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.

Person-to-Person in Urban Sociology

Photo of urban street scene, with brightly painted front of an auto muffler shop.

A neighborhood in the Bronx, New York City. Part of this course focuses on the changing concept of “community” and the effects of neighborhood characteristics on individuals. (Courtesy of Axel Drainville on Flickr. CC BY-NC.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Teaching at the college level is often exciting and rewarding, but it is rarely easy, especially in discussion-based classes, where learning depends on student participation. Getting shy students to share their opinions in a classroom, and preventing the extroverts from dominating the conversation—these are perennial challenges for instructors. Students can have very different backgrounds, with different notions of forwardness and politeness, so establishing a civil dialogue can be a delicate matter.

That’s assuming the class is taking place on a college campus. How much more difficult would teaching be in a prison, with half the students as inmates and the other half as young eager beavers from a celebrated nearby college?

Professor Justin Steil and Teaching Assistant Aditi Mehta took on this challenge as instructors of 11.469 Urban Sociology in Theory and Practice, newly published on OCW. In Spring 2016 they taught this course at the Massachusetts Correctional Facility in Norfolk, MA, where about half the students were inmates participating in the Boston University Metropolitan College Prison Education Program.  In their Instructor Insights on their This Course at MIT page, Steil and Mehta explain their strategies for breaking the ice between these MIT and BU students to create a collaborative learning environment.

Opening Up Discussion through Collaborative Assignments

One way to get people talking is to have at least one student from each group working together on assignments.  The task can be simple, such as handing out to each group identical images of urban life, and then having the students with matching images join up and generate some observations about what they see.  Other assignments, such as presentations on the Spring 2016 readings, required similar cross-group collaboration. The challenge for the students was compounded by the fact that they could not communicate outside of class because of prison rules. That meant that all of their presentation’s insights and structure had to be developed during class breaks.

In this environment, discussions bloomed and interestingly showed some telling differences between groups. The MIT students tended to focus on “the oppressive power of larger socio-economic structures,” while the BU students felt that this viewpoint was too limiting and “found more dignity in recognizing the significance of personal choice and agency.” As the instructors saw it, “The micro ‘personal stories’ and macro ‘abstract analysis’ were different and valuable ways of making sense of and engaging the same material.”

Unleashing the Power of Low Tech

The BU students had no access to the Internet, email, word processing, or printers, so Steil and Mehta had to prepare everything in paper form before class. This forced them to be more organized than they would otherwise have been. They believe that it improved the dynamics of the class as well:

“Simply making eye contact with someone when they speak instead of typing on your computer actually builds trust.  Students were really listening to each other, and distractions were not a problem in this class.  And as instructors, lecturing or teaching without A/V aids forced us to internalize and embrace the material and communicate it clearly. We could not hide behind a pretty slide or bullet points. In our future teaching, we hope to continue embracing this way of facilitating and learning— simply person to person.”

Teaching Calculus, the Beautiful Language of Change


Move…accelerate…reach the peak…bottom out…transform…

So many ways to look at change, to talk about change. Change is inescapable. And change can be scary, especially when you don’t understand what’s happening. Yet change can also be an opportunity for growth, for progress, for new insights.

The same could be said of the millions of students who take calculus classes every year. As teachers know, it’s a rich opportunity for student growth and insight, and also scary as they’re getting started. More than a math subject, calculus is fundamentally the language of change. It’s a beautiful and powerful expression of this universal phenomenon, and a great way to tackle a wide range of real-world problems.

MIT’s John Bush, professor of applied mathematics (and a fabulous photographer of fluid phenomena), offers some great calculus teaching tips in the above video. We hope you can motivate students by demonstrating how to revel in the beauty of the language, and all the things it can do, before diving into the nitty-gritty grammar of deltas and epsilons. Professor Bush suggests:

  • Sharks hunt with calculus! They intuitively “follow the gradient” of scent, or the direction that gives the highest rate of increase, to take them toward their prey.
  • Introductory physics students will have learned Snell’s law as an equation about the angles of light paths through different media. But calculus can show that it’s fundamentally an optimization problem of light following the fastest route; just like how a smartphone GPS map calculates your fastest route home through tangled streets and busy traffic. (See this explanation of route-finding by mathematician and writer Steven Strogatz.)
  • Archimedes’ Principle is a great way to experience the concept and importance of volume, and also the way integrals work. (Again, see Steven Strogatz’s engaging explanation.)

