How Would You Like Your Grade? An Interview with George Verghese

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

black lines, indicating elements of heart beats, on red and white graph paper.

Electrocardiogram data, an example of measured signals. (Image courtesy of kenfagerdotcom on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)

The syllabus for a typical MIT course spells out a familiar grading scheme that assigns fixed percentage weights to the different elements of the course: so many points for attendance and participation, so many for the quizzes or written assignments, and so many for the final exam or final project. Such a system is straightforward to implement and easy for students to understand, but there are times when both students and instructors want a little more flexibility. After all, not all students are the same, and they don’t all have the same needs.

In Spring 2018, Professors George Verghese, Alan V. Oppenheim, and Peter Hagelstein co-taught 6.011 Signals, Systems and Inference, an undergraduate course that covers a broad range of topics pertaining to communication, control, and signal processing. The material is complex, and the instructors support student learning in unique ways. We approached Professor Verghese for his insights on the course’s unusual grading system, and also on how the teaching team uses tutorials and an informal collaborative learning space called the Common Room to help MIT students succeed.

OCW: You offer three grading schemes in the course: regular, lower-friction, and project. This is so interesting! Tell us about your decision to offer students this kind of choice.

George Verghese: Ideally we’d like all students to attend all lectures and recitations, and for most students this is essential to their learning the material well and succeeding in the class. However, student lives can be complicated, their backgrounds and motivations are varied, and they optimize their trajectories through MIT in different ways. I know there is always a handful of students who can master the material with much less interaction, and I am fine with allowing them to do that, without getting in their way—hence the “lower-friction option,” in which the only components of the grade are their scores on the homework, the two quizzes during the term, and on the final exam. Students who opt for this have access to all the material in the class, but not to the tutorial sessions, as we don’t want them using the teaching assistants to help them make up for lecture and recitation material they may have missed. Unfortunately, there are always a couple of students who opt for the lower-friction version who really should not have, and their grade ends up suffering for it. But there are others—and these are the ones for whom this option is intended—who end up near, or even at, the top of the class. More power to them! My only regret is that we lose the benefit of whatever they may have contributed to class discussions if they had attended lectures and recitations.

Those students who do not elect the lower-friction option are, in effect, signing on to attending most lectures and recitations, and 15% of their course grade is allotted to attendance. I don’t actually take attendance directly, but every few lectures I will have them pair up in class to work out some problem related to the lecture material, then turn in their answer sheets at the end of lecture (with their neighbor’s name on their sheet, so they know I’m not looking to grade them on their answers!). Any student who misses a couple of these gets a note from me to urge better attendance. And recitation instructors have a good sense of who is attending and who isn’t, even if they don’t take attendance formally.

Lecture 22 image

An example of binary hypothesis testing from Lecture 22 (PDF).

There are also a few students each semester who feel they’d do better if they had a project to anchor their learning, and also to spread the course grade over (10% of the course grade is assigned to the project for students who choose this option, and the contributions of quizzes and the final exam are correspondingly reduced). Since there are typically only a few such students, I work quite closely with them over the semester, meeting at least every couple of weeks, to ensure the projects are related to course material and are moving along well. Some of these projects turn out to be good demonstrations for lectures in succeeding terms.

OCW: Please describe the tutorials offered to students and tell us about their role in the course.

George Verghese: Our tutorials are run by the teaching assistants on an optional, sign-up basis, limited to 5 students per session. Some students—perhaps a third of the class—attend them very regularly each week, others occasionally or not at all. The idea here is to actively engage the students, have them go the board to work things out, rather than having the teaching assistant give a summary of lecture at the board and then work out problems for the students. The teaching assistants go prepared with a small set of basic problems, simpler than those on homework, and illustrating points that have come up in lecture. However, the tutorials are also teaching assistant office hours, and students are encouraged to come with questions they may have. Any general guidance that the lecturer or the recitation instructors may have for the teaching assistants usually comes at our weekly staff meeting, held on Monday to set plans and directions for the week and beyond, but we typically leave the teaching assistants to come up with specific problems for their tutorials, perhaps in coordination with each other. The teaching assistants also take turns helping the lecturer generate the problem sets and solutions.

OCW: Please tell us about the role of the Common Room in the course. What was the impact of having a space where students could informally ask questions and work alongside each other on course assignments?

George Verghese: I think the evening Common Room is one of the best elements of the class, for those students—around a third to half of the class—who take advantage of it. I got the idea for it many years ago when visiting another university campus center after dinner, and found clusters of students sitting at desks and working collaboratively on homework and projects, though with no instructors in sight. For 6.011 Signals, Systems and Inference, we reserve a classroom for the three or four evenings that precede the day homework is due, and guarantee that at least one of the staff will be present there for 1.5-2 hours; usually we have the lecturer or a recitation instructor, as well as a teaching assistant.

