About Peter Chipman

I'm a lexicographer, an editor, and a lover of language and literature. Also a proud father of two, an occasional bell-ringer, a thirteenth-generation New England Yankee, a former owner of a one-room schoolhouse, and the current owner of a 220-year-old farmhouse.

M. Amah Edoh on Creating a Supportive Academic Culture

Close up photo of woman in blue shirt standing in Killian Court at MIT

M. Amah Edoh, Assistant Professor of African Studies (Image courtesy of Jonathan Sachs Photography.)

Educators can’t just be providers of information, Professor Edoh argues; they have to be nurturers of their students’ intellectual growth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is a young faculty member, young enough to remember what it felt like to be a student. Her approach to teaching reflects this fact. The Instructor Insights section of the OpenCourseWare site for her course 21G.026 Global Africa: Creative Cultures provides interesting details about how she taught that specific course, but it also offers a generous helping of observations about pedagogy in general and the role faculty members can play in helping students move from mystery to mastery. Here are a few highlights.

Course Planning

Every academic course has a central topic or idea, but Professor Edoh emphasizes that the instructor should also consider what the central question is, so that the course can be an exploration rather than a mere transfer of information:

“It’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class….As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests.”

Of course, students will bring more energy to the classroom if their work there also draws on their own interests, not just their professor’s. So Professor Edoh used the final project assignment in 21G.026 to draw on the different creative skills–cooking, drawing, horticulture, creative writing, and so on–that each student brought to the course.

“I had no idea how it would turn out, because I didn’t know what they were bringing to the table, what particular creative skills they had. But I want to believe—this is something I try to enact in my own life—that we all have creative skills, and that whatever you have, we can do something with it.”

The Need for Flexibility in Teaching

New faculty members, Edoh suggests, may not immediately realize that successful teaching depends on not always having every moment of every class planned in advance, and that lecturers need to be able to revise their teaching plan constantly in response to the needs of the moment. Doing this effectively doesn’t necessarily come easily, but it’s a core competency for a master teacher:

“When you’re a student, the professors up front seem to know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is.”

Teaching at MIT

To counteract the tendency of the university to become a closed circle or the proverbial ivory tower, Professor Edoh asks her students to attend cultural performances out in the world to supplement and enrich their in-class learning:

“Even the experience of leaving MIT is really useful. Part of our duty as educators is to help broaden our students’ horizons, not only in the classroom but also by encouraging them to explore beyond campus.”

She also seeks to show students that the humanities have something to say about technology, and that we can fruitfully examine the meanings and cultural implications of technical systems and practices, not just the details of their operation or their practical potentials:

“At MIT in particular, we tend to fetishize technology and consider it as existing in a realm outside of other material practices, other ways of knowing. One of my personal missions is to show that technology is no different from these other practices—they’re all objects, ways of doing, ways of knowing. So whether we’re talking about plant healing or developing the next nano-technology, we can think about these things next to each other, no matter where they’re happening.”

Academic Study and the Wider World

As Professor Edoh sees it, the so-called ivory tower is an illusion; it’s neither possible nor desirable for the academy to remain divorced from the wider world. At its best, she suggests, academic work exists in constant dialogue with real-world experience, with each enriching the other:

“What we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.”

Nurturing Student Growth

Professor Edoh distinctly remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to make sense of the often-obscure writings one encounters in academic life:

“When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?’…The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly.”

She feels passionately that it’s a professor’s job to make academic discourse less intimidating, and to encourage students as they take their first tentative steps toward being confident participants in scholarly and intellectual work:

“What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.”

“My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, ‘We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.'”

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Herb Gross!

a middle-age man standing in front of a blackboard with mathematical figures on it.

Herb Gross, making math make sense in a video recorded at MIT in 1970. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Today we’re delighted to wish a very happy birthday to Professor Herb Gross, who is turning 90. When he was a senior lecturer in mathematics at MIT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was recruited to film a series of instructional videos under the title of Calculus Revisited. In the digital era, these videos have reached a much larger audience than might originally have been expected; between 2010 and 2011 MIT OpenCourseWare worked with Professor Gross to publish them as a trilogy of special supplemental resources on our website: Single Variable Calculus, Multivariable Calculus, and Complex Variables, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra.

