Experimental Study Group

The Experimental Study Group (ESG), now in its 32nd year, has significantly grown beyond its original mission of providing personalized instruction in the core subjects to first year students at MIT. Additional functions include sponsoring a variety of innovative and interactive undergraduate seminars, developing new curricula and pedagogical approaches for core subjects, expanding alumni involvement in ESG and at MIT, and training undergraduates to help teach biology, chemistry, computer science, math, physics, and HASS subjects to freshmen. These initiatives are useful not only for our own program, but are potentially exportable to the regular curriculum. For example, several seminars developed and taught in ESG (SP287 Kitchen Chemistry and SP293 Robotics) have are now being offered as dorm-based seminars to regular curriculum students. We are working closely with various parts of MIT (including relevant academic departments, the Edgerton Center, Residential Life and Student Life Programs, and the Dean for Undergraduate Education) to continue these seminars and promote their growth, since they are directly in line with the Task Force's Report on Student Life and Learning to better integrate those two aspects of students' lives.

Student Statistics

Fifty-three first year students enrolled for one or both terms in ESG. ESG's freshmen were a diverse group: 53 percent of students were female, 13 percent were underrepresented minorities, and 9 percent were international students. Twenty-three upperclassmen took one or two core science or HASS subjects in ESG, and 85 undergraduates (78 percent of whom were not former ESG students) took part in our seminar program.

An important component of ESG includes undergraduate, graduate, and alumni teaching assistants who work closely with the staff and faculty in helping maintain the group's ability to offer high quality, personalized instruction. ESG employed 28 undergraduates (who collectively maintained a grade point average of 4.5) who were closely supervised by staff through a variety of methods, including participating in a weekly teaching seminar in the fall term, meeting regularly with staff members, and receiving written feedback through end of term freshman evaluations. The group also utilized three graduate students (two of whom had been in ESG as freshmen) and two ESG alumni as teaching assistants.

Staff and Faculty

ESG's administration was headed by Professor Travis Merritt and included associate directors Dr. Peter Dourmashkin and Dr. Holly Sweet, and program coordinator Julie Banda. The advisory committee maintains oversight of ESG, with faculty representation from the Department of Chemistry (Professor Alan Davison), the Department of Mathematics (Professor Daniel Kleitman), the Department of Physics (Professor Marc Kastner), the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (Dean Philip Khoury), and the School of Science (Dean Robert Silbey).

The physics staff was headed by Dr. Peter Dourmashkin (Senior Lecturer), and included Professor Emeritus Robert Hulsizer and three ESG alumni—Toby Ayer '96, David Custer '82, and Dr. Sen-Ben Liao '90 (currently on leave from his professorship at the National Chung-Cheng University in Taiwan). The mathematics staff was supervised by Dr. John Lewis (Senior Lecturer) and included ESG alumnus Glenn Iba '74, Evelyne Robidoux, and Craig Watkins.

Dr. Patricia Christie headed the chemistry and biology offerings at ESG. ESG also offered several HASS and HASS-D courses to its students. In the fall term, Matthew Belmonte taught 21W.730 Expository Writing and Dr. Lee Perlman taught 24.00 Problems in Philosophy. In the spring term, Professor Merritt taught 21L.004 Major Poets, Dr. Perlman taught SP2H1 Philosophy of Love, and Mr. Custer taught 21W.735 Reading and Writing the Essay.

Academic Initiatives

Because of its small size and experimental educational focus, ESG provides an ideal milieu in which staff, faculty, and students can develop new subjects and new approaches to existing subjects. The most exciting development has been the steady increase in the numbers of undergraduate seminars we have been able to offer at ESG, most of them supported by gifts from ESG alumni. This year we offered ten seminars, five of them developed and taught by undergraduate students under staff and faculty supervision. New seminars this year included: SP.270 The Art, Culture, and Industry of Japanese Animation, SP.271 The Rise of Algebraic Thinking, SP.273 Research Seminar on Skill Development in Humans and Computers, SP.274 Political Prisoners: Personalities, Principles, and Politics, and SP.275 Sustainable Living at MIT. The Class of 1951 Fund will be sponsoring SP.270 again in the coming year.

