Back-to-School Teaching Inspiration

Close-up photo of approximately 200 sharpened pink pencil tips.

Courtesy of Duncan.c on Flickr. License CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

It’s that time of year again—students are sharpening their pencils, charging their tablets, and gearing up to return to the classroom. Teachers, also, are getting ready, revamping curricula, creating engaging classroom environments, and brushing up on the latest instructional approaches. It’s an energizing time!

MIT faculty and instructors are excited, too. Through the OCW Educator initiative, you can discover how they’re approaching some of the hottest topics in education.

Here’s a few handpicked highlights. We hope their energy inspires you!

Active Learning

8.591J Systems Biology

Professor Jeff Gore discusses perceived barriers to active learning, particularly in large lecture classrooms, and shares how he has successfully implemented active learning strategies in this biophysics course.


20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye

Instructor Elizabeth Choe and her co-educators share their insights about grading and providing productive feedback in a course focused on students’ creative work.

Critical Thinking

21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspectives

Professor Anne McCants shares how she frames lectures in this history course as problem-solving endeavors and discusses specific strategies for helping students engage in critical thinking.

Engaging Learners

6.034 Artificial Intelligence

Professor Patrick Henry Winston shares strategies he uses to engage learners in a large lecture class.

Teaching Content in Real-World Contexts

CMS.611 Creating Video Games

Instructors Philip Tan, Rik Eberhardt, and Sara Verilli share their insights about engaging students in an academic-humanitarian partnership in this course focused on designing video games.

Teaching Communication

22.THT Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial

Professor Michael Short shares strategies for helping students develop their science communication skills.

Teaching the Design Process

6.811 Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology

Instructors William Li and Grace Teo share their insights about teaching students how to engage in the assistive technology design process, and in three videos, student teams also share their perspectives about what it was like to participate in this unique user-centered learning experience.

Teaching Problem Solving

Supplemental Resource: Vibrations and Waves Problem Solving

Professor Emeritus Wit Busza shares his approach to problem solving, strategies for supporting students as they engage in problem solving, and common sources of confusion for students as they engage in this process.

Teaching with Technology

18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics

Instructors Jeremy Orloff and Jonathan Bloom discuss how they used the Residential MITx platform to incorporate online reading questions and problem set checkers into this introductory probability and statistics course.

Understanding What’s Happened and Is Happening in The Middle East

In 2012, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the verdicts in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. (Image courtesy of Lorenz Khazaleh on Flickr. Available CC BY-NC-SA.)

In 2012, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the verdicts in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. (Image courtesy of Lorenz Khazaleh on Flickr. Available CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

The region known as the Middle East has been in upheaval for decades now, and trying to gain understanding and perspective on its complexities can be both difficult and daunting. The region includes many countries, with long histories, rich cultures, and varied interests.  There are many different points of view on what’s been happening there and why. How do you make sense of it all?

A great way to start is by reading. But what should you read? There are countless books and articles on the Middle East, not all of them accurate, and many of them tendentious. How can you know what you’re getting into?

There is no better place to start than a reading list curated by an MIT instructor who has spent years studying and assessing key publications. Each one of the many OCW courses on the Middle East has a reading list, sorted into different topics.

Here is a sampler of courses with reading lists that might pique your interest:


“. . . a historical introduction to the Middle East in the late Ottoman period and the eve of imperialism at the beginning of the Twentieth century after World War I . . . the establishment of nation-states in the Middle East . . . the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  . . .  the rise of political Islam and the Iranian Revolution . . . the debates regarding Islam and democracy, and Islam post 9/11 . . . the 2011 revolts in the Arab world . . . today’s realities in the Middle East.”


“The first half discusses the Ottoman Empire by exploring how this multiethnic, polyglot empire survived for several relatively peaceful centuries and what happened when its formula for existence was challenged by politics based on mono-ethnic states. The second half of the course focuses on post-Ottoman nation-states, such as Turkey and Egypt, and Western-mandated Arab states, such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. Finally, the course concludes with a case analysis of Israel.”


“ . . . The sixth section applies the course theories and methods to the Arab Spring and current conflict in Mali.”