As Professor Bush says, calculus “is a language that’s valuable in virtually all disciplines, from physics to biology, from finance to engineering.”  Motivate deeper student engagement by demonstrating how beautiful it can be to describe their ever-changing world with the poetics of mathematics.

Calculus on OCW

OCW has a wealth of inspiring calculus teaching materials, all free and licensed for you to re-use and remix in your classroom. You’ll find complete courses, online textbooks, videos, many sample problems with solutions, and more. Here are some highlights.

Complete Courses

These two courses, from the OCW Scholar series, provide the complete teaching materials comprising MIT’s undergraduate calculus requirement. They’re a great place to begin, and house some of OCW’s most popular calculus material.

These OCW sites include complete video lectures, selected problem solving videos by course teaching assistants, and problems and exams with solutions. You can start at the beginning and work through it all in sequence, or pick and choose your own topics of interest from the syllabus.

Online Textbooks

These open-licensed textbooks by respected authors are free to download and use in your classroom, and for your own learning and inspiration.

  • Calculus for Beginners and Artists, by Daniel Kleitman
    An overview of calculus in clear, easy to understand language designed for the non-mathematician.
  • Calculus, by Gilbert Strang
    In-depth treatment of single variable and multivariable calculus, with plenty of applications. Also has an online Instructor’s Manual and a student Study Guide.
  • Calculus with Applications, by Daniel Kleitman
    Detailed lecture notes (in the form of a textbook) that cover differential calculus in one and several dimensions.
  • Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving, by Sanjoy Mahajan
    From its MIT Press catalog description: “…an antidote to the rigor mortis brought on by too much mathematical rigor, teaching us how to guess answers without needing a proof or an exact calculation.”


Use these videos to inspire your own approach to teaching. Students can watch them for in-depth and engaging explanations of key concepts, and to supplement their classroom instruction time.

  • Highlights of Calculus video series, by Gilbert Strang
    Five videos provide an overview of the key topics and ideas of calculus and how they apply to real-life situations and problems. There are summary slides and practice problems complete with an audio narration by Professor Strang. The resource also includes a series of 12 videos, with slides and practice problems, that dig more deeply into derivatives.
  • Single Variable Calculus lecture videos with PDF notes, by David Jerison
    This sequence of videos and accompanying notes (beginning with the first class session) covers differentiation, applications of differentiation, the definite integral and its applications, techniques of integration, and exploring the infinite.
  • Calculus Revisited: Single Variable Calculus, by Herb Gross
    A revered series of videos and related resources covering the materials normally found in a freshman-level introductory calculus course. The series was first released in 1970, and has achieved something of a cult following in its second life on OCW and YouTube.
  • Get problem solving tips in the recitation videos by course teaching assistants in 18.01SC Single Variable Calculus and 18.02SC Multivariable Calculus. Start with these videos at the end of the first 18.01SC session “Introduction to Derivatives“:
    • Definition of Derivative, by Joel Lewis
    • Graphing a Derivative Function, by Christine Breiner

Problem Solving and Assessment

Use questions and accompanying solutions from OCW’s worked examples, problem sets and exams directly with your students, or as a basis for your own instruction. Begin your exploration with these examples:

AP Calculus Exam Study

With OCW Highlights for High School, you can search for OCW calculus materials by topic and subtopic, to help students prepare for their AP Calculus exams.

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These material highlights are just a tiny fraction of all of the calculus content on OCW. In the words of Professor John Bush, with calculus “the possibilities are endless!”

“Waste is a Decision”

Photo of a flock of birds flying over a landfill.

Mountains of trash collected in the Vancouver Landfill. (Photo courtesy of Justin Richie on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Suppose you had to carry around all the waste you created for an entire week? Cans, packaging, plastic bags, papers of all kinds, plastic forks, food, and who knows what else. And then you had to decide where all these items would go. How many would be recyclable? What about the rest?

The course EC.716 D-Lab: Waste, just recently published on OCW, begins with this exercise—students carrying their waste around so they can appreciate just how much waste they are responsible for.

