Making the Past Present with Hands-on Humanities

PHoto of several people around a wooden workbench.

Professor Jeffrey Ravel and students work on building a printing press. (Photo by Jonathan Sachs / Jonathan Sachs Graphics, Inc.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

MIT is famous for its hands-on engineering projects that students work on into the wee hours of the night. There are over 40 maker spaces at MIT, where students can design and build to their hearts’ content. During their undergraduate years, students assemble a huge variety of vehicles and devices, from aircraft to ovens, and they make models myriad and sundry.

And it’s not just in engineering classes where these creative energies play out.

Case in point: OCW has just published 21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today. Taught by Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel in Spring 2016, the course has three centers of activity: 1) a review of the history of books in Europe from about 1450, when printing was introduced, to the French Revolution, 2) an examination of books made during this period in MIT’s Libraries and the MIT Museum, and 3) the construction of “a functioning, durable printing press based on Early Modern European designs.”

Appreciating the Innovations of the Past

Photo of a wooden printing press in a workshop.

The completed printing press. (Photo by Jeffrey Ravel.)

That’s right. Students built a printing press from scratch, based on Early Modern European designs, under the guidance of Ken Stone, long-time director of the MIT Hobby Shop. Read the complete story of how they created the press from a single, huge wooden beam in the article Mens et Manus in the History Workshop, and this accompanying video:


For good measure, the students also made paper from pulped rags.

“One of the values of making something that seems prosaic, especially something that is now as common as paper, is learning that we moderns are not the only clever ones. People in the past were clever too, and they also knew some things we don’t,” observes Professor McCants.

The OCW site has lecture slides and an image gallery in addition to a list of readings and videos.

Insights about Teaching Hands-on Humanities

In their Instructor Insights on their This Course at MIT page, McCants and Ravel explain how they developed the course, used archival materials, assessed the students in their hands-on endeavors, and incorporated an online forum. There are also reflections from students on their experience discovering the past and making it present.

Anyone interested in exploring further the subject of the “print revolution” and its possible parallels to our own digital revolution would be well-served by visiting Professor Ravel’s 21H.418 From Print to Digital: Technologies of the Word, 1450 ̶ Present.

Math That Can Take You Higher

Two versions of a circular diagram, with a small round object in the center and a pattern of waves wrapping to the right. Upper image is a grid of lines with varying density; lower image renders this density pattern in smooth colors.

An adaptive grid (top) used to compute the supersonic flow around a cylinder (Mach number = 2). The methods taught in this class form the foundations for computational fluid dynamic analyses such as this. (Image courtesy of Prof. David Darmofal. Used with permission.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Airliners crisscrossing the globe, rockets hurtling into space, satellites orbiting distant planets—it’s where the fantastic meets the familiar—it’s aerospace! It’s where dreams of soaring above the clouds come true. And those dreams are made real by—mathematical models!

The methods underpinning those models are the focus of 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering, a course just published on OCW.

The OCW site showcases the materials for this course as it was taught in Spring 2014 by Professors Karen Willcox and Qiqi Wang. To improve student learning, the instructors used the Residential MITx platform to flip their classroom, requiring students to work through the assigned readings and problem sets before coming to class, so that class time could be devoted to problem-solving, small group exercises, and project work.

Learning Units, Measurable Outcomes, and Content Types

The course site is arranged in three main learning units, each with readings and simple, interactive assessments that allow students to test their understanding. The reading materials and assessments in each unit are linked to measurable outcomes, the skills that students are expected to demonstrate to pass the course. Thus, students can easily identify exactly what they are supposed to get out of a given session in the course, and they can immediately find the resources necessary to master that very topic.

The site also features many lecture videos, lecture notes, and homework assignments—these resources are assembled together by content type (rather than linearly) for user convenience. As the course was running, the lecture videos were broadcast live over WebEx so as to allow students to engage in remote activities, such as presenting at conferences, without falling behind.

Three programming projects were required in Spring 2014, and descriptions of these projects, along with sample student projects, are also included on the site.

What Happens When You Flip

Professor Willcox discusses the challenges of teaching a flipped classroom in her Instructor Insights on her This Course at MIT page, and the challenges were considerable. Creating the online materials, such as the class notes and the assessments, took a lot of thought and effort.  When you’re used to standing at the front of a lecture hall and taking the students where you want to go, it can be unsettling to find yourself winging it. It takes some getting used to:

“I was used to going into a classroom and delivering a great blackboard lecture on a particular topic. I learned it can be overwhelming to walk into a classroom and not know how exactly how the session will go because it will depend on how well students grasped the material they read on their own. This took some getting used to. It’s harder to plan for these types of sessions. You have to be willing to be flexible, and you need to be prepared to facilitate the session in several different ways depending on students’ learning needs.”

