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!

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!

Insights on Teaching Japanese, in Japanese (and English)

Traditional Japanese masks at Senso-ji (浅草寺) in Tokyo, Japan. (Image courtesy of rita11836 on Flickr. License CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

OCW has just published 21G.503 Japanese III, the third in a four-course sequence on Japanese taught at MIT. With relatively few Japanese speakers on the MIT campus, the instructors must make the most of what happens in the classroom and motivate students to work hard outside it.

The course site’s Instructor Insights feature brief video interviews with one of the instructors, Takako Aikawa. She addresses key topics in language instruction, such as grammar and drill sessions, developing students’ language skills, assessing students, and teaching language through culture.

Each interview is presented twice: once in English…

…and again in Japanese.

OCW has published similar interviews in two languages for 21G.101 Chinese I (Regular) and 21G.108 Chinese II (Streamlined).

Instructors of any language will surely benefit from the reflections and advice offered in all of these interviews. Maybe students even more!

Some Timely Courses for Our Trying Times

Two men standing in a muddy debris-strewn street.

Residents begin to assess the damage after Hurricane Maria hit the island of Dominica in September 2017. (Public domain image by Roosevelt Skerrit on Flickr).

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

We noticed that these courses, published in the past month, seem particularly relevant in light of recent events.

11.027 Global City Scope—Disaster Planning and Post-Disaster Rebuilding and Recovery, taught by Cherie Miot Abbanat.

What’s your town’s disaster mitigation plan? Does it even have one? Does it seem like a viable way of handling an emergency, or is it just a report that sits on a shelf?

Analyzing and evaluating one of these plans is one of your assignments when you take this course.

And what course could be more timely? Recent months have seen so many mind-blowing disasters, one after another—hurricanes of phenomenal destructive power, monster wild fires, crushing mud slides, earthquakes, a bomb cyclone.

The course has four modules: Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness and Planning, Disaster Response, Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding.

21A.429J Environmental Conflict, taught by Professor Christine Walley.

Is there a recent  environmental issue that has not generated conflict? Fracking? The regulation of chemicals and toxins? Offshore oil drilling? The status of natural parks and preserves?

This course provides the theoretical frameworks for thinking about such conflicts, and focuses

…on a number of often contentious issues, including: ideas of “nature” and the politics and practices of nature conservation; the links between toxic pollution and health effects; the complexity of human / non-human relations as seen through the lens of multispecies frameworks; and debates over crucial contemporary issues ranging from climate change to natural gas exploration.

17.269 Race, Ethnicity, and American Politics, taught by Professor Ariel White.

The course description sums it up nicely:

What is “race”? How could we possibly measure it, and does it really matter? What does it mean to say that a policy is discriminatory, and how have social scientists and courts tried to measure racial discrimination? What do Americans think about race in the 21st century, and how do these opinions shape their voting and protest behavior?

After taking this course, students will be able to discuss different ways of imagining race and ethnicity, and their historical underpinnings. They will be able to describe and critique the ways in which racial attitudes are theorized and measured, and think about how these different attitudes are expected to shape political behavior…

Teaching a course on such a sensitive subject requires more than a little thoughtfulness. The course site includes some fascinating Instructor Insights, including “Facilitating Talk about Race and Ethnicity” and “Fostering Intuition about Social Science.”

21H.983 Gender, taught by Professors Lerna Ekmekcioglu and Elizabeth A. Wood.

As much as gender is discussed in the popular media, this course explores some challenging questions that you don’t see posed very often, at least not directly:

How does gender work? How is the body itself sexed and gendered in different times and places? How do gender, race and class work in historical context? Does gender influence state formation and the work of the state? What role does gender play in imperialism and in the welfare state? What is the relationship between gender and war? How does the state regulate the body in the modern world? What are some new directions in the study of gender?

17.480 Understanding Military Operations, taught by Professor Owen Cote.

Right now some 300,000 US military personnel, often using highly sophisticated technology, are deployed in over 150 countries around the world. This course offers the chance to assess the thinking behind deployments like these and how they might change in the future.

The course covers a full range of topics, from military doctrine to tactical mobility. As the course description states:

This seminar will break apart selected past, current, and future sea, air, space, and land battlefields into their constituent parts and look at the interaction in each of those warfare areas between existing military doctrine and weapons, sensors, communications, and information processing technologies. It will specifically seek to explore how technological development…is influenced in each warfare area by military doctrine.

Fly High, Fly Low

Photo of man sitting in an airplane cockpit, wearing a helmet.

Professor Oliver de Weck flies the prize.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Ever hear someone complain about a recent flight on an airliner?

There wasn’t enough legroom to stretch out, the food (if there was any) was only so-so, the movie selection could have been better, it wasn’t easy falling asleep tilted back only slightly in that seat.