The course takes off from there. Offered through MIT’s D-Lab program, which focuses on “development through discovery, design, and dissemination,” EC.716 is administered under MIT’s Edgerton Center. OCW has published 10 D-Lab courses over the years. EC.716 was taught by Kate Mytty and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar in Fall 2015. The OCW site has readings, lecture notes, assignments, and project descriptions.

Tangible Experiences

On the This Course at MIT page, Mytty shares her insights into teaching about waste. She likes to focus on “tangible experiences”—hands-on exercises like making a spot welder from parts of a broken microwave oven. In doing this, her students could see that they “were both deconstructing something but also constructing very different objects in response to it. They were also struck by the fact that, even after reusing parts of the microwave, they were still left with over 90% of the electronic device that wouldn’t be used in any other capacity and would likely end up in a landfill.”

And what about those landfills? They are out there, usually out of sight and out of mind. A fieldtrip to Massachusetts Southbridge Landfill helped encourage the students “to develop a more systematic approach” to waste. For instance, what technologies are used in a landfill these days? They have liners. What are the liners made of? They all smell. How is the smell managed?

A Doorway into Conversations

The point of all of this hands-on learning is really to open “a doorway into conversations about how students might change their own waste habits.” Changing a habit requires changing awareness, and in this regard EC.716 seems to have succeeded. One student told Mytty that “the class helped her become more aware of the ways in which waste is a decision.” It’s a good lesson for all of us.

Back-to-School Teaching Inspiration

Close-up photo of approximately 200 sharpened pink pencil tips.

Courtesy of Duncan.c on Flickr. License CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

It’s that time of year again—students are sharpening their pencils, charging their tablets, and gearing up to return to the classroom. Teachers, also, are getting ready, revamping curricula, creating engaging classroom environments, and brushing up on the latest instructional approaches. It’s an energizing time!

MIT faculty and instructors are excited, too. Through the OCW Educator initiative, you can discover how they’re approaching some of the hottest topics in education.

Here’s a few handpicked highlights. We hope their energy inspires you!

Active Learning

8.591J Systems Biology

Professor Jeff Gore discusses perceived barriers to active learning, particularly in large lecture classrooms, and shares how he has successfully implemented active learning strategies in this biophysics course.


20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye

Instructor Elizabeth Choe and her co-educators share their insights about grading and providing productive feedback in a course focused on students’ creative work.

Critical Thinking

21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspectives

Professor Anne McCants shares how she frames lectures in this history course as problem-solving endeavors and discusses specific strategies for helping students engage in critical thinking.

Engaging Learners

6.034 Artificial Intelligence

Professor Patrick Henry Winston shares strategies he uses to engage learners in a large lecture class.

Teaching Content in Real-World Contexts

CMS.611 Creating Video Games

Instructors Philip Tan, Rik Eberhardt, and Sara Verilli share their insights about engaging students in an academic-humanitarian partnership in this course focused on designing video games.

Teaching Communication

22.THT Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial

Professor Michael Short shares strategies for helping students develop their science communication skills.

Teaching the Design Process

6.811 Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology

Instructors William Li and Grace Teo share their insights about teaching students how to engage in the assistive technology design process, and in three videos, student teams also share their perspectives about what it was like to participate in this unique user-centered learning experience.

Teaching Problem Solving

Supplemental Resource: Vibrations and Waves Problem Solving

Professor Emeritus Wit Busza shares his approach to problem solving, strategies for supporting students as they engage in problem solving, and common sources of confusion for students as they engage in this process.

Teaching with Technology

18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics

Instructors Jeremy Orloff and Jonathan Bloom discuss how they used the Residential MITx platform to incorporate online reading questions and problem set checkers into this introductory probability and statistics course.

Understanding What’s Happened and Is Happening in The Middle East

In 2012, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the verdicts in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. (Image courtesy of Lorenz Khazaleh on Flickr. Available CC BY-NC-SA.)

In 2012, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the verdicts in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. (Image courtesy of Lorenz Khazaleh on Flickr. Available CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

The region known as the Middle East has been in upheaval for decades now, and trying to gain understanding and perspective on its complexities can be both difficult and daunting. The region includes many countries, with long histories, rich cultures, and varied interests.  There are many different points of view on what’s been happening there and why. How do you make sense of it all?

A great way to start is by reading. But what should you read? There are countless books and articles on the Middle East, not all of them accurate, and many of them tendentious. How can you know what you’re getting into?

