Hands-on, in Theory and Practice

Collage of 3 photos: the completed robot, a circuit breadboard, and some Legos from which the robot is built.

Students in 6.01 are introduced to electrical engineering and computer science by building a robot head that tracks light.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

6.01 Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I is a signature MIT course. Substantial laboratory experiments with mobile robots provide an integrated hands-on introduction to electrical engineering and computer science. The OCW version, known as 6.01SC (part of the OCW Scholar collection) has long been one of the most popular OCW courses.

6.01 is also a signature instance of innovative teaching at MIT, with interactive lectures, an online tutor, and abundant feedback during the labs. Just added to the OCW 6.01SC site, a new This Course at MIT page highlights the teaching insights of two of the course’s lead instructors.


“Students prefer to sit quietly in the back of the classroom, take notes, go home, not be bothered, and then study for exams. But there’s really good evidence that that’s not the way to optimize learning,” observes Professor Dennis Freeman in “Shifting to a Practice-Theory-Practice Approach.” “The [learning science] literature recommended showing students the problem and letting them work on it a bit, teaching them the related theory, and then letting them work the problem again.”

In full form, “the problem” is how to program and modify a robot to do something useful.

Despite some initial pushback to this form of active learning, some two-thirds of MIT students take 6.01, and a substantial number of them do not major in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS). They take the course because they want to. Something must be going right.

As Professor Freeman says, “[Students] find out what programming is like. They find out what circuits are like. They find out what feedback is all about. They find out how an understanding of probability can make them better designers. They get a broad exposure to the field, informed by hands-on experience, and that makes [the course] very popular.”

Flipping the Switch on Broadcast Lectures

Popular is good, of course, but it can pose its own problem. How do you teach 200 to 500 students in this hands-on fashion?

First, as Professor Freeman explains, you jettison the “broadcast” model of lecturing. Sit-back-and-relax is not an option. Periodically during lecture, students get peppered with multiple-choice concept questions, and they are encouraged—one might even say, “incited” —to argue with each other about the answers. They prime themselves for class by completing assigned readings and writing short programs. They test the programs by running them through a sophisticated online tutor, which tells them whether their programs are set up right—or wrong. In this way, students develop the ability to assess their own skill and understanding.

Closing Feedback Circuits

Naturally in a hands-on robotics course, most of the learning happens in the lab. Working in teams, students are tasked with programming and redesigning robots. Needless to say, they have lots of questions, and the teaching staff is always available. “Students ask for help by putting themselves in our electronic help queue,” says Professor Sanjoy Mahajan, a long-time champion of active, hands-on learning, who has taught 6.01 in recent years. “The help queue is visible on screens to everyone, and any of the teaching staff can use their smartphones to ‘claim’ students in the queue . . . Many times we engage them in a dialogue about their work. We also check to see if something went wrong earlier in their lab work in order to make sure they aren’t headed down the wrong path or have misconceptions that need to be addressed.”

Screenshot of a window showing the student has submitted work and is #1 in the queue for help.

Individualized student view of the 6.01 Help Queue. The student sees his or her position in the help queue and the task with which he or she is seeking assistance.

The feedback doesn’t stop here, however. Instructors also conduct “check-offs” at various points in the lab, asking students about key concepts. “We basically conduct a brief and informal oral exam with them,” notes Professor Mahajan.

Co-teaching Makes the Grade

He praises 6.01’s collaborative teaching environment, in which the entire teaching staff meet together to do the work that will be featured in the upcoming lab. In this way, instructors can anticipate many student misconceptions, while supporting one another and sharing new ideas.  He notes that this environment does not happen “automatically,” but is really ”the result of faculty members actively creating a culture that supports co-teaching.”

2 thoughts on “Hands-on, in Theory and Practice

  1. Thanks,I would like to be a student in this course on line,what ever is needed ,I want to know and I kindly ask you to enroll me.

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