MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVI No. 3
January / February 2014
Items to Consider
An Interview with MIT Corporation Chairman John Reed
Open Letter to President Reif
Regarding Tidbit
President Reif's Response to Open Letter Regarding Tidbit
The Role of Faculty Governance
in Campus Planning
Build to Win
Former MIT President Charles M. Vest
Dies at 72
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
The Continued Need for
Nuclear Power Plants
Underrepresented Minority Faculty
and Students at MIT
Printable Version

Beyond the Classroom

Build to Win

Steven B. Leeb

For almost 20 years I have had the good fortune of teaching a freshman seminar. I learned about this program from faculty who worked with Doc Edgerton, who taught freshman seminars even at the height of his considerable technical and industrial success, when he had no shortage of demands on his time. This is a wondrous program that consumes only minimal temporal and material resources. For the past several years, I have taught a seminar called "Physics of Energy" collaboratively with Professors James Kirtley, Les Norford, and Marc Baldo.

This specific seminar program arose several years ago from support for project-based learning activities spearheaded by Professors Silbey, Redwine, and Henderson, support for which I remain very grateful. In the seminar sessions, we meet with a combined group of freshmen, typically for two hours each week on a Tuesday afternoon. And we build. We work with the freshmen to apply concepts from the GIRs to construct practical systems like stereo speakers, amplifiers, electric go-carts, heat recovery engines, generators, motors, combustion boilers, and magnetic coil launchers. We read about energy and economics and climate change, and we meet for dinner to discuss the serious and the silly. The freshmen define a short energy project of their own conception, and present results at the end of the term, usually with stellar creativity, passion, and sophistication.

Freshman seminars are important to me not only because they provide an opportunity to enjoy the company of students and colleagues as fellow learners, but also because the seminars have served as a laboratory for trying out new demonstrations and hands-on activities that have impacted every other class I have taught here. For me, these seminars have affirmed the connection of mind and hand in teaching.

The program has improved all of my teaching activities. I hope and believe that it has connected freshmen to seeing value and delight in new ideas, to begin the process of life-long learning, and given them the courage to stand flat-footed in front of technical challenges they face and build to win.

In an address to the American Physical Society in 1938, MIT President Karl Compton observed that:

“…modern science has developed to give mankind, for the first time in the history of the human race, a way of securing a more abundant life which does not simply consist in taking away from someone else....”

This is an observation that I hope is in the hearts of the youngest members of our community here at MIT. Professor Compton's words highlight the great privilege of, and place a heavy burden on, teaching here. I was asked to contribute this essay for the Newsletter series of articles titled "Beyond the Classroom," which is a delightful oxymoron for stimulating a conversation about teaching at MIT. Here, the classroom is everywhere. The enduring value of residential education is the opportunity to learn actively from the serendipity that surrounds gatherings of engaged minds, wherever these gatherings occur. As teachers, we affirm our character and return value to our students and society when we participate actively in sharing our thought processes as designers, and when we share our communal sense that good technology exists to enhance human abilities and experiences without directly taking away from someone else.

Back to top

The twentieth century saw marked changes in instruction for technical undergraduates. That period saw a laudable and transformative focus on science in education; a celebration of the invention and adaptation of modern computing in many forms; and an appreciation for the critical importance of social context, economy, and grace in the application of technology. The clarity that motivated these changes came at the great price exacted by the conflicts of the last century. A new challenge, managing and delighting in complexity, faces technical students today, and the potential stakes have never been higher. A balanced educational experience, one that combines a good appreciation of exciting, “information age'' methods with context and the essential ability to understand and manipulate the physical world, enables a student to design real systems of value.

Our goal as educators is to inspire students.

As we experience the frisson of new electronic media and the contemplation of entirely new business models and delivery techniques for education, the distinction between training and education becomes critical. Professor Flowers has written eloquently in this regard in these pages. Educators at a technical institution are fundamentally in the business of building confidence. Students gain confidence and a joy in life-long learning by successfully tackling problems that demand craft, creativity, open-ended thinking, hypothesis generation, and the ability to modularize, organize, and "debug." The strongest learning experiences are often associated with a surprise, and these are arguably most often found at the bench. By bench, I mean any place where craft is practiced: a piano keyboard, a computer keyboard, a podium, a soldering stand, a machine shop, a hood, anywhere.

Recent reports of the death of the conventional lecture have been greatly exaggerated. The 1800s stereotype of the face-to-face lecture to transfer and transcribe a conceptual textbook from the mind of the lecturer to the pages of the student is clearly archaic. However, sharing between a skilled craftsman and apprentice learners is not archaic, and the face-to-face lecture can be more important today, and more economically effective, than ever.

I had the pleasure of completing an award nomination recently for a colleague outside of my home departments who has transformed introductory teaching by presenting lectures filled with live, interactive demonstrations. The student comments I collected speak for themselves. Some examples:

  • "When [the lecturer] poured the water out, it crystallized as it was poured and formed an amazing iceberg structure. A year later, I still remember how remarkable the phase transition was, and more importantly, I can easily describe what super cooling is because I remember the concepts from the experiment."
  • "Not only are students genuinely excited by the demos, but they also ground complex concepts like the chemical potential and miscibility gaps with something tangible that students can touch..."
  • "I’m almost certain that when [eating] a piece of pizza, [the lecturer] appreciates the variance in heat capacity between the cheese and the crust."

There will come a tipping point, possibly sooner than we think, when the nature of education will change in a very fundamental way. In the next three decades we are likely to see machines that exceed the computational capabilities of the mind, and which are capable of emulating thought processes. We may eventually merge machine and mind, and true distance education may become technically possible and economically desirable. In the meantime, we work with the same brains, with the same limitations and marvels that have served us for thousands of years.

For now, any education innovation must be a fervent stimulus of engagement. No technical material was ever created or put to great use by someone who was bored. MOOCs, MOOLs, "flipped" classrooms, electronic books – all are hopefully signs of energetic educational exploration and a wonderful desire to enthuse and engage students and enhance impact. I hope, as we explore these new tools, that we make fair comparisons to the tried-and-true methods that exemplify the first rate in our learning community. I hope that we recognize that new teaching methods need not automatically conflict or compete with current successes. I hope that we support an environment that encourages our faculty to create the demonstrations, buy the needed laboratory facilities and spend the extra minutes with our students. I hope that we do not crown a new king by starving the current one.

Back to top
Send your comments