to prepare a list of projects or list of labs who are interested in taking on students working on remote projects
  • Organizing events centered around pairing labs and students, with potential sponsors and/or direct supervisors meeting with potential students (e.g. lightning presentations, “speed dating”)

How can we support students writing senior theses?

  • Set expectations for mentoring: “remote research” might not align as well with high-priority faculty research compared with traditional senior thesis projects. Sponsors should still commit to adequate mentoring, even if it is through non-traditional approaches.
  • To provide additional support and build a community of writers, consider offering (or requiring) thesis writing workshops. Several concentrations do this already (including SCRB, Neuroscience, MCB and CPB), so consider reaching out to peer concentrations for suggestions and materials that you could adapt, or to partner for some workshops. Possible topics include:
    • Proposal writing workshop
    • Intro writing workshop (including, or with separate literature search workshop)
    • Figure making workshop
    • Storyboarding workshop 
    • Periodic peer review (synchronous workshop or asynchronous) of draft pieces (proposal draft, intro draft, figure draft)
  • Consider offering an expanded definition of the senior thesis appropriate to your concentration. Be sure to consider the learning goals in defining what can count for a thesis. For example:
    • A literature review that provides synthesis or other added value beyond summarizing the literature
    • A meta-analysis of publicly available datasets or other computational projects appropriate to the field
    • Focus on writing up previously completed research, or research completed elsewhere
    • Although a research proposal could be appropriate for some concentrations, on its own it may not fulfill all the usual learning goals of a senior thesis. In many concentrations, a proposal is already part of the senior thesis writing process. A proposal with no concrete plans for implementation also lacks the experience of “reality checks” provided by most research projects.
  • If a thesis is usually required for honors, and the concentration is considering offering other pathways to honors (e.g. taking additional advanced courses), such concentration-wide change in honors requirements should be reviewed and approved by the concentration’s faculty committee and also by the College’s Educational Policy Committee (EPC). Concentrations can continue to make ad hoc exceptions for individual students.