Professor Willcox also discusses what led her to create the measurable outcomes, why she prefers giving oral exams, how the programming projects get students to apply their skills to real problems, and the advantages of co-teaching the course.

Connections that Give Students More Control

A long-standing champion of OCW, Professor Willcox is one of MIT’s leading educational innovators. She is a main force behind MIT Crosslinks, a project that links topics in the MIT curriculum to online educational resources (including but not limited to OCW). Among her other educational initiatives is the MIT Undergraduate Curriculum Map, which shows the relations between subjects in the MIT undergraduate curriculum as well as which of these subjects have been published on OCW.

And (as if all this weren’t all) Professor Willcox is piloting Fly-by-Wire, a blended learning technology to help at-risk students in secondary schools stick with their studies and apply themselves, so they can graduate and take off.

Eight new OCW courses in October

Photo of a rock, crumpled up paper, and scissors.

The well-known hand game Rock, Paper, Scissors is an example of what game theorists call a strategic interaction, as discussed in the new OCW course 14.16 Strategy and Information. (Image courtesy of Jesse Kruger on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

OCW is pleased to highlight these courses published during the month of October. Five courses are brand-new subjects on OCW, and three courses are updates of older versions.

New Courses

Updated Courses

Technically Speaking, There’s a Lot Going On

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director, and Curt Newton, OCW Site Curator

Frequent users of OCW have some notion of how huge the website has become. It now has 2,370 course sites, plus another 56 Supplemental Resources. With course lists for each of MIT’s 35 departments, a companion site for high school teachers and students (Highlights for High School), and numerous collections (such as audio-video lectures, online textbooks, and most visited courses), OCW presents its vast library of openly published resources in manifold ways to help you make the most of your learning.

Alongside OCW’s growing collection, we are continually enhancing the site’s usefulness with new ways to find and explore content. Listed below are just some of the ways the website has improved in recent months.

Interactive, Searchable Video Transcripts

Screenshot of interactive transcript showing multiple occurances of the word "quantum."We’re making our videos more useful for serious study and social sharing.

Interactive, searchable video transcripts are now active in all three of our video player styles: the  “tabbed” video player (as in 8.04, shown above), the “pop-up” player (as in 6.00SC), and the in-page embedded player (as in the course introduction video for 18.06SC). This new feature allows you to search for any word in the transcript. Clicking on that word will take you to its place in the video. The interactive transcript tool also makes it easy to save and share short video excerpts.

[Why the different video players? The pop-up player is useful when a page has multiple videos, or the videos are listed within a table, along with many other related resources for that session or topic. The tabbed player includes direct access to all the videos in a playlist, offers the transcript as a PDF, and includes a download function. The embedded video is typically used for short, close-up videos that are the main feature of that page.]

Interactive Timelines for Course Navigation

Image of the interactive timeline, with scrolling dates on the bottom and specific individual content - a video- on the top.

This interactive timeline illustrates key dates and deliverables for projects in CMS.611J Creating Video Games. It shows the amount of time instructors allocated for each project and how the projects progressively increased in complexity.

Some courses have a LOT going on. Interactive timelines are one way we help you navigate through such courses.

We incorporated a timeline into CMS.611J Creating Video Games to show how the iterative design process is taught over an entire semester. In another case, we used a timeline to collate videos of the day-by-day video reflections of the lead instructor in 20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye: Writing and Hosting the Educational Show.

Other Versions and Related Content

Screenshot of OCW page, with links to MITx versions, archived OCW version, course sequence info and related course collections.

Other versions and related content information for 6.004 Computation Structures.

With so many courses on OCW, one of our top priorities is helping you understand how any given course fits within the overall OCW site and the MIT curriculum.

For instance, about 900 subjects on OCW have had multiple versions published. We now provide direct links to alternate versions of a course on the course home page. And if a course has a counterpart MOOC offered by MITx, we link to that too. These MITx links are complemented by a page (MITx Courses and Related OCW Courseware) that lists all the MITx MOOCs currently being offered along with related OCW courses that help you prepare or support your MOOC efforts.

For even more context, when a course is part of a sequence in the department’s curriculum, we call attention to that. Finally, Course Collections links take you to lists of other OCW courses that share similar topics.