What people don’t much complain about is the aircraft itself, which holds 300 people and their luggage, zooms along at 600 miles per hour for thousands of miles up at 35,000 feet, has a pressurized cabin with a comfortable climate, is remarkably quiet, and affords a fairly smooth ride, even in rough weather.

The reason we find ourselves preoccupied with airborne beverage options and not the air-sick bag is the fantastic success of systems engineering in designing aircraft, which now have thousands of requirements, from efficient, powerful engines to sophisticated electronics.

It’s All in the System

Now you can discover for yourself how all this has been made possible by cruising through 16.842 Fundamental of System Engineering, just published on OCW. Taught by Professor Olivier de Weck, whose fascination with aircraft and flight goes back to childhood, the course provides an overview of the entire design process. Professor de Weck takes you along the wings of the V-model, which begins with stakeholder analysis (what the customer wants) and requirements definition through concept generation and selection, and on to validation and lifecycle management. The focus in 16.842 is on aircraft and space craft, but the V-model can be applied to almost any engineered product.

The course site features classroom videos, lecture notes, and assignments.

Competition in a Can

For the central assignment, students are tasked with designing satellites for the CanSat Competition, in which teams from around the world create satellites that must fit in a can, be lofted by a rocket, and be deployed at high altitude. The satellites are then supposed to glide back to earth tracing a circular pattern, collecting data as they go. That’s if everything goes right. It’s a six-week course. No pressure!

Needless to say, teamwork is essential. In his video Instructor Insights, Professor de Weck discusses how he fosters effective teamwork, assesses students both as teams and as individuals, teaches the design process in a SPOC (small private online course) that blends online and in-class learning with students from two different schools, and favors both written and oral exams.

So buckle up for 16.842. OCW has approved you for take-off!

Biochemistry Becomes Us All

Pair of helix structures, showing one with missing H bond.

An illustration from the notes for Session 2 of 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I, describing the hierarchy in protein structure, with hemoglobin as an example. (Figure by O’Reilly Science Art for MIT OpenCourseWare.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Did you know that life, in all its mindboggling diversity, from single-celled bacteria to reptiles, birds, and mammals, is made possible by ten simple chemical reactions?

These reactions, and their interconversions in our primary metabolic pathways, are the focus of 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I, just published on OCW.

It’s amazing, really. The basic reactions, their metabolic pathways, and the vitamins that are modified to make catalysts boosting still more reactions, are conserved across organisms.  “It doesn’t matter whether you study a bacteria or a human, the central metabolism is pretty much the same,” says star researcher Professor JoAnne Stubbe, one of the 5.07SC instructors. “The thing that’s different is the detailed regulation and the complexity of the regulation.”

So if you can understand the basics of biochemistry, you have the keys to understanding the living universe.

And the keys to understanding most diseases, since most diseases involve some sort of dysfunction in the regulation of metabolic reactions.

Co-Teaching with Varied Resources

A recipient of the National Medal of Science, Stubbe has devoted much of her career to elucidating the workings of nucleotide reductases, the enzymes involved in the chemical reactions essential to the biosynthesis of DNA and RNA. Professor Stubbe’s co-instructors are Professor John Essigmann and Dr. Bogdan Fedeles. Essigmann leads a lab that investigates how chemicals in the environment can damage DNA in cells and how cells respond to and sometimes repair the damage. Working in that lab, Fedeles and Essigmann have shown how chronic inflammation in the body can lead to cancer and how the HIV virus can be induced to deactivate itself after invading a cell.

As another of OCW’s Scholar courses, 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I abounds in learning resources. The course is arranged in a linear structure through three modules that reflect the shared teaching of the professors. Stubbe teaches the first part of the course, introducing fundamental reactions in her four Lexicon videos, and detailing further biochemical reactions through seven sessions in her illustrated lecture notes.

Starting in session 8, Professor Essigmann narrates a series of storyboard videos, showing how energy is produced in the cell and how that energy is used to make macromolecules like proteins.

In his own series of videos, Fedeles guides learners through carbonyl chemistry, pyridoxal phosphate (PLP) chemistry, and ten key problems sets distributed throughout the site.

All the learning resources are assembled on a single Resource Index page for convenient reference.

Envisioning Future Pathways for Students

The course site also features a series of video interview clips on its This Course at MIT page (“Meet the Educators” and “Instructor Insights”), in which Professors Stubbe and Essigmann share their reflections about how they teach biochemistry, what turned them on to biochemistry in the first place, what their research focuses on, and where they think biochemical research is headed. Topics include “Using the Vitamin Bottle as a Teaching Tool,” “How Can You Not Think Enzymes Are Cool?,” and “Motivating Students to Study Metabolic Biochemistry with Oncology Applications.”

So take a look at 5.07SC. Like the cell itself, it’s packed with material delivered with lots of energy.