Friday, 12 April 2013

MIT... international education in the US

So Boston isn’t exactly “around the world”… Boston is probably one of the cities where I feel most at home because it is filled good memories and people I love.  But I'm currently here to collect data from  MIT  for my Singapore summer project that will hopefully happen (but that’s another story) so I thought it warranted a post.
Some background on the project- I proposed to look at how the educational innovation SCALE-UP evolved across three generations of implementation.  SCALE-UP at NCSU is where teaching introductory physics to large enrollment classes in a studio-style classroom with active learning techniques began.  MIT adopted it, added 3-D visualizations and gave it a new acronym TEAL “Technology Enriched Active Learning”.  MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) worked together to establish this new university and implemented TEAL there.  This case study seeks to explore some of the cultural factors, situational constraints, student and instructor characteristics that affect the adaption of reforms domestically and abroad.  Hopefully it’ll result in the compilation of some resources and advice to streamline future implementation efforts, especially in Asia.
One of MIT's TEAL classrooms.  So spacious compared to NCSU!
I met with the two main professors who worked hard to bring TEAL to MIT in the beginning.  One is an older, quieter man, currently serving as the associate department head.  Back in his scientific hayday, he helped put a satellite in orbit around Neptune and realized it was unlikely he would do something that awesome again so he decided to switch his focus to improving education (which made even more sense when I learned his wife is the head of the teaching and learning center here).  The other one is incredibly energetic, enthusiastic and in charge of keep track of the course materials for the nine sections of the course.  He’s going to be in Singapore for the month of July and he's looking forward to working together there so that’s exciting.
In order for TEAL to fit the culture of MIT students and faculty, they didn’t try to fully flip the classroom so there was still a significant amount of lecture in the three classes I observed.  Their main goals for using TEAL was to improve the attendance rate (~40% for lecture courses) and reduce the failure rate for physics that was higher than any of the other core courses.  Those goals were accomplished successfully but initially there was a lot of student complaints about having to learn a less familiar way.
One thing that completely surprised me was that introductory physics at MIT had no lab associated with the physics course for 30 years!  Supposedly, adding lab activities to the TEAL class was kind of awkward and unwieldy in the beginning.  Now they’ve reduced the number of actual experiments to focus on developing important concepts, which works much better.  Re-integrating lab elements into introductory physics helped interest faculty in teaching in these classrooms in the first place.
It was fun to watch MIT students at work.  The ethnic diversity amazed me- I asked one of the professors what differences he noticed when he taught international students at Singapore (because he actually taught the class there last summer).  He laughed and said, when you work at MIT, you’re always teaching an international population.  Whites were definitely in the minority.  These students were incredibly bright, even though this wasn't the physics course for majors.  During the in-class whiteboard problem solving sets, some individuals completely solve the fairly complicated four resistor problem almost instantly.  However being surrounded by supersmart peers makes it incredibly high pressure environment, especially for freshmen who were the geniuses of their high school.   The professor who is currently acting as department head said he’s become an expert at diagnosing the signs of clinical depression.  I can't imagine having to worry about students committing suicide under your watch when in an administrative position like that.  I would have never wanted to attend a school this competitive- the relatively high suicide rates are semi-reminiscent of when I was in India.  Kinda sad…
MIT's been in the back of my mind as a shoot-for-the-moon place to work for a couple years especially if I wanted to serve in a more curriculum development, education research type capacity.  The professor said currently have 30 million <!!!!!> dollars available for spending on educational innovation.  Currently, they're trying to figure the MOOC situation (Massive open online courses).  It is an exciting time for education to be such a hot topic in a school where people don't bother thinking or talking about that.
Problem solving time!  The next time I'll write, I'll probably be in India, or at least en route!
Their student center- crazy looking building