The videos might seem to have a lot going against them: they’re nearly fifty years old, they’re in low-definition black and white, and they have no special effects or flashy visuals. (Their content consists purely of Professor Gross standing in front of a blackboard, explaining math.) But collectively, these resources have been accessed well over a million times at the OCW website, and they’re also extremely popular and much loved on YouTube.

Herb Gross’s time at MIT was part of a long career in teaching math, often to those students most in need of patient encouragement and support. He taught for many years at community colleges, and starting in the late 1970s he was also involved in prison education, creating math programs for inmates at correctional institutions in Massachusetts and later in North Carolina. In 1988 he instituted his Gateways to Mathematics video course at several prisons in North Carolina. (The material for the entire course has been preserved at the Internet Archive.) He enjoys making teaching videos and regards them as offering some advantages not available to live teaching; he explains that “You can pause, rewind, and/or fast forward the lectures as you see fit—not to mention that the boards are written in a much more orderly way than how I wrote in the live classroom!”

Professor Gross has always maintained that the best mathematicians don’t necessarily make the best math teachers, and likewise that you don’t have to be a great mathematician to be a great math teacher. As he puts it, “There are many examples of great athletes who failed as coaches; and there have been great coaches who were at best mediocre players.” He has returned to this analogy again and again throughout the years, most memorably in another video series, Teacher as Coach, produced in 1988 by the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges. He sees his vocation in life as being the best coach he can be for the most vulnerable and “mathephobic” of students. And he has always been dedicated to the idea that the best teaching materials should be made freely available to as wide an audience as possible. To further this goal, not only did he work with MIT OpenCourseWare to put the Calculus Revisited videos online forty years after they were originally recorded, he also has created his own website, where all his work in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus is available free of charge.

Writing in reply to YouTube viewer comments on one of the Calculus Revisited videos, Professor Gross says, “It took several days to prepare each lecture. While this seems to be a very long time, the beauty lies in the fact that the lecture is there forever and is available to any viewer, in any place and at any time. In my case the reward is that it would have taken me several lifetimes to reach the same number of students if I had been teaching in a traditional classroom.” Though he’s now retired, he sees his online lectures as allowing him a sort of pedagogical immortality: “I feel very blessed that thanks to the Internet, I will be able to continue teaching for years and possibly generations to come.”

We’re so grateful to Professor Gross for sharing his knowledge and love of math so generously, with so many students, over so many decades. Happy birthday to you, Professor Gross!

Courses from MIT’s 2019 MacVicar Fellows

Four faculty portrait photos.

The 2019 MacVicar Faculty fellows are (from left to right): Erik Demaine, Graham Jones, T. L. Taylor, and Joshua Angrist.
(Courtesy of MIT Registrar’s Office.)

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

For the past 27 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Joshua Angrist (economics), Erik Demaine (computer science), Graham Jones (anthropology), and T. L. Taylor (comparative media studies).

OCW is honored to share courses from all of this year’s Fellows:

Joshua Angrist

Erik Demaine

Graham Jones

T. L. Taylor

Through the OCW Educator initiative, we have also collected Instructor Insights from Professor Angrist concerning the need to overhaul econometrics pedagogy, and from Professor Demaine about his love of algorithms and how he seeks to communicate that love in teaching 6.849 Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra and 6.851 Advanced Data Structures.

Interested in more Instructor Insights from past MacVicar Fellows? Visit our OCW Educator portal to search for Insights from MIT Teaching Award Recipients. Delve into the minds of David Autor, Steven Hall, Anne McCants, Haynes Miller, and many other MIT professors advancing teaching and learning in their fields.

Improving Student Engagement through Active Learning

a classroom with students standing up, one holding a slip of paper in his hand.

