More Introductory Computer Science

A visualization of clusters found by a clustering algorithm.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Back in February we told you about a new OCW course in computer science, 6.0001 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python. It’s a true introduction, for students with little or no programming experience.

Now you can develop your newly acquired skills further with the 2nd module in the sequence, 6.0002 Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science. It picks up where 6.0001 left off, providing you with “an understanding of the role computation can play in solving problems and to help students, regardless of their major, feel justifiably confident of their ability to write small programs that allow them to accomplish useful goals.”

The OCW site has full video lectures, featuring Professors John Guttag and Eric Grimson, along with lecture slides and supporting code, problem sets (so you can try out what you’ve learned), and files to install the latest version of Python, version 3.5.

Topics include Optimization Problems, Stochastic Thinking, Monte Carlo Simulation, Understanding Experimental Data, Introduction to Machine Learning, and Clustering.

This module offers a fresh approach to teaching how to think like a computer scientist. It joins our collection of Introductory Programming courses from MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, and is sure to join 6.0001 as one of OCW’s most visited courses.

Peer Review: Learning How to Give and Take

Photo of a traffic sign for "two way traffic" with two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down. By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Peer review! Hardly are those words out than a writing instructor’s heart starts to stir—but with joy or trepidation?

Peer review! That activity in which students review each other’s work and give each other feedback. It’s an essential writing skill, after all, being able to assess a piece of writing critically and offer suggestions for making it more effective without sending the author into a tailspin of despair.

It’s what every good editor does.

Writing is an art, like playing a musical instrument, and to learn how to do it well, you have to practice, so students in writing courses have to write a lot if they are going to improve. But even the most conscientious writing instructor can’t analyze everything the students in a class produce, and it’s often helpful to get more than one perspective on a piece of writing, so peer review offers an attractive solution on more than one front. It can also allow an instructor the breathing space to focus on higher-level things, like getting the students to think like writers.

Not Sweating the Small Stuff

Running a peer-review workshop is not easy, as anyone who’s tried it knows. Great advice from a veteran of many workshops is offered by Jared David Berezin, whose 21W.035 Science Writing and New Media: Communicating Science to the Public appeared this month on OCW.

Rather than just throwing the students into the workshop environment, he begins by holding a discussion, where he shares his own experience on the best and worst of workshopping and gets students’ thinking “about the value of peer-review in the workplace, and ways to solicit peer feedback in a professional, non-classroom setting.”

In the workshops, he wants students “to focus on the larger, global issues in the drafts, rather than editing sentences.” How come? “For many readers, it’s easier to focus on the little things, because they can be commented on with confidence and fixed quickly. Instead, I’d rather students use the precious time in the classroom to discuss the more difficult and nebulous issues within a text.”

Paraphrase as a Passport to Understanding

Nonetheless, he asks students “to provide evidence for all comments by referring directly to the text. Referencing single moments in the text can allow readers and authors to engage in a concrete discussion of ways to improve the overall draft, rather than speaking in vague abstractions.”

Students are required to take notes on each other’s work and to ask others to paraphrase what they have written. This “allows the author to assess whether the reader’s understanding aligns with the intent and desired meaning.”

Active Experiments

Aside from these and many other practical tips for making peer-review workshops a success, the course site has a gold mine of detailed assignments, in-class exercises, and “communication experiments” designed to foster creativity and versatility (Berezin shares his reflections on these experiments, peer review, and other facets of his teaching in his Instructor Insights). Most experiments, like “reverse-engineering metaphors” and descriptions of a green space from assigned perspectives, involve group work as well as individual writing. In this class, isolation is not an option.

If you are a writing teacher, or an aspiring writer hoping to make your mark, you’ll want to take a look at 21W.035. It has a lot to offer, both to you and to your peers.

Here’s what OCW has accomplished in the past 100 days

Photo of a person holding up a sign "100" made out of many small pictures.

Photo: Brian J. Matis / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Over the past 100 days, OCW has kept its open sharing promise to you, publishing courses, courses, and more courses. (Not to mention a steady stream of fun and fascinating Tweets and Facebook posts.) This batch of courses is a testament to the diversity and richness of the MIT curriculum.




Civil and Environmental Engineering


Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Global Studies and Languages




Mechanical Engineering

Political Science

Urban Studies and Planning



New Computer Science Courses!

A blue and yellow fractal image.

A fractal generated from the hailstone sequence, as discussed in Lecture 1 of 6.005 Software Construction. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

One of the great strengths of OCW as an educational resource is its extensive list of course sites from MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. You might think, with so many courses published from the EECS curriculum, that OCW’s work for this department has reached a plateau.

But OCW continues to climb higher, augmenting and refreshing the course list, and two new publications present superb cases in point.

Learning to Think Like a Programmer

6.0001 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python represents MIT’s evolving approach to this core subject, in which students with little or no programming experience learn how to write small programs that accomplish useful goals. 6.0001 is a six-week module using the Python 3.5 programming language.

Screenshot from video, of woman speaking in front of a chalkboard, holding a laser pointer.

