Mind and Hand and Ears

Collage of a Pure Data patch, consisting of several labeled boxes connected by lines, overlaying a black-and-white photo of a steam locomotive with steam blowing up out of the whistle.

One of the sound design exercises in 21M.380 challenges students to synthesize a steam train drive-by, with each group working on a different sound related to that problem. (Steam train photo is in the public domain, from Flickr Commons.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

People love sound effects. They have for generations. Just think of the original King Kong’s roar, created for the 1933 film by weaving together lion and tiger roars and playing them backwards. What would the movie be without that signature sound?

Certain sound effects are so iconic they have legs, so to speak. Like that bird whose call tells you the setting is deep in the jungle, no matter the continent. Or the scream of the guy who meets his doom by being attacked or falling from a cliff. That same scream has been used again and again in over 50 years of movies.

And what about those sounds that must be fully imagined? Like those space ships careering across the galaxy? The sound of the engines is so compelling the audience is happy to forget that, in the vacuum of space, sound does not exist. How did that sound get made?

Actually, it was designed. Design is a key part of the MIT “mind and hand” education. The art and science of sound design is the subject of 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design, the latest in a series of courses on sound and technology that OCW has up on its site.

This most recent publication reflects the teaching of Dr. Florian Hollerweger, a sound artist and sound technology researcher in MIT’s Department of Music and Theater Arts.

Teaching with Technology (and Without)

The course site has lecture notes, readings, assignments, and samples of student projects through multiple iterations, so you can see how the projects evolved. MIT students and OCW learners alike benefit from the course’s use of a free open-source program called Pure Data. Dr. Hollerweger’s extensive notes include linked audio samples and working examples of Pure Data code, creating a dynamic learning experience.

Dr. Hollerweger explains the central practice of the course in the Instructor Insights on his This Course at MIT page:

 . . . we take real-world sounds and try to understand how they work. We then recreate them from scratch without using any recordings. Instead we rely on oscillators, noise generators, and filters, which we control through computer programs that students learn to write as part of the course . . . The prospect of engaging with students in the process of aestheticizing everyday sound experiences was a major impetus for teaching the course.

Learning to Listen

Before creating sounds, students must first learn how to listen. Or, as Dr. Hollerweger puts it, “Your main tool for sound design is really your ears.”  The soundwalk assignment is where it all begins. The students

 . . . describe, in as minute detail as possible, their aural experience from a listening excursion that we conduct across the MIT campus together. This assignment teaches them to verbalize their sonic impressions and communicate them to others. It trains students’ ears to attend not only to individual sound sources, but also to flutter echoes, comb filters, and other subtle acoustics effects that are due to the abutting architecture.

In other Instructor Insights, Dr. Hollerweger explains how he uses surveys to get to know his students and to tap their various talents, how he gets them learning actively in groups (he employs only the shortest of lectures), how he teaches the iterative design process, and how he assesses and grades creative projects.

Offering Advice

A lot of the instruction takes place the old-fashioned way—meeting one on one during office hours:

A lot of the support I offer students during the design process occurs during office hours. This is because their projects are so individualized. Every student has to come up with their own idea. When a student gets stuck, we need to get together to identify the key challenges of their design through an open-ended discussion.


21M.380 is but the latest course in which instruction in the iterative design process is represented on OCW. Some other recent examples are CMS.611J Creating Video Games, 6.811 Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology, and 20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye: Writing and Hosting the Educational Show.

You can change the world!

Submit your idea to MIT Solve

Maybe it’s an idea that’s been rattling around your head or maybe you’re about to have an epiphany that can dramatically improve the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

Now is your chance to make your idea become a reality.

Solve, an initiative of MIT, has launched three new challenges on its open innovation platform and is seeking submissions which could be pitched at the United Nations on March 7th.

Aimed at developing and implementing solutions to major global issues, the current Solve challenges seek innovative solutions that address: 

  • Refugee Education: How can we improve learning outcomes for refugee and displaced young people under 24? Click here to view the challenge.
  • Carbon Contributions: How can individuals and corporations manage and reduce their carbon contributions? Click here to view the challenge.
  • Chronic Diseases: How can we help people prevent, detect and manage chronic diseases, especially in resources-limited settings? Click here to view the challenge.

Challenges are active and open for applications until January 20, 2017. Anyone with innovative ideas and a passion for finding affordable, far-reaching, and implementable solutions is encouraged to apply.

You can find out more information about MIT Solve at http://solve.mit.edu/

Participating Actively to Shape What Comes Next

Photo from 1909 showing two girls wearing banners that read "ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY" in english and yiddish.

Children at the 1909 May Day parade in New York City protesting child slavery. This course discusses the history of youth political activism and participation in the United States. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Students writing their own exam questions? Students submitting questions that will guide discussions in class? Students running discussions based on their own presentations?

What’s going on here? Has the world been turned on its head? Students actively shaping their own education?

Such are the techniques that Professor Jennifer Light uses to teach STS.080 Youth Political Participation, a course that has just been published on OCW. The course surveys young Americans’ participation in political activism over the past 200 years and assesses the impact of young people’s media production and technology on politics.