“Our staff invariably finds the Common Room to be the most rewarding of the various settings in which they interact with students.”—GEORGE VERGHESE

We find students working individually as well as collaboratively, and periodically interacting with the staff, either at the board or at their desk—very immersed and engaged in the homework problems, and in sorting out ideas and misconceptions related to these. The staff will typically respond to student questions with other (well chosen!) questions or hints that guide them along, rather than with answers—and that makes for a very fruitful dynamic. We have never found the Common Room misused as a place to come and get fellow students to feed one solutions to the homework. I would absolutely recommend this to other faculty, if they have the staff resources and time. Our staff invariably finds the Common Room to be the most rewarding of the various settings in which they interact with students, and it is where they get to know their students best.

***

You can read more of Professor Verghese’s thoughts about teaching 6.011 on the Instructor Insights page of this course.

Keep learning! The following courses and Instructor Insights may be of interest to you:

More OCW Courses Offered by Professors Verghese and Oppenheim

Artist's depiction of the Cassini spacecraft, with Saturn in the foreground and a dark blue, starry background.Introduction to EECS II: Digital Communication Systems

An introduction to several fundamental ideas in electrical engineering and computer science, using digital communication systems as the vehicle. The three parts of the course—bits, signals, and packets—cover three corresponding layers of abstraction that form the basis of communication systems like the Internet.

The course teaches ideas that are useful in other parts of EECS: abstraction, probabilistic analysis, superposition, time and frequency-domain representations, system design principles and trade-offs, and centralized and distributed algorithms. The course emphasizes connections between theoretical concepts and practice using programming tasks and some experiments with real-world communication channels.

An audio compact disc.Discrete-Time Signal Processing

This class addresses the representation, analysis, and design of discrete time signals and systems. The major concepts covered include: Discrete-time processing of continuous-time signals; decimation, interpolation, and sampling rate conversion; flowgraph structures for DT systems; time-and frequency-domain design techniques for recursive (IIR) and non-recursive (FIR) filters; linear prediction; discrete Fourier transform, FFT algorithm; short-time Fourier analysis and filter banks; multirate techniques; Hilbert transforms; Cepstral analysis and various applications.

More about Communication, Control, and Signal Processing

6-003f11-th.jpgSignals and Systems

This course, a prerequisite for course 6.011, covers the fundamentals of signal and system analysis, focusing on representations of discrete-time and continuous-time signals (singularity functions, complex exponentials and geometrics, Fourier representations, Laplace and Z transforms, sampling) and representations of linear, time-invariant systems (difference and differential equations, block diagrams, system functions, poles and zeros, convolution, impulse and step responses, frequency responses). Applications are drawn broadly from engineering and physics, including feedback and control, communications, and signal processing.

2-14s14-thAnalysis and Design of Feedback Control Systems

This course develops the fundamentals of feedback control using linear transfer function system models. Topics covered include analysis in time and frequency domains; design in the s-plane (root locus) and in the frequency domain (loop shaping); describing functions for stability of certain non-linear systems; extension to state variable systems and multivariable control with observers; discrete and digital hybrid systems and use of z-plane design. Students will complete an extended design case study.

2-161f08-thSignal Processing: Continuous and Discrete

This course provides a solid theoretical foundation for the analysis and processing of experimental data, and real-time experimental control methods. Topics covered include spectral analysis, filter design, system identification, and simulation in continuous and discrete-time domains. The emphasis is on practical problems with laboratory exercises.

More on Assessment and Grading

6-01scs11-thIntroduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

Professor Dennis Freeman reflects on the advantages and limitations of using oral exams to assess student learning, and considers how online exams might help instructors offer scalable assessments that are personalized and productive.

6-034f10-thArtificial Intelligence

Teaching assistants Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes describe the unusual grading system for this course, in which the final exam is optional, with each of its sections serving as a make-up exam for one of the course’s regular quizzes.

18-821s13-thProject Laboratory in Mathematics

Project Laboratory in Mathematics is designed to give students a sense of what it’s like to do mathematical research. In the Grading section of this course, Professor Haynes Miller and Susan Ruff describe their approach to grading and their experiences in developing (and revising!) grading rubrics.

Find insights like these on many other teaching approaches at our Educator Portal.

Featured Collection: Environment Courses

Photo of several people on a hilltop looking over a city, with the ocean in the distance.Like so many of the big challenges taken on at MIT, environmental issues demand an interdisciplinary perspective.

From declining fisheries to acute urban pollution to record-breaking global temperatures, the evidence of human impact on the environment continues to mount. And at the same time, the environment shapes us, as human society and institutions are built upon our connection to the weather, land, water, and other species. What can we learn from ecological systems and cycles? What are the right solutions to our urgent environmental challenges?

MIT scholars, students and alumni are working to understand and help us make progress toward a more sustainable and just world. This core mission draws upon all of the fields represented at MIT: not just science, engineering, and technology, but also the humanities, arts, economics, history, architecture, urban planning, management, policy, and more. Use OCW materials from across these fields to expand your horizons and learn more about our evolving relationship with the environment.