Seminars, which have been run, previously included SP.287 Kitchen Chemistry, SP.290 Psychology in Action, SP.292 Writing Workshop, SP.273 Robotics, and 9.A12 Psychology Looks at the First Year. In the spring term, ESG sponsored over two thirds of all of the undergraduate seminars offered to the entire undergraduate student body at MIT. Students who take ESG seminars frequently say that these seminars are the only opportunity they have had since their freshman year to participate in a small interpersonal class with a hands-on focus. We are working on ways to encourage MIT to offer more seminars like these for its upperclassmen.

For the second year in a row, ESG offered its own recitation and tutorials in 6.001 Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Chris Cheng, a current graduate student in Course 6, ran the tutorials, and recitation sections were handled by upperclassmen James Rising, Catherine Russo, and ESG alumnus Emil Sit. The smaller size of the recitation and the close contact between recitation instructor and tutors allowed students to receive more individualized and integrated attention.

Two ESG staff members, Dr. Peter Dourmashkin and Dr. Sen-Ben Liao, have been instrumental in utilizing their experience learning and teaching physics in ESG to help develop student teaching materials for the new TEAL 8.02 subject which was offered this past spring. In addition, Dr. Dourmashkin sponsored a summer camp for middle school girls in the development of technological skills for the first time this past summer, which included learning how to build go-carts and radio controlled blimps. This camp is being sponsored again this coming summer.

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Alumni Involvement

The ESG Alumni Network (ESGAN) was created in October 1999 in response to requests from alumni who had attended ESG's 30th anniversary celebration that fall. The Network allows for more opportunities for interaction with ESG than the standard annual newsletters and occasional reunions. Glenn Iba '74 has served as ESGAN's president since its inception and has been instrumental in expanding the role of alumni at ESG. During this past year, our alumni have been very involved in many aspects of the ESG program, including teaching subjects for credit, running seminars during IAP, offering internships and job opportunities for students, speaking at Friday luncheons, and participating in community activities (such as weekend trips). ESG alumni also have made significant financial contributions to ESG, which were used to sponsor educational initiatives, and community activities that are beyond the scope of the ESG base budget. It is clear that many ESG alumni feel a strong connection to ESG, and that ESGAN has helped facilitate and strengthen those connections.


ESG gave its own set of annual cash awards, including the Peter and Sharon Fiekowsky community service award (now in its third year) and the Todd Anderson excellence in teaching award (now in its fifth year). Both Mr. Fiekowsksy and Mr. Anderson are graduates of MIT and have established funding for annual prizes. This year, the Peter and Sharon Fiekowksy award was won by Jennifer Tu '05 for her outstanding contributions to the ESG community. The Todd Anderson teaching award was given to seniors Miriam Boon, Alexis Cavic, Roger Ford, Toh NeWin, and Eric Smith, who have all demonstrated excellence in teaching at ESG over a sustained period of time.

Future Developments

In the coming year, we plan to continue with our educational innovation (especially offering hands-on education, interdisciplinary subjects, residence-based seminars, and web-based instructional materials), and to promote the use of undergraduates in instructional capacities at MIT. We will continue to expand the use of alumni at ESG, particularly in terms of funding new projects and informally tutoring and mentoring our new students. We look forward to continuing to provide a unique place where staff, students, faculty, and alumni can come together to experiment with new ways of teaching and learning within a collaborative, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary community.

Travis Merritt, Director and Professor of Literature Emeritus
Peter Dourmashkin, Associate Director and Lecturer in Physics
Holly Sweet, Associate Director

More information about the Experimental Study Group can be found at http://web.mit.edu/esg/www/home.html.


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