“ . . . the dilemmas, misperceptions, crimes and blunders that caused wars of the past; the origins of these and other war-causes; the possible causes of wars of the future; and possible means to prevent such wars, including short-term policy steps and more utopian schemes.” Sessions 22 – 23 discuss the Israel-Arab conflict and the 2003 US-Iraq war.


“. . . ideational, institutional and material foundations of the state of Israel; Israeli national identity, Israeli society, economy, and foreign and security policies.”


“How do Islam and media technologies relate? What kinds of practices of inscription and transmission characterize Islam in all its varieties across time and place? How might Islamic thought and practice be understood in light of databases, networks, and audiovisual sensation?“


“[This course’s] aim is to examine why non-state actors (such as warlords, terrorists, militias, etc.) resort to violence, what means and tactics they use, and what can be done to counter that violence.”

A Student-Centered Ethic

Person writing on a chalkboard at the front of a classroom,

A teaching assistant in one of the ‘mega-recitation videos’ for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Like it or not, the first two years of an undergraduate’s education at a research university often consists of large lectures taught by professors, supplemented by discussion groups or problem-solving sessions (sometimes called “recitations”) run by teaching assistants (TAs).  Consequently, for many undergraduates, a TA is the first college instructor they get to know on a personal level.

So teaching assistants can have a huge impact on the experience of undergraduates, especially in the early going, where a student’s attitude about learning can take off—or stall out. Luckily, most TAs take their jobs seriously and put a lot of effort into helping their students.

Fostering Real Intelligence and Well-Being

OCW has for the first time provided a glimpse into the thinking that TAs put into their teaching by publishing the TAs’ Instructor Insights for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence. The TAs, Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes, explain how they adhere to a student-centered ethic initiatied by Professor Patrick Winston, where the primary objects is “to help students learn the material and to become inspired.” This ethic informs all the course policies and TA activities, from assignment due dates to grading.

For instance, since the point of assessment is to demonstrate mastery (and not to make fine distinctions in accrued points), the final exam is optional, and four of its five parts reflect knowledge already assessed in quizzes given earlier in the semester. So if a student does poorly on a quiz, there’s a chance for redemption in the final. This relieves the pressure to do well on a single test.

Assignments are due by 10PM rather than the traditional zero hour of midnight to encourage students to get a decent night’s sleep.

Taking It Online

The TAs engage directly with students both in class and out. On an online forum, the TAs answer student questions, and these exchanges are visible for the entire class to see. Over time, the forum functions as an archive of Frequently Asked Questions and helps inform how recitations are taught.  But running an online forum can be tricky, and the TAs share how they have responded to the challenges to make the exchanges more productive.

Facing the Challenges

It’s not easy being a TA. You’re just starting out, just beginning to learn how to engage students and foster learning. You have to learn how to plan and manage a successful recitation, for example. Students can ask all kinds of questions that you might not know the answer to. And you have to do this while dealing with the pressures of being a student yourself.

For Noss and Holmes, the point is to show the students that the TAs care about them and about how well they do—that is, how well they learn. That’s an ethic that’s easy to get behind.

** ** **

[This is the 2nd of two recent posts on 6.034 Artifical Intelligence. The first post highlights some instructor insights from Professor Patrick Henry Winston.]

Obama to Leave the White House a Nerdier Place Than He Found It (NY Times)

Photo of woman pointing out aspects of aparatus on a lab bench, with President standing beside her looking on.

Professor Paula Hammond discusses her research with President Barack Obama during his 2009 visit to the MIT campus.

President Barack Obama has evolved in many ways during his eight years in office, both personally and politically. Add now to that list, becoming a self-professed science nerd?  We caught an early glimpse of this leaning when he visited the MIT campus in October 2009, touring several labs, showing “keen interest, quick understanding and warm appreciation,” and giving an address on clean energy.

A recent piece by Gardiner Harris in the New York Times highlights the arc of President Obama’s enthusiastic embrace of science.

President Obama has started initiatives to study the brain and gene-based diseases. He has led attacks on the Ebola virus and antibiotic resistance. Last month, he wrote an academic article in a prominent medical journal.

But the science event many in the White House remember most powerfully was the kid with the marshmallow cannon.