OCW’s Environment Courses list is inspired by two interdisciplinary MIT programs. Many of the list’s undergraduate courses fall within the undergraduate Environment and Sustainability Minor devised by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), and the OCW course list employs the undergraduate minor’s four topic pillars. Many of the list’s graduate-level courses are part of the MIT Sloan School of Management Sustainability Certificate curriculum.

Begin your exploration with these highlights from OCW’s collection of over 160 Environment courses.

Earth Systems and Climate Science

12.009J Theoretical Environmental Analysis
This course analyzes cooperative processes that shape the natural environment, now and in the geologic past. It emphasizes the development of theoretical models that relate the physical and biological worlds, the comparison of theory to observational data, and associated mathematical methods.

12.340 Global Warming Science
This course provides students with a scientific foundation of anthropogenic climate change and an introduction to climate models. It focuses on fundamental physical processes that shape climate (e.g. solar variability, orbital mechanics, greenhouse gases, atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and volcanic and soil aerosols) and on evidence for past and present climate change. The course considers material consequences of climate change, including sea level change, variations in precipitation, vegetation, storminess, and the incidence of disease, and also examines the science behind mitigation and adaptation proposals.

Engineering for Sustainability

EC.716 D-Lab: Waste
This introductory course takes a multidisciplinary approach to managing waste in low- and middle-income countries, with strategies that diminish greenhouse gas emissions and provide enterprise opportunities for marginalized populations. Topics are presented in real contexts through case studies, field visits, civic engagement and research, and include consumer culture, waste streams, waste management, entrepreneurship and innovation on waste, technology evaluation, downcycling / upcycling, Life Cycle Analysis and waste assessment.

2.627 Fundamentals of Photovoltaics
Fundamentals of photoelectric conversion: charge excitation, conduction, separation, and collection. Lectures cover commercial and emerging photovoltaic technologies and cross-cutting themes, including conversion efficiencies, loss mechanisms, characterization, manufacturing, systems, reliability, life-cycle analysis, risk analysis, and technology evolution in the context of markets, policies, society, and environment.

Environmental Governance

11.601 Introduction to Environmental Policy and Planning
This course focuses on national environmental and energy policy-making; environmental ethics; the techniques of environmental analysis; and strategies for collaborative environmental decision-making. The primary objective is to help students formulate a personal theory of environmental planning practice. The course is taught comparatively, with constant references to examples from around the world. It is required of all graduate students pursuing an environmental policy and planning specialization in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

STS.032 Energy, Environment, and Society: Global Politics, Technologies, and Ecologies of the Water-Energy-Food Crises
With increasing public awareness of the multiple effects of global environmental change, the terms water, energy, and food crisis have become widely used in scientific and political debates on sustainable development and environmental policy. Although each of these crises has distinct drivers and consequences, providing sustainable supplies of water, energy, and food are deeply interrelated challenges and require a profound understanding of the political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that have historically shaped these interrelations at a local and global scale.

Environmental Histories and Cultures

CMS.631 Data Storytelling Studio: Climate Change
This course explores visualization methodologies to conceive and represent systems and data, e.g., financial, media, economic, political, etc., with a particular focus on climate change data in this version of the course. Topics include basic methods for research, cleaning, and analysis of datasets, and creative methods of data presentation and storytelling. The course considers the emotional, aesthetic, ethical, and practical effects of different presentation methods as well as how to develop metrics for assessing impact.

21W.775 Writing about Nature and Environmental Issues
In this course, students read and write about works that explore symbolic encounters in the American landscape. Some of the assigned works look at uneasy encounters between ordinary individuals and animals—wolves, eagles, sandhill cranes—that Americans have invested with symbolic significance; others explore conflicts between the pragmatic American impulse to impose order on unruly nature and the equally American inclination to enshrine the unaltered landscape.

OCW’s Greatest Hits: Architecture and Urban Studies and Planning

It’s time for a new post in our Greatest Hits series, highlighting individual MIT departments through a handpicked selection from their most-visited OCW courses. This month we feature the departments of Architecture and Urban Studies and Planning.

Photo of interlocking wooden forms.

This model from a student’s final project in 4.111 Introduction to Architecture & Environmental Design demonstrates the relationship between object and void. (Courtesy of Johanna Greenspan-Johnston. Used with permission.)