Students engaging in an active learning exercise in a 6.033 recitation session. (Photo by MIT OCW)

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Dr. Katrina LaCurts, a lecturer in MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, had a problem. Her course 6.033 Computer System Engineering included twice-weekly recitation sessions in addition to the regular lectures. These recitations were meant to allow students to discuss questions raised in the lectures and readings and to work through sample problems in smaller groups. But recitation instructors reported that many students weren’t participating in discussions because they hadn’t done the assigned readings. When the instructors tried to compensate by going over key material from the readings all over again in class, not only did this take up valuable time, it also produced an undesirable secondary effect: when students came to expect that recitations would recapitulate the key points from the readings, they had even less incentive to do the readings themselves, and they came to class even less prepared to participate meaningfully.

So in redesigning the course, Dr. LaCurts decided to emphasize active learning as a key element in the recitations. What is “active learning”? It’s a general term for any and all classroom techniques that have a participatory, non-passive component, ranging from small-group discussion to skits, polls, simulations, and role playing. Dr. LaCurts describes her motivation for making this change:

“There’s some evidence that this style of learning is good for a lot of things. There’s evidence to support the effectiveness of student engagement in exam scores, failure rates, how well students remember content, student attitudes, study habits. And there’s also evidence that active learning has a disproportionate benefit for minorities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and female students in male dominated fields.”

An Unsuccessful First Try

But Dr. LaCurts soon found out that implementing active learning in a large, multi-section course is easier said than done. In one of the video excerpts posted on the Instructor Insights page of the OCW course site, she explains that simply telling instructors to implement active learning was ineffective:

“It turns out you can’t tell your recitation instructors to do a thing that they’ve never done before and just have them magically do it. In particular, you can’t tell your instructors to fundamentally change the way they teach and magically have that happen. I would say it’s difficult enough for us to change the way we teach, much less to get other people to change the way they teach.”

She concluded that to implement active learning effectively, she’d have to take a more active approach herself. Here are the steps she recommends for anyone trying to encourage a team of instructors to incorporate active learning in their class sessions:

1. Get Everyone on Board

The very first staff meeting, before the semester had even begun, was about active learning. Dr. LaCurts and her teaching staff, consisting of nine recitation instructors, nine teaching assistants, and thirteen communications instructors, discussed why active learning is better than lecturing, and how it could support the other learning objectives in 6.033 Computer System Engineering. Dr. LaCurts explained that there would be extensive support for the recitation instructors’ efforts, with check-ins throughout the semester to make sure active learning was really working for them and for the students. She appealed to everyone’s scientific nature, explaining that this restructuring of the course was a sort of research project, to find out whether active learning techniques would work in 6.033. She also told them that if the experiment went badly, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

Dr. LaCurts did expect some pushback. She’s in charge of a lot of educators, some of whom have been at MIT for a very long time. But she reports that talking about active learning early on and setting expectations from the beginning was surprisingly helpful. Everybody–not just the recitation instructors but also the teaching assistants and communications instructors–knew that active learning wasn’t an optional element of the course, it was their primary instructional goal for the semester.

2. Plan a Lot

Dr. LaCurts supplied her staff with an annotated version of a well-known list of several hundred active learning activities. In the second staff meeting, she and her staff went through the whole list. They knew that not all of the activities would work in the recitations, but going through the list gave everyone a better sense of what active learning can be.

Dr. LaCurts also identified specific active learning techniques for each recitation. In previous semesters, she had planned recitations strictly for technical content. She would tell instructors the technical issues they needed to hit on, but her instructors had great leeway in how they taught those topics. Now, in addition to the technical content, she began specifying two or three active learning techniques that could be employed in each recitation. For instance, she might point out places where students could break into groups to discuss a particular question, or where it would be useful to hold a debate in the class. For each recitation, the instructors had multiple options for implementing active learning in their sections, and from among these options, they could pick the ones they were the most comfortable with.

3. Support Staff as Individuals

Dr. LaCurts didn’t just plan these activities and set the staff free. She took the time to observe recitation sessions throughout the semester, making sure to stress that she wasn’t there to evaluate the instructors themselves but to see what was working and what wasn’t, so staff could implement those techniques more effectively in future sessions.

