Small Learning Communities for Exploring Big Ideas

“Life-changing.” That’s how Kevin Castro ’17 describes his experience with Concourse, one of MIT’s four freshman learning communities.

That adjective is not merely hyperbole. The son of Mexican immigrants, Castro arrived at MIT with the intention of becoming an engineer. He was particularly interested in orbiting space telescopes and imagined he might work at NASA one day. But joining Concourse as a freshman changed his trajectory. The program allowed him to nurture a long-held passion for history and literature, while completing a major in aeronautics and astronautics and a minor in history. He now plans to pursue a career in academia focused on the history of technology.

Concourse offers small but equally rigorous versions of required first-year courses in physics, chemistry, and math; class sizes typically range from 10–40 students. The program—which is geared toward first-year students but welcomes continued involvement by upperclassmen—also includes courses that explore the humanities, from philosophy and history to literature and political science.

Castro has remained involved in Concourse all four of his years at MIT. “It’s a community of people interested in discussing ideas and pursuing challenging questions that people don’t always stop to think about, like, what is justice?” he says. Often, these weighty discussions take place over a family-style meal during the weekly Friday lunch seminar. A dedicated classroom space with a kitchen, available to Concourse students 24/7, adds to the strong sense of community that is a hallmark of the program.

“Concourse is a space in which ideas really matter, debate is passionate, off-the-syllabus reading is shared frequently, and everyone—students, faculty and staff—is eager to push the limits of their knowledge and to test the validity of their convictions,” says Anne McCants, a professor of history and the director of Concourse.

Taking a deep dive into the classics provides a counterweight to the gravitational pull of specialization in science and engineering fields. And it creates thoughtful leaders who are prepared to wrestle with complex issues. “Our greatest hope,” McCants says, “is that they will not just accomplish many things, but have a true compass directing them to good things worth accomplishing.”

Photograph by Jon Sachs/SHASS Communications

This story was originally published in April 2017.

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