Architecture

  • 4.111 Introduction to Architecture & Environmental Design, taught by Lorena Bello Gomez
    This course provides a foundation to the design of the environment from the scale of the object, to the building to the larger territory. The design disciplines of architecture as well as urbanism and landscape are examined in context of the larger influence of the arts and sciences.
  • 4.125 Architecture Studio: Building in Landscapes, taught by Professor Jan Wampler
    This undergraduate design studio “introduces skills needed to build within a landscape establishing continuities between the built and natural world. Students learn to build appropriately through analysis of landscape and climate for a chosen site, and to conceptualize design decisions through drawings and models.”
  • 4.241J Theory of City Form, taught by Professor Julian Beinart
    This course covers theories about the form that settlements should take and attempts a distinction between descriptive and normative theory by examining examples of various theories of city form over time. Case studies will highlight the origins of the modern city and theories about its emerging form, including the transformation of the nineteenth-century city and its organization.
  • 4.341 Introduction to Photography and Related Media, taught by Andrea Frank et al
    This course provides practical instruction in the fundamentals of analog and digital SLR and medium/large format camera operation, film exposure and development, black and white darkroom techniques, digital imaging, and studio lighting.”
  • 4.401 Introduction to Building Technology, taught by Professor Marilyne Andersen
    This course provides a fundamental understanding of the physics related to buildings and an overview of the various issues that have to be adequately combined to offer the occupants a physical, functional and psychological well-being. Students are guided through the different components, constraints and systems of a work of architecture. These are examined both independently and in the manner in which they interact and affect one another.

Photo of feet along a brick-paved path.

The Post Office Square in Boston served as the site of a student’s project in 11.309J Sensing Place: Photography as Inquiry. (Image courtesy of Francisca Rojas. Used with permission.)

Urban Studies and Planning

  • 11.001J Introduction to Urban Design and Development, taught by Professor Susan Silberberg
    This course examines the evolving structure of cities and the way that cities, suburbs, and metropolitan areas can be designed and developed. Boston and other American cities are studied to see how physical, social, political and economic forces interact to shape and reshape cities over time.
  • 11.011 The Art and Science of Negotiation, taught by David Laws
    This course provides an introduction to bargaining and negotiation in public, business, and legal settings. It combines a “hands-on” skill-building orientation with a look at pertinent social theory. Strategy, communications, ethics, and institutional influences are examined as they influence the ability of actors to analyze problems, negotiate agreements, and resolve disputes in social, organizational, and political circumstances characterized by interdependent interests.
  • 11.126J Economics of Education, taught by Professor Frank Levy
    This class discusses the economic aspects of current issues in education, using both economic theory and econometric and institutional readings. Topics include discussion of basic human capital theory, the growing impact of education on earnings and earnings inequality, statistical issues in determining the true rate of return to education, the labor market for teachers, implications of the impact of computers on the demand for worker skills, the effectiveness of mid-career training for adult workers, the roles of school choice, charter schools, state standards and educational technology in improving K-12 education, and the issue of college financial aid.
  • 11.309J Sensing Place: Photography as Inquiry, taught by Professor Anne Whiston Spirn
    This course explores photography as a disciplined way of seeing or investigating urban landscapes, and expressing ideas. Readings, observations, and photographs form the basis of discussions on light, detail, place, poetics, narrative, and how photography can inform design and planning.
  • 11.431J Real Estate Finance and Investment, taught by Professors David Geltner and Tod McGrath
    This course is an introduction to the most fundamental concepts, principles, analytical methods and tools useful for making investment and finance decisions regarding commercial real estate assets. As the first of a two-course sequence, this course will focus on the basic building blocks and the “micro” level, which pertains to individual properties and deals.

5 tips for getting to know your students

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Several stacked pizza boxes

Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in her large lecture class.

Students learn better when you see them as individuals and care about their success. But it can be challenging to get to know your students when you teach large lecture classes, or interact with a new group of students (or several!) every 15 weeks.  MIT faculty members face these challenges, too. We’ve mined their Instructor Insights to bring you 5 creative ways to get to know your students this semester.

  1. Start Your Lecture Sitting Down

Four yellow dots and the word Life on blue backgroundWith 300-400 students taking Introductory Biology each year, Professor Hazel Sive has ample experience getting to know students in the context of large classes. One of her strategies is to make use of the time before class starts to connect with students. In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “before class, I sometimes walk around the room and meet groups of students. Sometimes I start the lecture sitting down with a group of students and have them introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of the lecture, so that we have a bit of personal interaction going on.”

Still, she admits it can be difficult to get to know every student. “I worry,” she notes, “that if I know the names of some students, and I speak to them by name in class, other students might feel a bit excluded. I don’t like there to be a feeling of, ‘Oh, she didn’t even bother with me.’ … So I always try to make sure that when we’re speaking about our class, we talk about ourselves as a group and that the group is our measure of who we are. I want students to feel that there’s a greater whole, that we’re a community.”

  1. Ask Students to Place Themselves on the Talkativeness Spectrum

Several women breastfeeding babiesGender, Power, Leadership, and the Workplace is an undergraduate discussion-based course that equips students with an analytic framework to understand the roles that gender, race, and class play in defining and determining access to leadership and power in the U.S., especially in the context of the workplace. To get a feel for how to facilitate dialogue with the group of students who took the course in Spring 2014, the instructor, Dr. Mindy Fried, asked students “how they viewed themselves along a spectrum . . . of ‘talkativeness’ . . . (e.g., very talkative to very quiet).” In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “I also asked them what helped them to be more talkative in class. This information provided me with a baseline of understanding about how they viewed themselves.”