Dr. Ana Bell explains a Python programming example (“robot cheerleaders”) in 6.001 Lecture 3.

The course site, showing the Fall 2016 class, has full video lectures featuring Dr. Ana Bell and Professor Eric Grimson. Slides and code for each lecture are also provided, as are interactive in-class questions with videos showing the answers to those questions. The textbook for the course was written by Professor John Guttag, who is well known to OCW fans for his popular OCW Scholar course, 6.00SC Introduction to Computer Science and Programming. The 6.0001 assignments page has helpful links to the 6.0001 Style Guide and a handy list of programming resources, including the Python Tutor.

Learning to Construct Software

Students who have developed some programming skill might then move on to 6.005 Software Construction, as taught in Spring 2016 by Professor Rob Miller and Dr. Max Goldman. As the instructors say in the syllabus, the course “introduces fundamental principles and techniques of software development, i.e., how to write software that is safe from bugs, easy to understand, and ready for change.”

Image containing some notes and a bubble+lines graph.

“Graphs—what are they good for? Poetry!” A page section from the problem, “Poetic Walks,” in the 6.005 Assignments.

An advocate of active learning, Professor Miller has his MIT students read a carefully structured textbook before coming to class so that most time can be spent doing exercises. The OCW site includes the full set of class readings, along with problems sets and a project, the ABC Music Player.

6.005 uses the Java programming language, for which help is available via the 6.005 Getting Started page and OCW’s popular course on Java, 6.092 Introduction to Programming in Java.

Recent History Shows Its Relevance

A grey-haired gentleman wearing a fur hat and black overcoat, raises his hand in a wave.

On December 31, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigned as head of state, leaving the presidency to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (Image by ITAR-TASS, from the website of the President of the Russian Federation.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Back in November, we told you about a novel history course in which MIT students built a printing press out of a single beam of wood following a 16th-century design. The idea was to get students involved in a hands-on project so they could have an insider’s view of a technology that revolutionized the world, while keeping in mind the ways digital technology is reshaping the world today.

21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today is but the latest of a string of OCW publications from MIT’s Department of History that have deep, one might even say, haunting relevance for the problems we confront today. A glance at any day’s news will make clear the value of setting current events in historical context.

Here is a sampler of recent OCW course sites from History, with brief descriptions from their syllabi. These courses all have detailed reading lists, and most have links to further help, including web resources, original documents, and films:

21H.108J Sexual and Gender Identities, as taught in Spring 2016 by Professor Caley Horan
wgs-110js16-thThis introduction to the history of gender, sex, and sexuality in the United States traces “the expanding and contracting nature of attempts to control, construct, and contain sexual and gender identities, as well as the efforts of those who worked to resist, reject, and reform institutionalized heterosexuality and mainstream configurations of gendered power.”

21H.211 The United States in the Nuclear Age, as taught in Spring 2016 by Professor Caley Horan
21h-211s16-th“The dawn of the nuclear age and the ensuing Cold War fundamentally altered American politics and social life. It also led to a flowering of technological experimentation and rapid innovation in the sciences. Over the course of the term, students will explore how Americans responded to these changes, and how those responses continue to shape life in the US today.”

21H.245J Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, 1917 to the Present, as taught in Spring 2016 by Professor Elizabeth A. Wood
21h-245js16-th“As Russian President Vladimir Putin once said, ‘Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.’ But what was the Soviet Union? How did it develop out of Imperial Russia? What happened in the Russian Revolution? What were the various efforts at reform, sometimes moderate (the New Economic Policy), sometimes violent (the purges of the 1930s)? How did the country deal with WWI and WWII? How did it deal with nationalities? What led to the rapid transformation under Gorbachev and the breakup of the USSR in 1991? How has the country continued to evolve under Yeltsin and Putin?”

21H.381J Women and War in the 20th Century, as taught in Fall 2015 by Professor Lerna Ekmekcioglu
21h-381jf15-th“This seminar examines women’s experiences during and after war, revolution, and genocide. The focus of the course is mostly on the 20th century and on North America, Europe and the Middle East.” Topics include War as Daily Life, Perpetrators, Soldiers, Rape as a Weapon, Peace Activism, and 9/11’s Gendered Aftermath.

21H.382 Capitalism in the Age of Revolution, as taught in Fall 2016 by Professor Malick Ghachem
21h-382s16-th“The novel instruments of credit, debt, and investment fashioned during this period proved to be enduring sources of financial innovation, but they also generated a great deal of political conflict, particularly during the revolutionary era itself. We will examine the debates surrounding large-scale financial and trading corporations and consider the eighteenth century as a period of recurring financial crisis in which corporate power came into sustained and direct contact with emerging republican norms.”

Mind and Hand and Ears

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

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

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching with Technology (and Without)

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

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

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

Learning to Listen

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

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

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

Offering Advice

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

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


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

Girls Who Build Cameras Have More Fun

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

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

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

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

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

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

Open Sharing, Take 2

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

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

Inspiring Role Models

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

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

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