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Designing the First Year at MIT

Strategy & Objectives

Subject Learning Strategy

  • Students will develop and lead a community-based policy design challenge focused on the First Year Experience at MIT as a System using design thinking and methods.
  • No required design-specific pre-requisites.

Subject Learning Objectives

  1. Identify & engage stakeholders from across the MIT Community to understand needs of the First Year Experience.
  2. Model the first year at MIT as a system that spans multiple domains including curriculum, GIRs, residence and others, as a platform for dialogue.
  3. Generate design concepts and options in a tradespace.
  4. Design, instrument, and facilitate community exploration and feedback.
  5. Synthesize organizationally possible designs and craft compelling presentations for constructive community dialog & policy recommendations.
  6. Articulate principles of the design process.

Instructional Design

This subject’s instructional design is centered on the development of a system model of the first year leading to robust exploration of the Institute’s potential key decisions and options through community engagement.

While academic lectures will provide intellectual background on ways of thinking, framing, and solving, the students will be working as teams and sent “into the field” for a series of exercises.

Two design spirals across the 14 weeks will provide opportunities for the students to experience and pilot ideas for observation, framing, design, and validation.

The subject will conclude with students presenting a robust set of alternatives evaluated for feasibility and desirability (a tradespace), tied to feedback from community.

Subject Architecture: Process and Topic Sequences

  • Introduction – Ways of Thinking, Engaging, Designing, and Organizing for Change (2wks)
  • Spiral 1 – Gathering stakeholder needs, formulating goals, developing concepts, identifying decisions, tradespace analysis, stakeholder evaluations (4wks)
  • Spiral 2 – Student team led with refinement of boundaries, concepts, analyses, community engagement (5wks)
  • Synthesis and Review (3wks)

Each week will include a 90-minute lecture and a 90-minute lab-based workshop. Assignments will include readings and field work. Two spirals will expose the students to a full cycle of observation, framing, concept generation, design, and validation.

  • The first spiral (4 weeks) will be used to introduce the design and system approach and pilot these methods on a reduced set of decisions about the First Year Experience.
  • In the second spiral (5 weeks) the students will address a larger set of decisions and options about the First Year Experience, guided by feasibility of alternatives, their challenges, and both observation and validation by stakeholder.


  • Interim Deliverables: 50%
  • Team Evaluation: 20%
  • Final Presentation/ Executive Summary: 30%


Students will participate in teams throughout the semester, working on a variety of dimensions of the problem. Teams will not compete on alternative designs, but will rather be broken out to tackle different elements of the problem, such as curriculum, GIRs, external benchmarks, and residence experience.  Faculty mentors will be asked to work with these student teams as they explore, generate concepts, and engage external and internal stakeholders.