Fried goes on to say that, “I didn’t adjust my expectations based on this information. Instead, I provided opportunities for everyone to speak and be heard. I employed various methods to create a ‘safe’ environment where people of all backgrounds and with all opinions could articulate their thoughts and beliefs.”

  1. Launch a Survey

Close up of a model of a campus buildingTo get to know their students, Professor Eric Demaine and his co-instructor gave students a survey during the first lecture of Algorithmic Lower Bounds: Fun with Hardness Proofs. The survey helped them understand the prior knowledge students brought to the course, along with students’ specific interests that could shape the curriculum, which was still being actively developed. “There were a few topics that stood out as particularly interesting to the students,” comments Demaine in his Instructor Insights video. “And then one thing I was curious about was the use of fun examples. I was worried that students would not take the material seriously if I only used fun examples. But the feedback I got was that a lot of people wanted to see games and puzzles . . . So I took that as permission to use a lot more fun examples . . . I used the survey to really get to know the students. And to see where they were coming from, and to help aim the class in a direction that would help them get the most out of it.”

  1. Create Student Profiles

A landfill with birds circling above it.D-Lab: Waste is an introductory course that provides students with a multidisciplinary approach to managing waste in low- and middle-income countries, with strategies that diminish greenhouse gas emissions and provide enterprise opportunities for marginalized populations. With 10 students in the course, co-instructors Kate Mytty and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar used one-on-one check-ins to get to know students: “During our first check-in session,” notes Mytty in her Instructor Insights, “we asked students questions, such as, What brought you to this class? Why are you interested in waste? What do you hope to get out of this class? How can we help you get the most out of your learning experience? and What kind of resources can we send you throughout the semester that will help you explore waste through your own interests? As the semester progressed, our check-in sessions also involved conversations about students’ individualized final projects.”

“This approach for getting to know students,” she continues, “grew out of my experience serving as a teaching assistant with a colleague who was a very engaging educator. We had 25 students in our class and he created a profile for each student. The profile included information about the student’s major, interest in the course, career path, and the kinds of resources the student would find helpful. Every few weeks we sent students new resources based on their profiles. We also documented the resources we sent them. This system allowed us to develop personalized relationships with students and to provide them with an experience that extended beyond the explicit learning goals of the course”

Mytty says, “I found that intentionally creating similar opportunities to get to know students in  D-Lab: Waste was valuable for Pedro and I because it allowed us to learn from students’ expertise. Doing so also helped students understand that we, as the instructors, were deeply invested in their education, which is something I think is often missing from students’ post-secondary learning experiences.”

  1. Use Pizza (but you already knew that)

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsPiazza digital forums are great, but don’t neglect the in-person analogy joys of pizza. Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in Principles of Chemical Science, her large lecture course. “The idea,” she notes in her Instructor Insights video, “was that in a big class of 300 students, most of the students are not going to have an opportunity to really meet the professors. They may go to office hours, but even then, you can’t schedule office hours at a time when all 300 people in the class are available . . . But with the pizza forums, which are every few weeks during the semester, students get to know the faculty and vice versa.” She goes on the explain that the pizza forums help the staff to learn about how students are experiencing the course, and how they are experiencing MIT, in general. Drennan says, “I love to ask them, ‘What is one thing about MIT that is exactly what you expected and what’s one thing that really surprised you when you got here?’ . . . It’s always a lot of fun to get to know them.”

***

Have another great strategy for getting to know students? Share with your colleagues by posting an idea in the comments. And, thanks!

Spotlighting important (mini)figures in STEM: An interview with Maia Weinstock

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Lego minifigure of scientist.

LEGO® figurine of Shirley Ann Jackson by Maia Weinstock. (Image courtesy of pixbymaia on flickr. License: BY-NC-SA.)

Women scientists and engineers have long played significant roles in shaping STEM disciplines and advancing technological innovation, yet many go unrecognized. (Case in point: How many women scientists can you name right now?) Maia Weinstock is committed to changing this. In the fall of 2017, she taught WGS.S10 History of Women in Science and Engineering, a course for MIT undergraduates that spotlighted the contributions of women in STEM and created space for uncovering how biases in academia and popular culture impact scientific achievements.

The course also had this: LEGO® minifigures depicting women scientists, created and photographed by Weinstock herself. (We know. History + LEGO Minifigures + Science = Where Can I Sign Up? Thanks, MIT, for being awesome and for sharing it all on MIT OpenCourseWare, for free.)

We interviewed Weinstock to learn about what inspired her to teach this course, how she helped students edit “the most popular encyclopedia in the world” to better include the achievements of women scientists, and of course, how she’s rocking the world of LEGO® minifigures with her depictions of scientists like chemical engineer Paula Hammond, and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. (Breaking news: Weinstein’s Women of NASA Lego® Prototype has just been added to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!). You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator wanting to spotlight the role of women in STEM, a LEGO®s fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.