Why Get Students So Involved?

Professor Light explains the thinking behind her innovative approach to instruction in the Instructor Insights on her This Course at MIT page.

Having students write exam questions, that’s something Professor Light has some experience with, having done this for 20 years. Why? “It encourages students to take a more active role in their own education, consider how course content is related to their own interests, and figure out exactly what they have learned in the class.”

The discussion questions she requires students to send not only ensure that the discussions will be of interest to them, but the questions allow Professor Light to see how well students understand the readings, which are extensive. Writing questions also allows students to let her know when they are confused, without opening themselves to embarrassment in front of the entire class.

The student-led presentations in the Spring 2016 course addressed topics assigned by Professor Light and ranged from young people’s participation in World War I to conservative youth movements to the relationships between cultural and political expression. The presentations “sparked many conversations in class about how to define what ‘counts’ as political participation,” which interestingly “reflects the newly developing consensus that we need to revise our scholarly understandings of the meanings of political participation, past and present.”

How Do Students See It?

And how do the students view all this participatory classwork that Professor Light demands of them? You can see one student’s reflections about her own learning experiences in STS.080 on the This Course at MIT page.

Professor Light’s approach seems to have worked beautifully. Regarding the exam questions, the student says, “Even modern history can seem detached from students’ lives when we are learning it, but in this way, Professor Light made what we had just learned applicable to something we cared about. Not only that, but it made it easier to remember and to appreciate the history as well!”

What else can you say but, “Right on!”?

Girls Who Build Cameras Have More Fun

Photo of several girls around a table working on some electronics.

Girls in the workshop working together to build their Raspberry Pi cameras. (Courtesy of Jon Barron, MIT Lincoln Laboratory.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Kristen Railey is on a mission. She wants to help more girls become engineers and appreciate the wonders of engineering. But rather than simply joining the chorus lamenting that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, Railey is actually doing something about it. She’s created Girls Who Build.

Girls Who Build is a workshop in which high-school girls learn about engineering through things they use every day and then apply that knowledge to create new things on their own—all in a single day. It’s an exciting and fun experience for female students who may have very little exposure to engineering and who may not know any real engineers.

The workshop offers the opportunity for girls to get introduced to a variety of fields quickly: materials science, mechanical engineering, computer programming, electrical engineering. Railey believes that a little familiarity with engineering concepts can foster both confidence and curiosity. The girls themselves see that working collaboratively on projects can lead to tangible accomplishments. And they get to know some successful and enthusiastic female engineers.

Open Sharing, Take 2

An MIT graduate who works on oceanic robots at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Railey is also a believer in open sharing. Last year she published Girls Who Build: Make Your Own Wearables Workshop, an OCW site that shows how girls make jewelry with a 3-D printer, laser-cut materials to assemble a purse, and program LEDs so they light up on shoes they wear.

Now OCW has published a second Railey workshop, Girls Who Build Cameras. The OCW site has a rich array of resources, notably video lectures on digital cameras, the applications of camera technology, and image processing by coding Instagram-like filters. The site also has lecture slides, an image gallery of workshop activities, instructions for those activities, and supporting files. There are also video presentations by women from the MIT Women’s Technology Program and the Society of Women Engineers.

Inspiring Role Models

The guest lecturers are young, mostly female engineers doing exciting work in their careers, such as medical imaging, satellite and space imaging, and sophisticated image processing.  They show that the same technology that we all have at our fingertips in our cell phone cameras has amazingly broad applications, from revealing the ins and outs of hazardous places to sharpening the murky photos of a shipwreck.

Railey also includes on the OCW site some handy resources for instructors who want to host their own workshops, such as a video of the opening minutes of Cameras and a promotional video explaining the Girls Who Build concept.

Railey has definitely found a successful way to introduce engineering and coding to high school girls, some of whom may never have considered these fields before. By using topics of interest like wearables and Instagram, Girls Who Build demonstrates how much fun learning and teaching coding, engineering, and science can be.

Making the Past Present with Hands-on Humanities

PHoto of several people around a wooden workbench.

Professor Jeffrey Ravel and students work on building a printing press. (Photo by Jonathan Sachs / Jonathan Sachs Graphics, Inc.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

MIT is famous for its hands-on engineering projects that students work on into the wee hours of the night. There are over 40 maker spaces at MIT, where students can design and build to their hearts’ content. During their undergraduate years, students assemble a huge variety of vehicles and devices, from aircraft to ovens, and they make models myriad and sundry.

And it’s not just in engineering classes where these creative energies play out.

Case in point: OCW has just published 21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today. Taught by Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel in Spring 2016, the course has three centers of activity: 1) a review of the history of books in Europe from about 1450, when printing was introduced, to the French Revolution, 2) an examination of books made during this period in MIT’s Libraries and the MIT Museum, and 3) the construction of “a functioning, durable printing press based on Early Modern European designs.”

Appreciating the Innovations of the Past

Photo of a wooden printing press in a workshop.