In practice, Dr. LaCurts was pleased to discover that in her observations she found far more successful activities than problematic ones. Most of her feedback to the instructors consisted of pointing out things they were doing that were really well, and encouraging them to share those techniques with the other instructors. In the end, she says, “I kind of thought of myself more as a cheerleader for them and what they were doing, than someone who was coming in and really critiquing anything.”

4. Support Staff as a Group

Dr. LaCurts’s staff had many creative ideas as to how to use active learning techniques to present the course’s technical content. So at every staff meeting, instructors would share techniques they had tried and report on how they went. Knowing what worked well in other recitation sections gave more hesitant instructors the confidence to try similar techniques with their own students.

Conversely, fostering a space for discussion at staff meetings meant that everybody was generally comfortable bringing up techniques that they had tried but that weren’t going as well. Dr. LaCurts reports that it was helpful for the staff to have this dedicated space for mutual support and nonjudgmental reflection.

What Kinds of Things Did Students Do?

Small group discussion is a very common type of active learning: students are put in small groups and asked to talk something over and then report back for a class-wide discussion. Dr. LaCurts has found that talking in these small groups beforehand makes the shyer students a lot more confident, and that asking each group to contribute to the eventual discussion means that the discussion isn’t dominated by one or two groups.

In a second technique, debating, students are asked to read two short papers that come to opposing conclusions. The recitation section is split into two teams, with each team assigned to debate in favor of one of the papers’ conclusions. Students usually enjoy this activity, Dr. LaCurts says: “They love to argue, so they’re very excited to do this.” But she admits the activity does require more monitoring on the instructors’ part, to ensure that no one team or person dominates the debate. To combat that, teams are asked to meet beforehand to prepare their arguments for the in-class debate.

A third technique is to ask students to draw pictures on the board, illustrating a particular system or component. The class then comes together to discuss what each drawing is showing, what features the various depictions share, what level of abstraction each drawing captures, and so on. This activity is especially useful because part of the communication curriculum for 6.033 Computer System Engineering involves learning how to design and draw figures. The activity provides a way for students to practice that skill while also forcing them to figure out exactly what the system is doing.

The last technique Dr. LaCurts describes in her video is one where students are asked to physically act out a computer system’s completion of a task. Students are assigned roles as parts of the system, usually with two or three students assigned to each role so shyer students will be more comfortable and no one student is in charge of something. Each part of the system is given instructions, and the system is set into operation. Afterward, the class reconvenes to discuss how the system performed (or failed to perform) its task.

Two women, one wearing a large paper hat, standing in the front of a classrom.

Dr. LaCurts (right) and a volunteer (left, in silly hat) demonstrate acting out how a master machine assigns tasks in MapReduce. (Image by MIT OCW.)

How It Turned Out

Dr. LaCurts reports that restructuring 6.033 Computer System Engineering has resulted in significant improvements in class participation. In surveys, students reported feeling comfortable in the recitations and overwhelmingly felt that these activities improved their engagement. Further, Dr. LaCurts and her staff have seen that students are understanding the details of the systems better, while developing a sense of camaraderie.

It hasn’t been only the students who have benefited from the restructuring of the recitation sessions, however. The staff has benefited as well, as Dr. LaCurts explains:

“It’s a lot of work, but this class is so much fun now. It’s fun for me to run. It’s fun for instructors to teach. I don’t know how many people would tell you that their 400-person class is fun to run. But I have a great time. And the amount of enjoyment that we get out of teaching 6.033 this way really comes through for the students.”

To Learn More

Want to know more about active learning in MIT classrooms? The following courses feature Instructor Insights that you may find of interest:

An electron micrograph of long, slender cells interacting with shorter, thicker, roughly cylindrical cells.8.591J Systems Biology

In this course, Professor Jeff Gore uses color-coded flash cards to quickly survey students’ responses to key concept questions. At the Instructor Insights page, he discusses how and why he uses these cards, and he addresses the perceived barriers to implementing active learning in large classrooms.

The body of a helicopterlike device.16.06 Principles of Automatic Control

The Instructor Insights page for this course features videos on the experience of using active learning, including a candid description of the apprehensions students may feel when asked to try unfamiliar activities in the classroom.