OCW: The history of women in science and engineering is an important (and often neglected) topic. What inspired you to teach the course?

Maia Weinstock: I’ve been interested in the topic for many years, and have worked on numerous writings and projects relating to the history of women in the STEM fields. The most well-known of these is a series of LEGO® minifigures I’ve been crafting and photographing featuring scientists and engineers. Four of these became part of a real set sold in stores in the late fall of 2017 (LEGO® Women of NASA). I wanted to teach the course as a way to impart the considerable knowledge I’ve amassed about this area over the years, and to give students a sense of MIT’s own history in relation to the women who have come through and made their mark.

Two women standing in an office. One woman is holding a LEGO minifigure.

Maia Weinstock (left) with Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa and her LEGO minifigure. (Image by Maia pixbymaia on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.).

OCW: You asked students to edit or add an article to Wikipedia about women in STEM. Tell us about your decision to develop this assignment.

Maia Weinstock: I have been a longtime contributor to Wikipedia, with the goal of improving the representation of women both on the pages of Wikipedia as well as behind the scenes as editors. We know through various surveys that 85 to 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, which means that only 10-15 percent of editors are women. Over the past 5 years I’ve organized quite a few edit-a-thons aimed at countering bias in terms of women’s representation, so I wanted to bring that kind of experience to the classroom. Our 3-hour class served as an abbreviated edit-a-thon: I prepared a class page on Wikipedia and facilitated both the selection of subjects that might work and the hands-on editing. In the end, each student did create a new article, so this gives participants a way to feel that they’re contributing directly to improving the most popular encyclopedia in the world—while giving recognition to an underappreciated woman in engineering or science.

OCW: As you noted above, you’ve done a lot of creative work with LEGO minifigures. Tell us more about this work and the role of LEGO®s in the course.

Maia Weinstock: I started creating LEGO®s in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010, when I made one as a gift to my friend Carolyn Porco, who is a planetary scientist. I had been inspired by a minifigure of Ada Lovelace that I’d come across, but I wanted mine to depict current-day personalities because so few people can actually name a living scientist or engineer, much less a female one. Since then I’ve made over 100 of these figures of real individuals, taken photos and posted them to social media, and people have gotten a kick out of it. In 2012 I learned about the LEGO® Friends line, which was a major push to provide a product aimed squarely at girls. Unfortunately, the line was problematic in a number of ways, so I started learning more about the history of female minifigures and writing about the lack of female characters in LEGO®’s offerings, especially women in STEM professions. It seems like a fairly commonplace discussion in the media these days, but back in 2013 no one was talking about this. I actually broke the story of the first female lab scientist that LEGO came out with as part of their minifigures line, and I followed up with popular articles on diversity in the LEGO universe.

“I started creating LEGO®s in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010 . . . I had been inspired by a minifigure of Ada Lovelace that I’d come across, but I wanted mine to depict current-day personalities because so few people can actually name a living scientist or engineer, much less a female one.” — MAIA WEINSTOCK

Around that same time, I learned about a crowdsourcing contest called LEGO® Ideas (originally known as Cuusoo) whereby people can suggest ideas for LEGO to consider making. I was an early champion of the Female Minifigures set that surfaced on that site, which was later rebranded the Research Institute; LEGO® chose to feature three scientists instead of women in very different professions. Anyway, I wanted to try suggesting ideas focused on actual women, since I’d been doing that for a few years already on my own at that point. My first go, a depiction of the four women who have been U.S. Supreme Court justices, unfortunately didn’t make it into the contest at all because it went against house rules about politics—but it went viral anyway when I shared photos on social media. A second try featuring women in bioengineering didn’t get much traction. But my third try, a set featuring five women in NASA history, was extremely successful, getting all 10,000 votes needed to be considered for the grand prize in just two weeks. A modified version of the set was released to the public last year and ended up shooting up to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-selling toy list on the first day it was available, and selling out its first printing very quickly. So that was fun.

LEGO minifigure depicting Dr. Paula T. Hammond.

MIT Chemical Engineering professor, Dr. Paula T. Hammond, depicted as a Lego® figurine. Dr. Hammond’s work concerns the use of electrostatics to generate functional materials with highly controlled architecture. (Image by pixbymaya on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)

In terms of LEGO®s in the course, I sprinkled my own LEGO® photos in with historic images of women who we were reading about and watching films about and listening to podcasts about. I found it was a great way to have fun with the subject, and students enjoyed figuring out which people the minifigs represented based on the physical characteristics of the LEGO® pieces I selected. Interestingly, one of my students for her final project did something similar except with Japanese-style crochet dolls: She crafted dolls of and then made photo essays featuring several STEM women in MIT history, including Shirley Ann Jackson, Millie Dresselhaus, and Sheila Widnall. It was awesome! Finally, I kept my class in the loop as we approached launch day for my Women of NASA LEGO® project, and most of the students attended a launch party I held at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in nearby Somerville, which featured special guests Margaret Hamilton and Nancy Grace Roman, who are depicted in the set, and Bear Ride, the sister of Sally Ride, who is also in the set (but who passed away in 2012).

