College students return to summer program to help teach engineering courses for high school students.
This is an image of Petar Griggs, taken from a Beaver Works Summer Institute video about becoming a teaching assistant.
Petar Griggs has been an assistant at BWSI for four years. In a video to recruit alumni assistants (from which this image was taken), he describes how he comes back to give students the valuable experience he had through the program.

It takes a legion of staff ─ directors, instructors, teaching assistants, guest speakers, support personnel ─ to run the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI), which offers a wide array of four-week project-based engineering courses for students about to enter their senior year of high school. Central to the success of BWSI are the course assistants who act as teachers, coaches, and mentors. In 2021, 23 assistants were BWSI alumni, who — like Madeline Estey, now a student at Johns Hopkins University — wanted to “help students have just as an amazing time as I did when I was a student!”  

Having alumni come back to work as course assistants is a benefit, according to Ryan Soklaski, the lead instructor for Cog*Works (Autonomous Cognitive Assistant). “Because my assistants are all Cog*Works alumni, they have a unique perspective of knowing what it is like to be a student in my class; they can give me frank feedback about how to improve the student experience.”

Jeffrey Liu, the lead instructor for the Remote Sensing for Disaster Response course, agrees that because the alumni have experienced his course, they have “insightful suggestions about improvements and changes to the course.” He adds, “The assistants were asked to put together short lessons on topics of their own interest and presented them to the course. Materials from these lessons will be incorporated into future versions of the course.”

For part of the courses, assistants conduct small-group breakout sessions in which students work on exercises to apply the concepts they learned in the full-class lectures. In “breakout rooms,” the assistants monitor students’ progress, field questions, and help students find solutions to their problems. Liu says, “The breakout rooms are very helpful for letting students collaborate and talk through their approaches. The students feel more comfortable talking through their approaches in small groups of their peers.”

In dozens of post-BWSI evaluations, the students praised the responsiveness and patience of the assistants during these breakout rooms. As Matthew Friedman, a student in the Autonomous RACECAR class, says of the assistants in that course, they were “always available to help our Zoom breakout rooms on the more confusing parts of the Jupyter Notebooks for each lab.”

A hallmark of the BWI program is its focus on project-based learning. Small teams of students collaborate on an engineering project to create, and usually build, a solution to a challenge, such as programming a robotic car to avoid an obstacle. Soklaski explains that each week in his course “teams tackle real-world problems – like designing a music-recognition app or an image-search-by-caption program – that exercise the concepts students learned throughout the week. The assistants are, in effect, ‘captains’ of these teams. They play an invaluable role here. They shepherd the team toward success, making sure all team members are contributing and that their voices and ideas are all heard. The assistants are responsible for letting the team make mistakes but also for providing guidance so that the team ultimately reaches the finish line.”

The assistants also hold a college Q&A panel session during which the high school students can ask questions about colleges and the college admission process. Liu says, “We’ve been doing this every year, and it’s been one of the most popular activities for the students, especially since the assistants have gone through the process themselves very recently so are able to give very specific advice.”

Alexzander Sansiveri, a student exploring a new offering, Quantum Software, sums up the value of interacting with the assistants: “They provided both support and guidance when I needed it, and they gave me meaningful life advice through their storytelling and class discussions. They were more than instructors for me; they were mentors.”

Soklaski says that the assistants contribute “behind the scenes to ensure that the class runs smoothly. This involves taking attendance, making note of any problematic social dynamics that I need to be aware of, and testing the class materials before they are actually offered in a ‘live’ setting.” He adds, “The assistants that I have had each year have been absolutely indispensable. There is just no way that I can handle all of the course tasks and responsibilities myself.”

For the second year, the BWSI courses were offered virtually. While the role of an assistant instructor was still to help clarify concepts and advise on projects, the delivery of the assistance was unlike what former students had experienced when they participated in the program at MIT. Lectures were held via video. Breakout rooms were teleconferences, as was the Q&A panel. Online collaboration tools enabled students to work as project teams. Liu says that the assistants helped mitigate the difficulty students have with sitting at a computer for hours during the summer: “They [the assistants] were invaluable in leading activities and games for the students to get to know each other and work together. This really helped encourage the interpersonal bonding element, which is a lot harder virtually than in person.”

The alumni feel they gain from their employment as assistant instructors. Estey, a former student in the Embedded Security and Hardware Hacking course, says, “I wanted the opportunity to interact with passionate and intelligent computer scientists again. I was inspired by my peers so much when I participated in the program, and this year I found that I was once again able to learn a lot from the program participants, even as their TA [teaching assistant].”

Petar Griggs, who is now at Harvard University, has worked in Cog*Works since the summer after he was a student in the first Cog*Works course in 2017. “Returning to help teach in BWSI, I realized just how much I need to develop a keen understanding of the ideas being presented,” he says. “Unlike when I was a student, I had to be able to explain almost every detail about every topic the class covered so as to be able to clearly convey that information to my students.”

Griggs attributes his desire to study mathematics in college to his experience as a student in Cog*Works, and says, “As a member of the BWSI staff, learning how to lecture, write new materials, and generally convey ideas clearly are the most important skills I have developed. These skills – working with others and presenting myself clearly – will be invaluable, especially so if I go into teaching as I hope to do now.”

An old proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The BWSI village that “raises” aspiring engineers welcomes and values the 59 alumni who found inspiration for careers and have returned since the program’s inception in 2016 to share that inspiration with new groups of students.