Venturing outside the norm to engage learners

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

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

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

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

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

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

Analogies

Nuclear Systems Design Project

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

Non-Traditional Examples

Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

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

Humor

Principles of Chemical Science

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

Music

Artificial Intelligence

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emulating the Beatles, learning from each other: An interview with Teresa Neff

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Four bronze statues depicting the band members.

The Beatles cast in bronze. Artist: Andrew Edwards. (Image courtesy of lwr on flickr. License CC BY-NC-SA).

MIT juniors and seniors recently had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the musical world of the Beatles. Students enrolled in 21M.299 The Beatles surveyed the music of this iconic band, mapping how the Beatles’ musical style changed from skiffle and rock to studio-based experimentation. They examined the cultural influences that shaped the band, as well as the group’s influence worldwide. While some of the students had prior experience with music analysis, others did not. Yet, a spirit of collaboration pervaded the course and enhanced the written analyses students completed on a weekly basis. So how did this happen?

We interviewed the instructor of the course, Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Dr. Teresa Neff, to find out how she facilitated learning experiences to meet the needs of students with diverse skill sets. You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator facing a similar situation, a Beatles fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.

OCW: Why did you select the Beatles as the topic for this musical analysis course?

Teresa Neff: I wanted to teach a course about the Beatles because of their popularity today and their influence on the 1960s. I hoped that by looking at the Beatles’ body of work, students could see where these musicians came from, how they were open to new influences, and how they influenced each other.

We also had ample materials that could support the course. Hunter Davies’ The Beatles and The Beatles Anthology served as the mainstays of the class. We had other texts about the Beatles owned by the MIT Lewis Music Library. These materials allowed us to supplement our studies beautifully.

“When you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work.” — TERESA NEFF

The plethora of available materials helped equalize the skill sets that students brought to the course. This was important because when you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work. The Beatles anthology provided that kind of support: it had all of the music, text, and individual lines. It also had the guitar tabs. So even if a student could not distinguish a tonic from a dominant, they were still able say, “This note is a D and this note is G.” It allowed me to open the class to an audience wider than that of only students with prior music analysis experience. I love the Beatles. But having materials that could support the music analysis work was incredibly important in selecting the Beatles as the topic of the course.

Image of a record.

“Strawberry Fields Forever:” A-side single by the Beatles with B-side “Penny Lane” released in 1967. (Image courtesy of Mark Sardella on Flickr. License: BY-NC-SA).

OCW: Tell us about the role of collaborative learning in the course.

Teresa Neff: The Beatles lived an insulated life in the 1960s. They couldn’t go out without being mobbed. As a result, the four of them were always together. They spent their time listening to and playing music together. In that process, they were constantly learning from each other. The opening of “Blackbird” has a lick that comes from the Bach Bourree in E-Minor. It’s come out in an interview with McCartney that they were trying to noodle through one part of the Bach Bourree, and it morphed into the opening of “Blackbird.” This happened because were just living with the music. That’s what was going on in the 1960s with the 45s and the LPs. You sat down and you listened together, without headphones. It was communal.

I wanted the course experience to emulate the Beatles learning from each other. As such, group work became a central component. I administered a questionnaire at the beginning of the course to gauge students’ musical skill sets and used that information to make sure that students with strong musical abilities were grouped with students who felt less confident in their abilities, so that they could help each other get better at the focal skills. We also constantly shifted groups so that everybody in the class worked with everybody else. My guiding philosophy was that everybody could bring something to the table.

Image of smiling woman standing near a painting.

MIT Music and Theater Arts Lecturer, Teresa Neff.

The focus of the course was on students’ group presentations, but they also needed some historical context for their analyses, and providing that became my role. I structured the class such that we all listened to one album every week. That was their preparation for my lectures, which were then followed by their own presentations in the next session. We went chronologically by British release of each album. I also threw in some singles and the Magical Mystery Tour as supplementary material. I tried to provide insight into who the band members were before they were The Beatles, context about George Martin, Capitol Records, the coming to the United States of the Beatles, the whole concept of Beatlemania, the other players at the time, how the Rolling Stones fit into the scene, and the blues artists John Lennon and Paul McCartney were trying to emulate. I gave them this context, and then let the students take it from there. I thought this strategy was incredibly successful. I was so pleased with the work the groups did that I’ve started to apply group learning to other courses I’m teaching.

***

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

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

More OCW Courses Offered by Teresa Neff

Close up image of the strings of a guitar.American Popular Music

This course surveys the development of popular music in the United States and in a cross-cultural milieu relative to the history and sociology of the last two hundred years. It examines the ethnic mixture that characterizes modern music, how it reflects many rich traditions and styles, and provides a background for understanding the musical vocabulary of current popular music styles.