A graph of several curves of varying heights and widths18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics

In one of the Instructor Insights for this course, Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom discuss the importance of trust in their active learning classroom and their strategies for promoting it.

Students holding up a QR card5.95J Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering

Dr. Janet Rankin shares an overview of active learning and seven active learning strategies in the Instructor Insights videos for this course, which aims to prepare graduate students to teach in higher education settings.

Talking about Creoles, Speaking in Kreyòl

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

a cluster of small passenger boats on the beach in a cove.

Brightly painted water taxis crowd a beach in Haiti. (Image courtesy of Steve Bennett on flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

We’re excited to announce the publication of the OpenCourseWare version of Professor Michel DeGraff’s course 24.908 Creole Language and Caribbean Identities, as taught at MIT in the Spring semester of 2017.

Instructor Insights Two Times Over

In a departure from our typical procedure, the videos Professor DeGraff recorded for the course’s Instructor Insights page are all presented twice: once with him speaking in English, and then a second time with him speaking in his native language, Haitian Creole (or Kreyòl). Professor DeGraff decided to do this because he feels it’s important to spread the word, both to English speakers and to speakers of Creole languages, that Creoles aren’t flawed or debased versions of colonial languages such as French, but rather are fully-developed and grammatical languages in their own right. By making his insights available to educators and students in Creole-speaking communities, Professor DeGraff hopes to ensure that his academic research and his teaching will be a vehicle for social change.

Customizing the Course to Students’ Backgrounds

To make the course as meaningful as possible for his students, Professor DeGraff begins each semester by finding out where each student is coming from. “On the very first day,” he explains, “while they are still fresh and unsuspecting of the class contents, of my own ideology, I give them a survey where I ask very simple questions. You know, their major, their year….I also ask them personal questions. Where were they born? Where did they travel? And during what years? … And I ask them about some of the course content. You know, what do they know about Creole languages? How do they define identity? What does identity mean? What kind of images does the word Caribbean trigger in their minds?…Through these questions, I’m able to see and to get a sense of both their personal background, but also what kind of assumptions they bring to the course. And then I can use that to have a beginning where I can address the fundamental assumptions they do bring in the course, and also to connect the discussion to their personal profiles.”

Professor DeGraff sitting in his office at MIT.

Professor Michel DeGraff has been teaching linguistics at MIT for more than 20 years. (Image by OpenCourseWare.)

Reading the World, Not Just the Word

In addition to Professor DeGraff’s videos, the Instructor Insights page has links to four Student Insights videos, in which students José Esparza and Dalila Stanfield describe what they learned in the course and what advice they’d give to educators who are designing courses on similar topics. Both students feel that it’s important to create a classroom environment that promotes discussions about identities—“It’s not just about the curriculum; it’s about the space you create,” as Dalila Stanfield explains in the second of her two videos. Esparza, who draws on the work of Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987) in his assessment of the course, agrees: “Being able to have a space of discussion, a space in which people can tell their own stories … That’s one of the essential parts to making this a true learning experience that helps you read read the world and not just the word.” (You can get a feel for how these discussions went by viewing the course’s selection of class videos.)

Learning Outcomes beyond the Class

Professor DeGraff hopes students who participate in 24.908 Creole Language and Caribbean Identities will take what they’ve learned and apply it “to themselves, to their communities, to their countries.” He shares as an example one student who went on to volunteer in a bilingual education program in Boston, providing children with immersion from kindergarten in both Creole and English. “To me, that’s a dream,” he says, “because it’s one case where what you learn in the course can be directly applied in the real world context, which can make actual positive change in the lives of these children.”

A trilingual sign reading 'Au Revoir,' 'Orevwa' and 'Goodbye.'.

A sign in French, Haitian Creole, and English at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Image courtesy of Jason Rosenberg on flickr. License: CC BY.)