There is no better place to start than a reading list curated by an MIT instructor who has spent years studying and assessing key publications. Each one of the many OCW courses on the Middle East has a reading list, sorted into different topics.

Here is a sampler of courses with reading lists that might pique your interest:


“. . . a historical introduction to the Middle East in the late Ottoman period and the eve of imperialism at the beginning of the Twentieth century after World War I . . . the establishment of nation-states in the Middle East . . . the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  . . .  the rise of political Islam and the Iranian Revolution . . . the debates regarding Islam and democracy, and Islam post 9/11 . . . the 2011 revolts in the Arab world . . . today’s realities in the Middle East.”


“The first half discusses the Ottoman Empire by exploring how this multiethnic, polyglot empire survived for several relatively peaceful centuries and what happened when its formula for existence was challenged by politics based on mono-ethnic states. The second half of the course focuses on post-Ottoman nation-states, such as Turkey and Egypt, and Western-mandated Arab states, such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. Finally, the course concludes with a case analysis of Israel.”


“ . . . The sixth section applies the course theories and methods to the Arab Spring and current conflict in Mali.”


“ . . . the dilemmas, misperceptions, crimes and blunders that caused wars of the past; the origins of these and other war-causes; the possible causes of wars of the future; and possible means to prevent such wars, including short-term policy steps and more utopian schemes.” Sessions 22 – 23 discuss the Israel-Arab conflict and the 2003 US-Iraq war.


“. . . ideational, institutional and material foundations of the state of Israel; Israeli national identity, Israeli society, economy, and foreign and security policies.”


“How do Islam and media technologies relate? What kinds of practices of inscription and transmission characterize Islam in all its varieties across time and place? How might Islamic thought and practice be understood in light of databases, networks, and audiovisual sensation?“


“[This course’s] aim is to examine why non-state actors (such as warlords, terrorists, militias, etc.) resort to violence, what means and tactics they use, and what can be done to counter that violence.”

A Student-Centered Ethic

Person writing on a chalkboard at the front of a classroom,

A teaching assistant in one of the ‘mega-recitation videos’ for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Like it or not, the first two years of an undergraduate’s education at a research university often consists of large lectures taught by professors, supplemented by discussion groups or problem-solving sessions (sometimes called “recitations”) run by teaching assistants (TAs).  Consequently, for many undergraduates, a TA is the first college instructor they get to know on a personal level.

So teaching assistants can have a huge impact on the experience of undergraduates, especially in the early going, where a student’s attitude about learning can take off—or stall out. Luckily, most TAs take their jobs seriously and put a lot of effort into helping their students.

Fostering Real Intelligence and Well-Being

OCW has for the first time provided a glimpse into the thinking that TAs put into their teaching by publishing the TAs’ Instructor Insights for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence. The TAs, Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes, explain how they adhere to a student-centered ethic initiatied by Professor Patrick Winston, where the primary objects is “to help students learn the material and to become inspired.” This ethic informs all the course policies and TA activities, from assignment due dates to grading.

For instance, since the point of assessment is to demonstrate mastery (and not to make fine distinctions in accrued points), the final exam is optional, and four of its five parts reflect knowledge already assessed in quizzes given earlier in the semester. So if a student does poorly on a quiz, there’s a chance for redemption in the final. This relieves the pressure to do well on a single test.

Assignments are due by 10PM rather than the traditional zero hour of midnight to encourage students to get a decent night’s sleep.

Taking It Online

The TAs engage directly with students both in class and out. On an online forum, the TAs answer student questions, and these exchanges are visible for the entire class to see. Over time, the forum functions as an archive of Frequently Asked Questions and helps inform how recitations are taught.  But running an online forum can be tricky, and the TAs share how they have responded to the challenges to make the exchanges more productive.

Facing the Challenges

It’s not easy being a TA. You’re just starting out, just beginning to learn how to engage students and foster learning. You have to learn how to plan and manage a successful recitation, for example. Students can ask all kinds of questions that you might not know the answer to. And you have to do this while dealing with the pressures of being a student yourself.

For Noss and Holmes, the point is to show the students that the TAs care about them and about how well they do—that is, how well they learn. That’s an ethic that’s easy to get behind.

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[This is the 2nd of two recent posts on 6.034 Artifical Intelligence. The first post highlights some instructor insights from Professor Patrick Henry Winston.]