Experimental Study Group

The Experimental Study Group (ESG), now in its 34th year, continues to offer undergraduates at MIT innovative opportunities in teaching and learning. In keeping with our original mission, ESG provides personalized instruction in the core subjects within a community environment to first-year students at MIT. This includes flexibility in pace and scheduling and small classes where students can easily ask questions and get to know fellow students and instructors. Over the years, students have consistently said that ESG's small-group learning and community atmosphere were among the most rewarding aspects of their MIT education. We are also able to offer flexibility and individualized attention to students with unusual educational needs. For example, this year ESG enrolled two world-ranked ice dancers who needed flexibility in scheduling to accommodate practice and performance time, as well as a student who was returning to MIT after a 20-year absence to complete his bachelor's degree.

In the past 10 years, ESG has served as a center for educational innovation in the undergraduate program by offering a range of hands-on, interactive seminars in a variety of subjects that are not regularly offered at MIT. We are working closely with various departments and programs at MIT (including the Edgerton Center, Residential Life and Student Life Programs, and the dean for Undergraduate Education) to continue these seminars and promote their growth. ESG also offers approximately 30 undergraduates each year the opportunity to assist staff in teaching the core subjects. All student instructors receive midterm and end-of-term evaluations from freshmen and meet regularly with staff members for supervision. New student instructors participate in a weekly teaching seminar run by senior ESG staff. Experienced student instructors who have demonstrated excellent teaching skills are able to develop their own pass/fail seminars under faculty supervision or work relatively independently in teaching core subjects.

We are proud of our history of educational experimentation and will be working over the next few years to substantially increase faculty involvement with ESG and to export its successful educational experiments to the regular curriculum.

Student Statistics

Fifty-six first-year students enrolled for one or more terms in ESG this year. Sixty-two percent of our students were female, 9 percent were underrepresented minorities, and 21 percent were international students from countries as diverse as Ghana, Finland, and Indonesia. Eleven upperclassmen took one or two core science or humanities, art, and social science (HASS) subjects in ESG, and 70 upperclassmen (81 percent of whom were not former ESG students) participated in our undergraduate seminar program.

We employed 31 undergraduates (who collectively maintained an impressive 3.6 grade point average) as teaching assistants, graders, and student instructors in our program. In addition, we utilized five graduate students (three of whom had been in ESG as freshmen) and four 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. Julie Banda, ESG's program coordinator for the past five years, joined MIT's Medical Department in October 2002 as a health educator and was replaced by Graham Ramsay, a professional composer and photographer who brings more than 10 years of experience at MIT with him. Professor Merritt retired in June 2003 as ESG director after serving as ESG's faculty head since 1999. A search committee comprised of Dean Robert Silbey and ex-ESG directors Professor Kim Vandiver and Professor Vernon Ingram interviewed a number of interested faculty members during the spring. Professor Alexander Slocum (a tenured faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and also an ESG alumnus) was recently chosen to become director of ESG starting in September 2003.

The physics staff was headed by Dr. Dourmashkin (senior lecturer) and included Professor Emeritus Robert Hulsizer and three ESG alumni: Toby Ayer (Class of 1996), David Custer (Class of 1982), and Dr. Sen-Ben Liao (Class of 1990, 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, Dr. Jeremy Orloff, and Craig Watkins.

The chemistry and biology offerings at ESG were headed by Dr. Patricia Christie and included ESG alumna Amy Yu (Class of 1998). ESG offered several HASS subjects to its students. In the fall term, Mr. Custer taught 21W.730 Expository Writing and Dr. Lee Perlman taught 21L.001 Foundations of Western Culture. In the spring term, Professor Merritt taught 21L.004 Major Poets and Dr. Perlman taught 24.00 Problems in Philosophy.

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Academic Initiatives

Because of its small size and experimental educational focus, ESG provides an ideal environment 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 number of undergraduate seminars we have been able to offer at ESG, most of them supported by gifts from ESG alumni. This year we offered 10 seminars, six of them developed and taught by undergraduate students under staff and faculty supervision. New seminars this year included the following: Songwriting Workshop, Human and Machine Discovery of Causal Models in Dynamic Environments, Real World Economics, Questions about Language, Integrated Studies Program at ESG, and the Learning Seminar: Experiments in Education. Students who take these seminars frequently say that they 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 third year in a row, ESG offered its own recitation and tutorials in 6.001 Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programming. Toh Newin, a current graduate student in Course 6 and an ESG alumnus, ran the tutorials. The recitation sections were handled by upperclassmen Jen Selby (Class of 2003), Daniel Zaharopol (Class of 2004), and ESG alumnus Eric Smith (Class of 2001).

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ESG gave its own set of annual cash awards, including the Peter and Sharon Fiekowsky Community Service Award (now in its fourth year) and the Todd Anderson Excellence in Teaching Award (now in it sixth year). Both Mr. Fiekowsky and Mr. Anderson are graduates of MIT and have established funding for annual ESG prizes. This year, Amilio Aviles (Class of 2003), Brigid Dwyer (Class of 2006), and Nirav Shah (G) were awarded the Fiekowsky Award for community service to ESG. The Anderson Award was given to graduating seniors Ross Benson, Mikael Rechtsman, James Rising, and Jennifer Underwood, all of whom have demonstrated excellence in teaching at ESG over a sustained period of time.

Future Developments

In the coming years, we plan to continue with our educational innovation (especially offering hands-on education, interdisciplinary subjects, and residence-based seminars) and to promote the use of undergraduates in instructional capacities at MIT. For example, we will be starting an experimental subject this fall that will integrate aspects of mechanical engineering and scuba diving with traditional Course 8.01 material. We will also continue to expand the use of our alumni at ESG, particularly in terms of funding new projects and informally tutoring and mentoring our new students. We look forward to providing a place at MIT where staff, students, faculty, and alumni can work 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 and Lecturer

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


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