“So would it, like, hit the wall up there?” Mr. Obama asked during the 2012 White House Science Fair when he came upon Joey Hudy, 14, standing before his homemade Extreme Marshmallow Cannon.

“Yeah,” Joey answered.

“Would it stick?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s try it,” Mr. Obama said with glee.

And so, for what may have been the first time since the British burned the house down in 1814, a fast-moving projectile hit the State Dining Room wall. The marshmallow did not stick.

He began an annual tradition of science fairs, arguing that if he celebrates the nation’s top athletes at the White House, he should do the same for the best young scientific talent. He often mentions the students he has met at the fairs, including Elana Simon, who at age 12 survived a rare form of liver cancer and before graduating high school helped discover its genetic cause.

Mr. Obama’s presidential science advisory committee has been the most active in history, starting 34 studies of subjects as varied as advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity. Scientists on the committee said they worked so hard because Mr. Obama was deeply engaged in their work.

We took particular note of this statement:

In a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Mr. Obama listed science as one of the few subjects he intended to pursue after the presidency.

So, President Obama: perhaps OCW can help you out here?

Our resources in science and beyond are perfect for self-paced learning, and well-suited to a busy lifestyle (which you’re certain to maintain). Most of the professors whose labs you visited in 2009 have classes on OCW. Whether you’re pursuing new curiosities in retirement, exploring a career transition, or even supplementing a current course of study in school, OCW is ready with a wealth of learning resources.

Innovating Dirt Cheap: What Sadoway Can Teach Us About The Future Of Clean Energy (Huffington Post)

Screenshot of video with tuxedo-clad professor at the front of lecture hall, holding up a glass of champagne.

Professor Donald Sadoway toasts the students at end of his class 3.091 Introduction to Solid State Chemistry.

Professor Donald Sadoway is the charismatic and insightful instructor of one of OCW’s most popular courses, 3.091SC Introduction to Solid State Chemistry. With legions of fans around the world, his video lectures reveal frequent pearls of general wisdom among the clear explanations of chemistry fundamentals and applications.

Sadoway’s research on grid-scale energy storage also has legions of fans. Louika Papadopoulos recently wrote on five favorite Sadoway quotes springing from his clean energy work.

When it comes to alternate power sources and batteries, Donald R. Sadoway, John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the man to turn to. Voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, Sadoway is not only known for his packed classes, despite being one of the largest in the history of the institute, but for the pieces of wisdom he imparts when simply speaking about batteries. Here are a few of my favorite Sadoway quotes and what I believe they can teach us about the future of clean energy.

My personal favorites are these two:

2. “The liquid metal battery story is more than an account of inventing technology. It’s a blueprint for inventing inventors.”
This is an often overlooked and yet ubiquitous truth. Whenever dealing with innovation it is important to remember it’s not just about the technology, it is about nurturing a culture of innovation. It’s about investing in people who can maximize any technology’s potential, adapt it efficiently to current circumstances and ensure its appropriate future development. It’s about creating inventors of technology who can use what they have learned to tackle new problems and develop new technologies. The bottom line is: more energy inventors moulded, more energy inventions made…

4. “If you want to make something dirt cheap, make it out of dirt. Preferably dirt that’s locally sourced.”
If we want innovation in energy to truly benefit humanity we have to make sure it is available to all. What better way to do that than to make it cheap and locally sourced? This quote is also the inspiration for the title of this piece as it also represents a key element of Sadoway’s work. Instead of trying to invent a product and then struggle to make it economically viable, Sadoway opted instead to develop a battery that would meet the pricing point of the electricity market upon creation. This is the reason why he looked only at earth-abundant materials that would work well with cheap manufacturing techniques. Dirt-cheap innovation indeed!

Read the complete story.

Open with a Promise, Close with a Joke

Informal portrait photo of smiling Patrick Winston, standing in an office.

Patrick Winston, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science. (Photograph by Azeddine Tahiri. Used with permission.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Manager

Open with a promise, close with a joke. And in between? Be inspiring!