Thumbnail image of “The Erlking” by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910.Beethoven to Mahler

This course surveys Romantic musical genres including song, choral music, opera, piano sonata, character cycle, concerto, symphony, and symphonic poem, including the composers Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.

Thumbnail image of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a painting attributed to Jacopo Vignali.Monteverdi to Mozart: 1600-1800

This course surveys seven Baroque and Classical genres: opera, oratorio, cantata, sonata, concerto, quartet, symphony, and includes work by composers Bach, Handel, Haydn, Monteverdi, Mozart, Purcell, Schütz and Vivaldi.

More on Musical Analysis

Thumbnail of musical scoreMusical Analysis

This class is an introduction to the analysis of tonal music. Students study rhythm and form, harmony, line and motivic relationships at local and large scale levels of musical structure.

Introduction to World Music

This course explores the ways that music is both shaped by and gives shape to the cultural settings in which it is performed, through studying selected musical traditions from around the world. Specific case studies will be examined closely through listening, analysis, and hands-on instruction. The syllabus centers around weekly listening assignments and readings from a textbook with CDs, supplemented by hands-on workshops, lecture/demonstrations and concerts by master musicians from around the world.

 More on Meeting a Wide Range of Student Needs

Four yellow dots and the word Life on blue backgroundIntroductory Biology

Several hundred students take Introductory Biology each spring semester. In the Instructor Insights section of this course, Professor Hazel Sive discusses how her teaching team helps struggling students, while also challenging advanced learners.

Credit cardsMicroeconomic Theory and Public Policy

Professor David Author shares his multi-pronged strategy for supporting students in mastering the content of 14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy. One key to his success is teaching through multiple modalities.

Pricing model diagramTopics in Mathematics with Applications in Finance

The instructors in this course share how they use a course project to meet the needs of diverse learners. They also discuss a challenge they encounter in “designing problem sets suitable for the mixed mathematical backgrounds of students.”

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

Featured Collection: Energy Courses

Photo looking upward at wind turbine, with Sun in the background.

Photo courtesy of Changhua Coast Conservation Action on Flickr.

Prosperity for a growing global population takes energy…lots of it. Indeed, scholars have linked the progress of modern civilization to a 10,000 year sequence of energy innovations.

But now with mounting risks from human-caused climate change and other environmental degradations, the world faces an urgent need to transform its energy systems. And this rapid shift must happen while giving billions more people around the world fair access to their share of energy-based prosperity.

Seeking to understand and transform the world’s energy systems, MIT researchers and students investigate all aspects of energy. They discover new ways of generating and storing energy, as in creating biofuels from plant waste and in holding electricity from renewable sources in cost-effective, high-capacity batteries. They create models and design experiments to determine how we can improve energy efficiency at all scales, from nanostructures and photovoltaic cells to large power plants and smart electrical grids. They analyze how people make decisions about energy, whether as individual consumers or whole nations, and they forecast what the social and environmental consequences of these decisions might be.

OCW’s Energy Courses list demonstrates how the study of energy is so important and so pervasive at MIT. It’s built on the MIT Energy Initiative’s undergraduate Energy Studies Minor, with a core of foundational subjects in energy science, technology, and social science, complemented by a program of electives which allow students to tailor their Energy Minor to particular interests. The OCW course list also includes some related courses which are not officially part of the Energy Minor program.

Explore the range and depth of OCW’s energy courses beginning with these four highlights.

Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies
This Energy Minor core subject, featuring a complete set of lecture videos, examines the choices and constraints regarding sources and uses of energy by households, firms, and governments.

 

D-Lab: Energy
This Energy Minor elective provides project-based learning about sustainable energy technology in developing countries, where compact, robust, low-cost solutions are required. The OCW version features many videos and student project presentations.

Nuclear Systems Design Project
This Energy Minor elective is a capstone project synthesis of practical problems of current interest in nuclear applications design.  This version’s students designed a nuclear power plant to provide emission-free electricity along with carbon sequestration.

Climate Action Hands-On: Harnessing Science with Communities to Cut Carbon
This non-credit seminar co-sponsored by MIT ClimateX features citizen science responses to the problem of leaking natural gas infrastructure, and helped develop a new leak measurement method now being trialed by MA utilities.

The Facts Don’t Speak for Themselves

Graphic with thin vertical color bands going from dark blue to lighter to red.

What story do you get from this visualization of annual global temperatures from 1850-2017? (Image: Ed Hawkins, License CC BY-SA)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Big data is the signature feature of the Information Age. It reveals patterns we could never see before, patterns in consumer behavior, medical treatments, weather events, just about anything we can think of.