Reference: Buy at Amazon Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. “Literacy and the Pedagogy of Political Empowerment” and “Rethinking Literacy A Dialogue.” In Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Praeger, 1987. ISBN: 9780897891264. [Preview with Google Books]

Physics Is a Contact Sport

Several MIT students peering into a spherical apparatus with various wires attached.

Students perform an experiment in relativistic dynamics in MIT’s Junior Lab.
(Image by OCW)

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

If you’re exceptionally gifted, you might be able to learn the established facts of physics by reading books and articles and by attending lectures. But if you want to contribute actively to the field, you need two other forms of expertise: skill in designing and conducting experiments, and a working knowledge of how to communicate your work to other physicists and to the world in general. MIT’s Junior Lab helps students develop firsthand expertise in both these areas.

What Is Junior Lab?

Junior Lab is a sequence of two undergraduate courses, officially designated as 8.13 Experimental Physics I and 8.14 Experimental Physics II, that most physics majors take in the fall and spring of their junior year (hence the name). As Nergis Mavalvala, Associate Head of MIT’s Physics department, explains:

Junior Lab is a keystone course of the MIT physics curriculum. This challenging and memorable course exposes students to diverse techniques in experimental physics, and develops scientific writing and oral presentation skills….Students learn to make measurements using sophisticated apparatus, analyze their data, compare their results to other empirical determinations of the same physical quantities or phenomena, write up their findings as a professional publishable paper, and communicate their results in an oral presentation — all skills with which a practicing physicist must be conversant.

Doing Hands-On Physics

During their year in Junior Lab, students perform a total of ten experiments covering a range of phenomena whose discoveries led to major advances in physics, such as Compton scattering, relativistic dynamics, cosmic-ray muons, radio astrophysics, laser spectroscopy, superconductivity, and quantum information processing. Students work in pairs to set up each experiment, to make measurements, and to analyze and interpret their data. After each experiment, each pair of lab partners participates in a one-hour oral examination and discussion with their instructors. Both students bring their lab notebooks to the oral exam session, and all oral exams are video-recorded so that students can review and refine their presentation technique.

At the end of the fall term, each student delivers a public oral presentation to peers, friends, and faculty in the style of a session at a professional conference. Near the end of the spring term, each pair of lab partners designs and conducts an original, open-ended experiment, after which they summarize their results in a scientific poster presented in an open poster session.

A Wealth of Information

The richness of the Junior Lab experience is reflected in the richness of the materials pertaining to the course on OpenCourseWare. In addition to the syllabus, the course on OCW includes the following:

  • Detailed descriptions of the standard experiments students in Junior Lab perform.
  • A set of guidelines for safety in the lab, including policies to maintain chemical hygiene, environmental safety, electrical safety, radiation safety, cryogenic safety, laser safety, and biological safety.
  • Itemized instructions on how to keep and use a lab notebook to record experimental procedures and results.

For educators and those interested in pedagogical theory, though, the most exciting aspect of Junior Lab on OCW is the wealth of interview videos, in which the course’s professors, other members of the instructional team, and several students share their insights into what’s special about the way Junior Lab is taught. A few highlights:

Junior Lab is based on the notion that the best way to learn physics is experientially, through hands-on learning. Professor Janet Conrad strongly feels that physics is “a contact sport.” In the video clip below, Professor Conrad gives a simple hands-on demonstration of electromagnetic induction that could be used to make physics real even for early elementary students:

(What’s going on in this video? Ordinarily, a dropped object falls half a meter in about a third of a second, but when Professor Conrad drops the magnet into the copper pipe, it takes almost four seconds to fall that far, because the magnet’s motion induces an electric current in the pipe, which in turn generates a magnetic field that brakes the magnet’s fall.)

The structure of the course is also designed to develop skills in collaboration and teamwork in scientific research. Students in Junior Lab don’t just conduct their experiments in teams of two; lab partners also participate in oral exams together, and work together to design their final experiment and to produce and present their poster for the presentation at the end of the spring term. This collaborative approach has clear benefits, but also brings with it some extra challenges, as Professor Gunther Roland explains.