The goal here is to provide more context for how the course fits in the MIT curriculum and maximize your learning opportunities.

[Why multiple OCW versions of the same subject? Usually the other versions have a different pedagogic approach, a different array of resources, or a resource that is especially useful (such as detailed lecture notes or problem sets with solutions), or sometimes a legendary MIT instructor!]

Accessibility Improvements

OCW is committed to supporting our visually and hearing impaired users. We have made extensive changes to our webpage templates to make the pages more accessible to screen readers and other disability-assist devices. Every new feature that we build into the OCW website goes through a thorough review by our accessibility experts and is not published until it meets their satisfaction. As well, we  continue to make new and existing content more accessible on an ongoing basis.

Security Enhancements

The OCW website now incorporates SSL, which employs cryptography to make the site more secure. This will ensure that the OCW content can be trusted and will help in its discoverability. The only way you might have noticed is that OCW now loads into your browser as “https” and not “http.”

More “Find Courses” Options

Screenshot of "Find Courses" megamenu, highlighting new links to courses by Instructional Approach and Teaching Materials.In the Find Courses “megamenu” at the top of every OCW page, you’ll see two new categories. These are the two search capabilities that we added to our Educator Portal earlier in the year: search by Instructional Approach and search by type of Teaching Materials. Why should we change the megamenu? We figured you would benefit from having all the search functions in one place, and we were wondering if more people would visit the Educator Portal as a result. Turns out, our hunch was correct. Traffic to the Portal doubled almost overnight, and now gets about 30,000 visits every month.

*** *** ***

These are just a few of the ways we’ve upgraded the OCW site in recent months to enhance your experience. Stay tuned for more improvements in the coming months.

William Bowen, Mellon Foundation president who led initial OCW funding, dies at 83

Photo of man standing at a Princeton University lectern, giving a speech.

Photo of William Bowen by Brian Wilson, Office of Communications, Princeton University.

MIT OpenCourseWare joins with our colleagues across higher education to mourn the passing of William Bowen. As president of the Mellon Foundation, he played a central role in the creation of OpenCourseWare.

More on the OCW story below. But first, those who didn’t know Bowen can get a glimpse of his life and reach in Brian Rosenberg’s eloquent rememberance in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

To Bill Bowen, the important things always mattered, regardless of his age or his title. He cared in 2016 as passionately about the entrenched inequities in higher education as he did when he assumed the presidency of Princeton, at age 38. He cared as much about issues of academic freedom and free speech as he did in 1973, when he defended the right of William Shockley, a physics professor who believed blacks were genetically inferior, to say things that Bowen himself found deeply offensive. He argued as forcefully for the importance of the arts and humanities in our culture as he did when he assumed the presidency of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in 1988.

He never stopped caring, and he never stopped being the most thoughtful and articulate voice on these and a host of other issues central to our educational system and our civic life…

Outside the circles of academe, his name is not nearly as well known as those of innumerable politicians and business people. But whether they know his name or not, many people who have attended a college whose doors would have been closed to them previously, or who received financial aid that created a world of new possibilities, are better off because Bill Bowen cared about their lives.

How did Bill Bowen come into the OCW fold? In 2000, MIT President Charles Vest had just received the revolutionary recommendation that would lead to OpenCourseWare. An Institute committee of faculty, staff and alumni felt that MIT should respond to the rapid growth of the Internet by giving all of its basic teaching materials away on the web for free.

President Vest quickly saw the wisdom and the enormous potential of the proposal, and set out to make it real. One of the first big questions: how to fund it? His first stop was none other than Bill Bowen. Vest describes their initial meeting:

I had breakfast in New York with Bill Bowen, the distinguished former president of Princeton University and current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bill is that rare combination, a deep thinker and an effective leader.

Over eggs, I said, “Bill, I want to tell you how MIT is thinking about using the Internet for education. Then I’ll have three questions. Do you think it’s a good idea? If you think it is a good idea, do you think foundations might fund it? And, if so, might The Mellon Foundation be interested?”

Normally when one approaches a foundation for support, the answer, if not “No,” is a request to send a letter. Then one might be asked to do a draft proposal with an approximate budget. Finally, one might be asked for a full-blown proposal, to which the ultimate response seems most likely to be rejection. In this case, Bill looked at me and said, “Don’t take this idea anywhere else. Let’s go to work to figure out how to fund it.”

Vest tells an expanded version of this story, with more recollections of Bill Bowen, in the following video from a 2011 panel discussion (clip starts at 13:20).

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.

**** **** ****

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!”