Such are the guidelines that Professor Patrick Henry Winston follows in giving his lectures for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence. The course has something akin to legendary status at MIT and beyond (Bloomberg Business recently tagged it as “one of the 5 best computer science classes in the U.S.“). As Professor Winston says in one of his Instructor Insights, he tries to live up to the billing:

When you have more than 30 or so students in a room, you no longer have a class, you have a lecture. When you have upwards of 100 students, you have theater. It’s a kind of social covenant. When people see that there are a lot of people sitting there with them, there’s an expectation that they’re going to see a show…So the lecture ends up being a kind of performance.

Accordingly, he invests between 12 and 18 hours designing each lecture, and prep time can extend up to a week if he has to write software. Then, there’s the 90-minute rehearsal.

Rocking Out When Walking In

To set the mood and “get the adrenaline pumping” before the show, he plays rock music as the students enter the lecture hall.

He begins with “a promise of how students will be empowered by what they will learn in the lecture” and includes many demonstrations showing what kinds of intelligent things well-written code can do.

Inspiring with Plenty of Stories

Professor Winston emphasizes the importance of expressing passion for the subject material. He polled faculty and students a few years ago and discovered that they all agreed that the best way to inspire others is to show passion about what you are teaching:

In my own teaching, when I give a demonstration, I frequently tell students I think it’s “really cool,” as a way to be explicit about the fact that I’m passionate about it.

Naturally, his research in artificial intelligence has led him to study human intelligence, and this in turn has helped inform his lectures:

I concluded some time ago that the distinguishing characteristic of human intelligence is our story competence. We tell stories, we listen to stories, and we make up new stories by blending old ones together. That’s really what education is all about, if you think about it…I think sharing the stories, the opinions, the asides, and understanding how a person solved a particular problem, what they were thinking of when they did that, what they were motivated by, etc. is just as, and probably more, important than teaching the actual skills.

Watch the master storyteller in action, introducing the topic of articificial intelligence in a clip from the first class lecture:

Screengrab of professor with student at front of classroom, holding a bicycle wheel.

Learning With Pen in Hand

Ironically, Professor Winston’s understanding of how the mind works has led him to ban laptop and cell-phone use in his computer science class:

The reason I do this is because there’s a lot of evidence that we only have one language processor in our heads, and it’s easily jammed. If you jam it by reading your email, texting, or doing something else, you’re not actually going to be able to pay attention to what’s going on in the lecture.

Instead, he recommends old-fashioned note-taking by hand:

I encourage my students to take notes because it forces engagement. You can’t take a note without deploying your language apparatus and your drawing apparatus. And that’s the reason for taking notes. It has nothing really to do with looking at the notes again; it has everything to do with forcing concentration.

Laughing When All Is Said and Done

And he always ends the lecture with “something fun”:  a joke, or an historical anecdote, or an intriguing demo.

That’s because people tend to characterize an experience by its last event:

One of my colleagues told me that he always ends his lectures with something fun so that people feel like they’ve enjoyed the class the whole time.

Nothing artificial about that!

** ** **

[This is the 1st of two recent posts on 6.034 Artifical Intelligence. The second post is about the student-centered teaching approach of TAs Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes.]

Traveling 65mph on the world’s tallest water slide


View from the top of Verrückt, the world’s tallest waterslide. (Image courtesy of Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts. Used with permission.)

By Cheryl Siegel

You’ve climbed 246 stairs, and now you’re strapped to a raft 168 feet above the ground. You are about to begin your ride on the tallest, steepest, and fastest waterslide in the world. Verrückt—which means “insane” in German–opened to the public July 2014 at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City. The initial descent is essentially a free-fall—almost a straight drop from 15 stories, in which the raft then accelerates to 65 mph.

The course takes advantage of the relationship between gravity and friction to ensure the rafts remain on the slide. By conducting extensive tests with both sandbags and humans, the ride’s engineers were able to ensure that Verrückt would be safe for all, though they do impose a weight limit of 550 pounds per raft.

To learn more about gravity, friction, velocity and acceleration, please visit OCW’s introductory physics course, 8.01L Physics I: Classical Mechanics. The unit called “Kinematics: Describing 1D Motion, Relative Velocity,” explains the concepts of position, velocity, and acceleration.