But those patterns have to be discerned, and their stories shaped before they can have an impact.

Shaped how? By collection and presentation methods, and then by researchers who interpret and explain what they have discovered.

Or so says Rahul Bhargava, the instructor of CMS.631 Data Storytelling Studio: Climate Change, a course just published on OCW:

“…The idea that facts could ever speak for themselves is a total misunderstanding of data. Everything from data collection (decisions about “who counts”) to presentation (choices about what kind of chart to use, where the vertical axis starts, what colors to use, etc.) comprise rhetorical decisions that change how someone understands what you’ve done. The minute you make the smallest decision about how to gather or present information, you’ve already turned data into speech. It’s not objective truth; it’s rhetoric.”

So if you want to use data to change the world, you need to devise a compelling argument. How to formulate and share that argument is the subject of this course, which uses climate change as its special focus.

The OCW course site has a full set of readings, lecture slides and notes, plus a variety of assignments to foster creative thinking.

Webpage screenshot with martini glass image, "The Olive," and photo of young blond white woman in exercise clothes.

This student project shows that satire and data do mix!

Sample coursework highlights how the students put their learning into practice, including a board game about the refugee experience, an online quiz about bikeshare programs, and a satire in the style of The Onion whose humor points are backed by creative data presentations.

Teaching with a Compass instead of a Map

Photo of a smiling man standing by desk and workspace, looking to the side.

Instructor Rahul Bhargava.

CMS.631 has its roots in workshops taught by Bhargava, and needless to say, teaching students who spend a lot of their time working on projects requires a flexible, somewhat improvisational approach. As Bhargava explains in one of his Instructor Insights:

“The Data Storytelling Studio is a compass-led course. I point students in the right direction, and then follow where they go. My role is to be with them on the journey to make sure they don’t fall into a giant crevasse…I’m definitely the guide in the classroom and I’m in charge of the course, there’s no question about that. But I respect and honor the skills that students bring into the classroom. It’s an essential part of the course design.”

In other Insights, Bhargava shares tips for building student confidence in working with data and for getting students to work productively in teams.  He notes further how he engages participation by having students create “data sculptures” with craft materials and by getting them to write in a common blogspace.

In their own series of Insights, several students identify the data storytelling techniques they found most compelling, and they offer their advice for future students and educators.

We think it makes a fabulous success story! But don’t take it from us. Look at the data yourself!

Go deep with oceanographer Carl Wunsch

Photo of a smiling man in front of a chalkboard covered in math and diagrams.

Carl Wunsch, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography (Emeritus) in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. (Photo by Helen Hill.)

Like many scientific fields, oceanography has gone through big changes in recent decades. It’s been blessed with more high-quality data and powerful computing, leading to more accurate oceanographic models and underlying theories. It’s going through culture shifts, e.g. from male-dominated to one where women are increasingly prominent. And as oceanography has been central to our growing scientific understanding of climate change, it’s thoroughly embedded in the science communication challenges and cultural debate around this curiously contentious issue.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear an insider’s perspective on the evolving science and all these changes?

Let MIT professor Carl Wunsch be our guide. With a career starting in the mid-1960s, Professor Wunsch “is at the heart of many of the major advances in modern physical oceanography,” writes Nature climate science editor Michael White.

Professor Wunsch is the latest guest on Michael White’s “Forecast” podcast, which features long format interviews with climate scientists about climate science. Their conversation is a captivating “one-stop history of the field, and a deeply personal insight into how major science questions are conceptualized and addressed,” full of rich stories about the science, and the personalities, conflicts and connections, that make this world turn.

You can also learn some oceanography directly from Wunsch’s two courses on OCW – 12.842 Climate Physics and Chemistry and 12.864 Inference from Data and Models – and his popular online textbook Evolution of Physical Oceanography (also free on OCW). These are just a few of OCW’s extensive oceanography resources.

> Listen to “Carl Wunsch and the rise of modern oceanography” on the Forecast podcast.

Good Vibrations Making Big Waves

Photo of water drop rebounding off surface of water, with several circular waves rolling out.

Vibrations and waves caused by water drops. (Image courtesy of erwan bazin on Flickr. License CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Good, good, good, good vibrations . . . are not just fundamental to love, but to the structure of the universe itself.

In fact, “without waves and vibrations, we would not be able to even recognize this universe,” says Professor Yen-Jie Lee, in his introductory video to Physics III: 8.03SC Vibrations and Waves, a course just published on OCW. Think about it: light, sound, brain activity, and even gravitation all involve vibrations and waves. These phenomena are everywhere. To understand them is to understand the universe.