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You can read the complete interview with Maia Weinstock on the Instructor Insights page of her OCW course.

Keep learning! The following courses may be of interest to you:

More on Women in Science, Technology, and Academia 

Astronauts Dr. N. Jan Davis and Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman in space, work as mission specialists on board the STS-47 mission in 1992.Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A Problem-Based Learning Experiment

This course explores an ever-growing body of work to which feminist, anti-racist, and other critical analysts and activists have made significant contributions. It challenges the barriers of expertise, gender, race, class, and place that restrict wider access to and understanding of the production of scientific knowledge and technologies.

National Youth Administration trainees at the Corpus Christi, TX Naval Air Base, Evelyn and Lillian Buxkeurple are shown working on a practice bomb shell, 1942. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)Technology and Gender in American History

This course centers on the changing relationships between men, women, and technology in American history. Topics include theories of gender, technologies of production and consumption, and the gendering of public and private space, men’s and women’s roles in science and technology, the effects of industrialization on sexual divisions of labor, and gender and identity at home and at work

Cartoon depiction of a female student sitting between two male studentsGender Issues in Academics and Academia

Does it matter in education whether or not you’ve got a Y chromosome? In this discussion-based seminar, students explore why males outrank females in math and science and career advancement (particularly in academia), and why girls get better grades and go to college more often than boys. This course explores if the sexes have different learn ing styles and if women are denied advanced opportunities in academia and the workforce.

More on LEGO®s

Lego robotLEGO® Robotics

LEGO® robotics uses LEGO®s as a fun tool to explore robotics, mechanical systems, electronics, and programming. This semester is primarily a lab experience which provides students with resources to design, build, and program functional robots constructed from LEGO®s and a few other parts such as motors and sensors.

Small mobile robotIntroduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

This course provides an integrated introduction to electrical engineering and computer science, taught using substantial laboratory experiments with mobile robots built with LEGO® components. The primary goal is for students to learn to appreciate and use the fundamental design principles of modularity and abstraction in a variety of contexts from electrical engineering and computer science.

Students holding up green cards in active learning exerciseIntroduction to Lean Six Sigma Methods

This course covers the fundamental principles, practices and tools of Lean Six Sigma methods that underlay modern organizational productivity approaches applied in aerospace, automotive, health care, and other sectors. It includes lectures, active learning exercises, a plant tour, talks by industry practitioners, and videos. One third of the course is devoted to a physical simulation of an aircraft manufacturing enterprise using LEGO®s [PDF] or a clinic to illustrate the power of Lean Six Sigma methods.

Icon featuring dice and a graphSTEM Concept Videos

The STEM Concept Videos are designed to help students learn a pivotal concept in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM). These ideas are the building blocks of many engineering curricula, and learning them will help students master more difficult material. Two chemistry concept videos (Buffers and Kinetics & Equilibrium) use LEGO®s to help students visualize key ideas.

Like what you’re learning? Find more open educational resources and teaching insights at our Educator Portal.

Investigating Earth’s Earliest Life (MIT News)

Photo of a woman in lab holding up and looking into a small specimen jar.

MIT graduate student Kelsey Moore uses genetic and fossil evidence to study the first stages of evolution on our planet. (Photo: Ian MacLellan)

A brilliant hands-on activity by her second grade teacher got Kelsey Moore, now an MIT graduate student, wondering about the earliest life on Earth.  Students and teachers alike can find inspiration in her story on MIT News — and of course, OCW’s got relevant courses too.

In the second grade, Kelsey Moore became acquainted with geologic time. Her teachers instructed the class to unroll a giant strip of felt down a long hallway in the school. Most of the felt was solid black, but at the very end, the students caught a glimpse of red.

That tiny red strip represented the time on Earth in which humans have lived, the teachers said. The lesson sparked Moore’s curiosity. What happened on Earth before there were humans? How could she find out?

A little over a decade later, Moore enrolled in her first geoscience class at Smith College and discovered she now had the tools to begin to answer those very questions.

Moore zeroed in on geobiology, the study of how the physical Earth and biosphere interact. During the first semester of her sophomore year of college, she took a class that she says “totally blew my mind.”

“I knew I wanted to learn about Earth history. But then I took this invertebrate paleontology class and realized how much we can learn about life and how life has evolved,” Moore says. A few lectures into the semester, she mustered the courage to ask her professor, Sara Pruss in Smith’s Department of Geosciences, for a research position in the lab.