Dr. Sean Robinson, Head of Junior Lab Technical Staff, discusses how the approach to teaching the course has changed in recent years, flipping the classroom to “get the students the information they need at the time when they’re most ready to learn it.” Data analysis, Dr. Robinson says, is best learned as you go along rather than by front-loading information in a lecture hall. Student Henry Shackleton agrees, emphasizing that the independent learning fostered by a flipped-classroom format meshes well with the nature of lab work, in which students are on their own much of the time.

One of the core tenets of Junior Lab is that science communication is a crucial professional competency for anyone wishing to pursue a research career. After all, progress in physics or any other scientific field requires not only that research be conducted and discoveries made, but also that experimental results and discoveries be communicated to other scientists. To help develop students’ communication skills, the instructional team for Junior Lab includes not only scientists but also a communication instructor, Senior Lecturer Atissa Banuazizi. “I think it’s somewhat of a misconception that communication can be separated from the work that scientists do,” Ms. Banuazizi says. “Because so much of what scientists do in their daily lives is communication. If you are a scientist, and you are doing really, really exciting work, that work is not going to have any kind of impact if you can’t tell people about it.”

Whether you’re a student, an independent learner, or an instructor pondering how best to teach the concepts of physics and the skills needed by working scientists, we encourage you to check out the rich collection of Junior Lab course material available to you on OCW.

The OCW course presents all the materials students use to carry out [their assigned] tasks, complemented by instructor, teaching assistant, and student perspectives on how the course is taught. It should serve as a unique guide for students and instructors on how to build and execute experiments, analyze data, and present results in effective written and oral reports.  -Nergis Mavalvala

Doctoral Students Aren’t Lone Wolves: An interview with Brian Charles Williams

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

The Curiosity rover standing on the surface of Mars

The Curiosity Mars rover, a complex, collaboratively-built system based on cognitive robotics. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Robotics and artificial intelligence are fast-paced fields in which researchers constantly have to adapt to new technological developments. But in such fields, progress isn’t always achieved by competitive, individual effort; in many circumstances, cooperation and collaboration are more fruitful approaches. In the interview excerpt below, Brian Charles Williams, a professor at MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, describes how he develops learning communities in the graduate-level course 16.412 Cognitive Robotics:

OCW: How is learning different in a course focused on an emerging field like cognitive robotics?

Brian Williams: Students are accustomed to reading chapters in textbooks—material that took decades for scientists to understand. But cognitive robotics is an active research area. It’s moving so quickly that every three years or so it reinvents itself. This course is focused on helping students close the gaps in the research. To be at the cutting edge of research, students need to read across papers and understand core ideas that are developed from a collection of publications. And then they need to be able to reduce that understanding to practice.

There’s also no better way to understand something than to teach it, implement it, and put it in a bigger context of some real-world application. That’s why we have a grand challenge at the center of the course experience.

OCW: Tell us more about the grand challenge.

Brian Williams: I like the idea of learning communities, of everybody trying to learn about a topic together. The grand challenge is a communal learning experience driven by a cutting-edge research question in cognitive robotics that allows us to focus on core reasoning algorithms. Students work in teams to present advanced lectures about different aspects of the topic.

OCW: Why teams?

Brian Williams: It’s important for students to work in teams because research is a collaborative endeavor. The notion that doctoral students are lone wolves is just not accurate. The more students can practice effective collaboration, the better.

It’s also the case that developing lectures is hard work. Just producing a first draft of a lecture can take 20 to 30 hours. And then you need to spend another 6 hours improving it. So, to develop a high-quality lecture, you really need two people working together.

Robot standing in a room.

Domo Robot, developed by Aron Edsinger and Jeff Weber, is able to adapt to novel situations. It is on display in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

OCW: How do you assess student work completed collaboratively?

Brian Williams: That is an interesting problem, because when the whole class does a project collaboratively teams can become too large. When that happens, people begin to feel disenfranchised. What I do to combat that is to make clear from the beginning what elements or materials individuals are responsible for contributing to the project. I have students write down what they are contributing so that I can assess their work accurately.

