MIT professor’s book digs into the eclectic, textually linked reading choices of people in medieval London.
Although it's still called the Experimental Study Group almost 25 years after its founding, today the program is not so much an experiment as a well-established alternative for freshmen who want a more personal learning experience.
Established in 1969 by Professor George Valley with money from Edwin Land, ESG employs a system of undergraduate and graduate tutors, lecturers and professors to teach students in small groups or individually, allowing courses to be more attuned to their backgrounds and interests. The approach has proved consistently popular with the small but enthusiastic groups who take part. In fact, demand has grown so much that in 1993 for the first time, enrollment was limited by instituting a lottery (54 out of 69 qualified applicants were eventually accepted).
Comfortable couches and small tables lend an informal atmosphere to ESG's home on the sixth floor of Bldg 24, where there is also a kitchen, an Athena cluster and an engineering workshop. Instead of attending large lectures, freshmen and a handful of sophomores are taught the required first-year science and humanities courses in small groups run by staff and tutors (many of them undergraduates and ESG alumni/ae). Participants rejoin their classmates in the regular curriculum after their freshman year.
About 15 percent of freshmen enroll in the three alternative academic programs open to them (ESG, Concourse and the Integrated Studies Program), according to Professor Vernon Ingram, a professor of biology and ESG's director since 1989. This year, about 15 percent of the program's students (compared to six percent of all MIT undergraduates) are from foreign countries, including three from Russia. Because they have "gaps and strengths" resulting from their different pre-college schooling, "a more flexible program is very suitable for them," he said.
What sort of student is right for the program? "People who benefit from ESG's particular style are people who can work independently to a large extent and take responsibility for their own learning," Dr. Ingram said. "They're already creative and motivated. it's a community where individuality is encouraged."
"Students feel more responsible for their education because they have a personal commitment to it. It's not something that the Institute `does to them,'" added Holly Sweet, associate director and lecturer at ESG. "Because of the small size of ESG's classes and tutorials, it's also clearer to the instructor when a student doesn't know something; people can't slide by."
The program's flexibility is welcomed by students like Steven Johnson who had mastered some of the freshmen course material before coming to MIT. "In ESG, I can control the pace, and I could skip past stuff I'd already done," said Mr. Johnson, a junior who is now an ESG tutor. When taking 8.022, Mr. Johnson recalled, "I could go into various aspects of the physics that I was more interested in; I could go deeper into the text instead of spending a lot of time in lecture having [a professor] read the book back to me."
Tutoring (for which undergraduates earn money or credit) is a "learning experience for me; I can see what I missed," said Mr. Johnson. During the fall semester, he taught a student 8.012, a course he had placed out of as a freshman. "I wanted to give something back to ESG because I got so much out of it," he added.
Small classes and individual attention were "definitely the appeal" for Andrea Humez, a sophomore transfer student who is taking MIT's required courses at ESG. "If you don't understand something, you can ask a question. I like that a lot better than the huge-lecture concept," she said.
Actually, the program's popularity this year has resulted in fewer one-on-one tutoring situations. Dr. Ingram has sought to expand its budget or start a second ESG, but for now, "we're doing the best we can to accommodate students by changing our structure a little bit," he said.
In addition to the undergraduate and graduate tutors, the staff consists of three graduate TAs, four lecturers and two professors: Dr. Robert I. Hulsizer, professor emeritus of physics, and Dr. Robert L. Halfman, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics and ESG's director from 1974 to 1984. (Professor Kim Vandiver, now director of the Edgerton Center, was director from 1984 to 1989).
"I like teaching, and I've always liked teaching in small groups," said Dr. Ingram, a biochemist known for identifying the genetic defect that causes sickle-cell anemia. "And this is the small-group format par excellence."
Dr. Ingram hopes to see some ESG elements more widely used in the rest of the Institute. For example, new tutors must take a six-unit seminar on how to teach, something he thinks could be beneficial to others at MIT. "We find that undergraduates make excellent tutors," he said. "It's a real advantage of ESG that's not really known."
One of ESG's new offerings is Dr. Ingram's development of the use of computers in teaching biology. "We try every year to develop something new that we try to keep around or export to the regular curriculum," Ms. Sweet said. For example, ESG initially sponsored her seminar on Sex Roles and Relationships, an undergraduate seminar which is now being taught in the regular curriculum.
Some courses were developed by ESG tutors rather than adapted from the regular curriculum. David Harris' digital electronics course won the 1993 Irwin Sizer award, which is given to the year's most significant improvement in education at MIT (ESG itself won the same award in 1985). Another course called Chemistry Demystified developed by three ESG alumni in the mid-1980s won the Stewart Award for service. And last year, Dr. Peter Dourmashkin initiated a robotics seminar that is now being taught by students who took it then.
"ESG has really spawned innovations," noted Andrea McGimsey `87, an ESG alumna and former assistant director, now program coordinator of the Edgerton Center. "It tends to attract innovative and original thinkers. You get into some amazing conversations." Those conversations often turn out to be quite productive; discussions about student-led counseling among ESG students in the late 1970s resulted in the creation of Nightline in 1979.
ESG isn't just academics, however. Students study in a friendly atmosphere that includes customs such as fresh-baked apple pie on Monday nights and chocolate chip cookies on Wednesdays. Each Friday, they munch on pizza or a lunch cooked by students and staff before listening to a talk by an MIT professor.
"You get to know people really well and really quickly," said Katya Delak `97.
"If you don't know something, there's always someone here you can ask. They all tend to be neat people," said Adrian Banard `97. "I'd like to be tutoring here next year."
Some MIT graduates who were involved in ESG as freshmen many years ago still remember it fondly. "People come back and they really care about the place," Ms. McGimsey said. "Really, it's a home.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 20).