The completed printing press. (Photo by Jeffrey Ravel.)

That’s right. Students built a printing press from scratch, based on Early Modern European designs, under the guidance of Ken Stone, long-time director of the MIT Hobby Shop. Read the complete story of how they created the press from a single, huge wooden beam in the article Mens et Manus in the History Workshop, and this accompanying video:


For good measure, the students also made paper from pulped rags.

“One of the values of making something that seems prosaic, especially something that is now as common as paper, is learning that we moderns are not the only clever ones. People in the past were clever too, and they also knew some things we don’t,” observes Professor McCants.

The OCW site has lecture slides and an image gallery in addition to a list of readings and videos.

Insights about Teaching Hands-on Humanities

In their Instructor Insights on their This Course at MIT page, McCants and Ravel explain how they developed the course, used archival materials, assessed the students in their hands-on endeavors, and incorporated an online forum. There are also reflections from students on their experience discovering the past and making it present.

Anyone interested in exploring further the subject of the “print revolution” and its possible parallels to our own digital revolution would be well-served by visiting Professor Ravel’s 21H.418 From Print to Digital: Technologies of the Word, 1450 ̶ Present.

Math That Can Take You Higher

Two versions of a circular diagram, with a small round object in the center and a pattern of waves wrapping to the right. Upper image is a grid of lines with varying density; lower image renders this density pattern in smooth colors.

An adaptive grid (top) used to compute the supersonic flow around a cylinder (Mach number = 2). The methods taught in this class form the foundations for computational fluid dynamic analyses such as this. (Image courtesy of Prof. David Darmofal. Used with permission.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Airliners crisscrossing the globe, rockets hurtling into space, satellites orbiting distant planets—it’s where the fantastic meets the familiar—it’s aerospace! It’s where dreams of soaring above the clouds come true. And those dreams are made real by—mathematical models!

The methods underpinning those models are the focus of 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering, a course just published on OCW.

The OCW site showcases the materials for this course as it was taught in Spring 2014 by Professors Karen Willcox and Qiqi Wang. To improve student learning, the instructors used the Residential MITx platform to flip their classroom, requiring students to work through the assigned readings and problem sets before coming to class, so that class time could be devoted to problem-solving, small group exercises, and project work.

Learning Units, Measurable Outcomes, and Content Types

The course site is arranged in three main learning units, each with readings and simple, interactive assessments that allow students to test their understanding. The reading materials and assessments in each unit are linked to measurable outcomes, the skills that students are expected to demonstrate to pass the course. Thus, students can easily identify exactly what they are supposed to get out of a given session in the course, and they can immediately find the resources necessary to master that very topic.

The site also features many lecture videos, lecture notes, and homework assignments—these resources are assembled together by content type (rather than linearly) for user convenience. As the course was running, the lecture videos were broadcast live over WebEx so as to allow students to engage in remote activities, such as presenting at conferences, without falling behind.

Three programming projects were required in Spring 2014, and descriptions of these projects, along with sample student projects, are also included on the site.

What Happens When You Flip

Professor Willcox discusses the challenges of teaching a flipped classroom in her Instructor Insights on her This Course at MIT page, and the challenges were considerable. Creating the online materials, such as the class notes and the assessments, took a lot of thought and effort.  When you’re used to standing at the front of a lecture hall and taking the students where you want to go, it can be unsettling to find yourself winging it. It takes some getting used to:

“I was used to going into a classroom and delivering a great blackboard lecture on a particular topic. I learned it can be overwhelming to walk into a classroom and not know how exactly how the session will go because it will depend on how well students grasped the material they read on their own. This took some getting used to. It’s harder to plan for these types of sessions. You have to be willing to be flexible, and you need to be prepared to facilitate the session in several different ways depending on students’ learning needs.”

Professor Willcox also discusses what led her to create the measurable outcomes, why she prefers giving oral exams, how the programming projects get students to apply their skills to real problems, and the advantages of co-teaching the course.

Connections that Give Students More Control

A long-standing champion of OCW, Professor Willcox is one of MIT’s leading educational innovators. She is a main force behind MIT Crosslinks, a project that links topics in the MIT curriculum to online educational resources (including but not limited to OCW). Among her other educational initiatives is the MIT Undergraduate Curriculum Map, which shows the relations between subjects in the MIT undergraduate curriculum as well as which of these subjects have been published on OCW.

And (as if all this weren’t all) Professor Willcox is piloting Fly-by-Wire, a blended learning technology to help at-risk students in secondary schools stick with their studies and apply themselves, so they can graduate and take off.

Eight new OCW courses in October

Photo of a rock, crumpled up paper, and scissors.

The well-known hand game Rock, Paper, Scissors is an example of what game theorists call a strategic interaction, as discussed in the new OCW course 14.16 Strategy and Information. (Image courtesy of Jesse Kruger on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

OCW is pleased to highlight these courses published during the month of October. Five courses are brand-new subjects on OCW, and three courses are updates of older versions.

New Courses

Updated Courses