Another piece of the assessment puzzle is providing good feedback. The place where feedback matters the most is during the dry run for the students’ advanced lectures. A week before the students give their lecture to the class, they do a dry run for the teaching team and receive feedback. The process takes about two and a half hours. We teach them how to capture students’ interest at the beginning of the lecture and how to clarify the main points they want students to learn. We also help them convey the synergies between the main points and encourage them to consider the role of examples in their presentations.

OCW: Are there other components of the grand challenge, in addition to the advanced lectures?

Brian Williams: Yes. As I mentioned, the field of cognitive robotics is moving really fast. What normally happens is that members of the research community will generate tutorials on emerging themes. These tutorials encapsulate core ideas that everybody should know. The problem is that there’s just so much we need to know—but not enough time to write all the tutorials. So some of the students in the class are assigned to write tutorials related to the topic of the grand challenge. And a few others will write corresponding Jupiter or Python notebook problem sets. Along with the lectures, students end up producing materials that are enormously helpful to researchers in the field. This is important because I want them to learn that as scientists, their role is to consolidate ideas and to teach the community.

Man sitting at desk. Bookshelves with books to his left.

Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Brian Williams in his office on the MIT campus. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

OCW: It’s interesting that you have the goal of figuring out cognitive robotics as a field, but also how to teach it to others.

Brian Williams: And how to catalyze community. An engaged, collaborative community is absolutely key.

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You can read more of Professor Williams’s thoughts about teaching 16.412 on the Instructor Insights page of this course.

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

Another OCW Course Offered by Professor Williams

Image combining data taken by an autonomous vehicle with the views from its windows.16.410 Principles of Autonomy and Decision Making

This course surveys a variety of reasoning, optimization, and decision making methodologies for creating highly autonomous systems and decision support aids. The focus is on principles, algorithms, and their application, taken from the disciplines of artificial intelligence and operations research.

Reasoning paradigms include logic and deduction, heuristic and constraint-based search, model-based reasoning, planning and execution, and machine learning. Optimization paradigms include linear programming, integer programming, and dynamic programming. Decision-making paradigms include decision theoretic planning, and Markov decision processes.

More about Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Wheeled robot carrying doll in its arm.2.12 Introduction to Robotics

This course provides an overview of robot mechanisms, dynamics, and intelligent controls. Topics include planar and spatial kinematics, and motion planning; mechanism design for manipulators and mobile robots, multi-rigid-body dynamics, 3D graphic simulation; control design, actuators, and sensors; wireless networking, task modeling, human-machine interface, and embedded software. Weekly laboratories provide experience with servo drives, real-time control, and embedded software. Students design and fabricate working robotic systems in a group-based term project.

Graphic of three figures in an evolutionary arc, starting with a figure standing upright on the left, ending with a person hunched over at a computer on the right.6.034 Artificial Intelligence

This course introduces students to the basic knowledge representation, problem solving, and learning methods of artificial intelligence. Upon completion of 6.034, students should be able to develop intelligent systems by assembling solutions to concrete computational problems; understand the role of knowledge representation, problem solving, and learning in intelligent-system engineering; and appreciate the role of problem solving, vision, and language in understanding human intelligence from a computational perspective.

More on Learning Communities

Illustration of a brain with colors indicating regions involved in social processes, plus three example faces used in social testing and a photo of a large group sitting in a circle.9.70 Social Psychology

In the rather idiosyncratic syllabus for this course, which goes into much more philosophical depth than such documents usually attain, Professor Stephan L. Chorover lays out the principles of the collaborative learning system that formed the basis of his approach to teaching.

A woman on the monitor of a video camera, facing the viewer20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye: Writing and Hosting the Educational Show

Elizabeth Choe and Jaime Goldstein discuss the importance of cultivating a sense of community in the classroom, and explain how situating themselves as facilitators-of-learning, rather than omniscient givers-of-knowledge, communicated to students their respect for them as learners.

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The Beatles lived an insulated life in the 1960s. They couldn’t go out without being mobbed. As a result, the four of them spent much of their time together, listening to and playing music. In that process, they were constantly learning from each other. Lecturer Teresa Neff discusses the centrality of group learning in her Instructor Insights for this course.

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