The latest OCW Scholar course, 8.03SC has a tsunami of resources for those interested in discovering the physics that describe these phenomena. The course site has full video lectures, lecture notes, problem sets, exams with solutions, and a free online textbook. A second series of videos by Professor Wit Busza shows how to think about and solve problems.

Like other Scholar courses, 8.03SC is arranged sequentially, by learning units, so you can progress through the semester just the way Professor Lee’s students did. But there’s also a handy resource index to help you quickly zero in on specific resources that might be of interest.

As the description says, “This course will provide you with the concepts and mathematical tools necessary to understand and explain a broad range of vibrations and waves. You will learn that waves come from many interconnected (coupled) objects when they are vibrating together. We will discuss many of these phenomena, along with related topics, including mechanical vibrations and waves, sound waves, electromagnetic waves, optics, and gravitational waves.”

Demos to Make It Real

Man gesturing at a table with a wave demonstration apparatus, saying "Let's see what is going to happen."

Professor Lee conducts one of his many in-class demonstrations which are part of the course videos.

In most lectures, Professor Lee conducts reality-checks for the mathematics he presents by including a variety of physical demonstrations. You’ll see how sound waves can propagate across different systems, how a moonwalk works by having one wave moving forward over another moving backward, how optical fiber transmission is made possible by the way light waves bounce off surfaces, and much, much more. For user convenience, each lecture section also lists the demos separately, so you can go directly to the demos if you like.

Insights into How It Is Taught

In his video Instructor Insights, Professor Lee explains why these demonstrations are so important, how he weaves them into his lectures, and how they must be carefully staged before each lecture. In other insights, he shares further pedagogic stratagems, like how he uses humor to enliven his lectures and reinforce student learning, how he employs questionnaires to adjust the pace of the course to the particular mix of students in a given class, and how and why he has changed the course from the way it was previously taught.

So why not explore 8.03SC? You might catch a wave and find that you’re sitting on top of the world!

Brains, Minds and Machines: An Interdisciplinary Tour-de-Force

Diagram of human brain highlighting different regions; a process flow diagram about understanding a visual scene; and photo of a humanoid robot.What is the nature of intelligence?

How does the brain produce intelligent behavior?

How can we apply this understanding to build wiser and more useful machines, for the benefit of society?

By Curt Newton, OCW Site Curator

If these questions grab your interest, check out OCW’s just-published Brains, Minds and Machines Summer Course. It’s an interdisciplinary tour-de-force, presenting some of the latest thinking in neuroscience, cognitive science, computation, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

These questions are animating some of the world’s brightest minds — especially here at MIT, with the recently-announced Intelligence Quest initiative.

Consider the challenge of self-driving vehicles. Safe driving is plenty hard for humans…can we build machines which are better drivers? There are myriad challenges, like sophisticated vision, the ability to understand scenes, learn, and make predictions, and acting instantaneously on feedback. We need to understand these sophisticated behaviors, and many others, in “engineering” terms before we can build and use them in systems.

That’s precisely what this course is about. Through video lectures, panel discussions, and tutorials, you’ll get a state-of-the-art perspective from 40 faculty and research leaders: what do we know, what’s going on in labs right now, and where are we heading?

The course is organized by the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines: a National Science Foundation-funded multi-institutional collaboration for the interdisciplinary study of intelligence, headquartered at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and with managing partners at Harvard University.

The course is designed for graduate students, postdocs, faculty and professionals who may be well-grounded in one field, and want to develop a grasp of the synergistic interplay among all these related fields. Its goal is to “create a community of leaders in the science of intelligence who are equally knowledgeable in neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science.”

The OCW course site is organized into 9 units. It’s chock full of video, over 46 hours in all, and with extensive linked reading lists for each unit.

Here are just a few of the many highlights:

Recognizing it’s hard to be an expert in every one of these fields, the OCW course site includes a set of background tutorials to bring you up to speed on topics like neuroscience, machine learning, and neural decoding.

Students enrolled in the summer course put their learning into practice by working on an open-ended project of their choice. Learn more about these projects through short video interviews with some students.

This new OCW course site enriches our Supplemental Resource collection of materials from outside the official MIT curriculum. The summer course also forms a basis for the on-campus MIT course 9.523 Aspects of a Computation Theory of Intelligence. Instructor Insights from Ellen Hildreth, the summer course coordinator, describe the summer course’s conversion into a focused full-semester MIT course.

Participants in the Brains, Minds and Machines Summer Course have an intensive non-stop learning experience. Fortunately, OCW lets you explore the materials at your own pace, in your own sequence, and return to it again and again. There’s a LOT to learn here, and the future world awaits!