Now a fourth-year graduate student at MIT, Moore works in the geobiology lab of Associate Professor Tanja Bosak in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences…

Keep reading >

Start your own exploration of life’s origins on Earth, with the free lecture notes and more in OCW’s 12.007 Geobiology, co-taught by Professors Tanja Bosak and Roger Summons.

Venturing outside the norm to engage learners

Lecture slide with two composite images. The first image is of Alloy FE-12Cr-2Si, with grains and grain boundaries demarcated. The second image is of the cut surface of cheddar cheese.

Lecture slide from Nuclear Science Professor Michael Short’s cheese-tasting class.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Why did you become a teacher? For most people, the opportunity to catalyze students’ curiosity about the world into understanding was a major factor in deciding to pursue education as a profession. When you entered the classroom for your first year of teaching, you probably discovered quickly that before students could learn anything, they first had to focus their attention on what you were teaching. This was easier said than done! Cultivating and sustaining students’ attention to the myriad nuances of the curricular content and experiences you were developing most likely consumed most of your energy that first year in the classroom. I, for one, remember remaining at school—long after cars had cleared the parking lot—to construct a life-sized tree out of paper and masking tape. It was a novice educator’s attempt to pull students into a series of complex literacy experiences. It worked, but boy, was it exhausting.

The challenge of helping students attend to what you are teaching is as important today as it was on your first day in the classroom. Probably more so, given just how “plugged in” students are to what’s going on outside of the classroom while they are inside of the classroom. “Today’s instructors,” observes Lincoln Laboratory Fellow Dr. Jeremy Kepner, “compete with laptops, cell phones, and social media for students’ attention. Lectures have to be engaging.”

But as you learned early on, the desire to engage students in the learning process is not enough. You need strategies. MIT faculty members and instructors understand this, too. Through the Instructor Insights sections of their OCW course publications, many have shared specific (and often outside of the norm) approaches they have used for engaging learners in their residential courses. I’ve included a sampling of highlights below. You won’t find “Constructing Paper Trees” on the list (yet!), but you will find concrete strategies for using analogies, non-traditional examples, humor, and music for helping students engage with curricular content. As you gear up for the academic year, I hope you find a strategy that inspires you!

Analogies

Nuclear Systems Design Project

Thumbnail image of logo designed for class project.This capstone course is a group design project involving integration of nuclear physics, particle transport, control, heat transfer, safety, instrumentation, materials, environmental impact, and economic optimization. Professor Michael Short includes a class session in which various cheeses demonstrate the properties of metals under the high temperature and stress of a reactor. “To teach them about the granular structures of metals,” describes Short in his Instructor Insights on making content tangible, “we talked a little about cheddar cheese, because if you break real cheddar cheese apart, it actually fractures on the curd, so curds in cheese are like grains in metal, and there are grain boundaries or curd boundaries. That helped the students understand key ideas. What are grains? How can they fail? Do they always break through the grains, or do they break around the grains?” Yum. What student wouldn’t want to attend to the properties of metals when they come served on a cheese platter? I’m guessing if you add crackers to that “unconventional pairing,” you’ll have everyone’s attention.

Non-Traditional Examples

Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

A woman doing agricultural work.This course explores the issue of human trafficking for forced labor and sexual slavery, focusing on its representation in recent scholarly accounts and advocacy as well as in other media. In her Instructor Insights, Mitali Thakor notes that she uses non-traditional examples to broaden students’ understanding of human trafficking, including exploitation in the food processing, modeling, and sports industries. “When we say the word trafficking,” notes Thakor, “a lot of different images come to mind, but usually beef production and migrant workers are not among them.” Using examples that challenge students’ conceptions of how the world works can help engage them in exploring phenomena they previously thought they understood.

Humor

Principles of Chemical Science

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsThis course provides an introduction to the chemistry of biological, inorganic, and organic molecules. Professor Catherine Drennan purposefully uses humor to engage students in lectures. “MIT is a relatively serious place,” she says in her Instructor Insights video on this topic. “But the MIT students are really fun people. They’re willing to make fun of themselves and be a little geeky.” She incorporates elements such as videos about dogs teaching chemistry, references to comics, funny chemistry t-shirts—and even acts out buffering, all in the service of capturing students’ attention. According to Drennan, “it really helps people remember when you do something a little bit different.” Agreed.

Music

Artificial Intelligence

Artist's rendering of man going from agricultural work to computer work.This course introduces students to the basic knowledge, representation, problem solving, and learning methods of artificial intelligence. Professor Patrick Henry Winston uses music to fuel anticipation for learning experiences: “I like to play rock and roll music in the room as students are entering the lecture hall. I usually select something from the Rolling Stones, because it’s the kind of music that gives me an edge and energizes the audience. When the music stops, everybody knows the performance is about to begin.” In his Instructor Insights section on experiencing the large lecture as theater, he comments that he connects the music to curricular content. “For example,” he says, “we have a topic in artificial intelligence called constraint satisfaction problems. What else could you play, but the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” So true. Take a cue from this professor: To engage students, leverage your playlists!