Students liked summer classes so much they came back to teach them
On July 8, 240 soon-to-be high school seniors and 25 middle school students arrived at MIT for the first day of classes in the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI). Excited, nervous, and maybe a bit overwhelmed with the aura of MIT, the young people were greeted by the 40 college students who would be teaching assistants (TAs) — and, as is usually the case, friends and mentors — during the four-week program. Eighteen of these TAs knew exactly how the newly arrived BWSI participants felt because they had not long ago been in the participants’ shoes.
"On the first day of class, I told my students I was in their position two years ago, that I understood how it felt to be away from home for the first time, to suffer from 'imposter syndrome,' and to be overwhelmed by the incoming college application process," said Kazi Alom, an MIT student who is an instructor in the Embedded Security and Hardware Hacking course. This imposter syndrome — the feeling that one is really not the talented, excellent student that BWSI enrolls — is a perception that the program aims to dispel, transforming insecure science and math students into confident future engineering undergraduates.
The BWSI is a rigorous science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program that teaches STEM skills through project-based, workshop-style courses. These courses are guided by eminent faculty and practicing engineers from MIT, Lincoln Laboratory, and the MITRE Corporation. The program offers students a nontraditional learning experience in applying technology to solve real-world problems.
Ted Clifford, who will start at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall, came back because of that learning experience: "Participating in BWSI as a student caused me to fall in love with the subject that I am now helping teach — embedded cybersecurity. I knew the moment the program ended I wanted to come back and work with the instructors that taught me and help more students find the same passion that I had [found]."
The BWSI began in 2016 with a single course that taught 46 students about programming small robotic cars to navigate a Grand Prix–style racecourse. Each year, the program has grown, and in 2019, 265 young people, some day students but the majority out-of-state residential students, have chosen to explore one of 10 hands-on classes. The 2019 offerings include the original racecar course and ones that let students program autonomous air vehicles and personal cognitive assistants, investigate data science for medical uses, build a small satellite, learn about creating images from radar data captured by a drone, tackle cyber security and hardware hacking, experiment with 3D printing, create assistive technology, and understand the uses of imaging systems in disaster responses. All courses challenge the kids to push themselves to confront difficult concepts and wrestle with high-level science and math.
"Because I came from a high school that specialized in the humanities, BWSI was particularly transformative for me as it was my first immersive learning experience in computer science," said Charlotte Fries, who has been accepted as a member of the class of 2023 at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
The TAs who are helping with all these courses came as much to learn as to teach. "I decided to return to BWSI as a TA because it felt like the next step in my journey as a student. While I learned a lot during BWSI 2018, I certainly didn't master the course material, and coming back to help teach sounded like an excellent chance to continue learning," Fries explained.
Alom similarly sees the teaching role as expanding his understanding of course content: "After giving a couple of lectures and leading labs, I became more confident in my ability to explain complicated concepts in cryptography, circuit board analysis, and embedded software. I put in a lot of time outside of working hours to self teach and review a lot of exercises we planned to do with the students."
The instructors for the courses benefit from having TAs who are BWSI alumni. "BWSI is an intense, rigorous challenge for students…. Alumni TAs have been through that crucible themselves. They have an extra level of insight into the educational demands imposed by the theoretical concepts, by the practical aspects of engineering, and by the fast-paced design and iteration required from student teams. Our alumni TAs are expert guides for the students on how to successfully tackle the coursework and the final challenges," said Mark Mazumder, one of the lead instructors for Autonomous Air Vehicle Racing.
Fries echoes this assessment: "At times, the instructors have turned to me and my fellow TA, also an alum, to help understand the students' perspective. As former students, we know what parts of the curriculum are most confusing, and we know what to look for in the students to figure out who needs help."
Ryan Soklaski, who developed and teaches the Cog*Works course that lets students try their hand at customizing their own cognitive assistant (think of Amazon’s Alexa), says he always hires a former Cog*Works student as a TA for precisely the perspective Fries noted. "The alumni already know the culture and 'feel' of Cog*Works. From day one, they strive to recreate the best aspects of the Cog*Works classroom for our new students."
Ramu Bhagavatula said that input from alumni TAs helps him refine the course he teaches: "For UAS-SAR [Unmanned Air System–Synthetic Aperture Radar], 2019 is the second iteration, and having a TA from the inaugural class means that I’ve been able to adjust everything with firsthand input as a clear guide. My other TA has shared his proven experience as an alumni from RACECAR. This diversity of perspectives means we rarely miss an opportunity to improve the course in real time."
Besides honing the kids' skills in STEM, BWSI emphasizes the importance of collaboration in the R&D world. "The lessons of teamwork and inclusion that I learned last year during the course help me keep this year's teams on track," Clifford said.
The TAs, many of whom along with the nonlocal students are housed at MIT and Northeastern University, were selected from a pool of applicants for the assistantships or for internships at Lincoln Laboratory. Clifford, who is from Harwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, said he was so intent of coming back to BWSI that he applied six months early and "without a plan for housing." Alom came to his job via a slightly different route: as a summer intern working at MITRE, an industry sponsor of the Embedded Security and Hardware Hacking class, his supervisor "had known that I attended BWSI from reading my resume when hiring me last year and asked me if I wanted to help teach the class."
As the month-long program nears its end, what are the TAs taking away from the experience? They acquired an appreciation for teaching, gained a deeper understanding of their courses' topics, and even discovered new skills. The BWSI program may have been as transformative for the assistants as for the students.
"Being a TA has been a lot of fun — I almost feel like I get to do the program a second time. Everyone knows that you don't understand something fully until you can explain it to someone else, and I've really seen the proof of that so far in the program. I won't lie; there are still aspects of the curriculum that I don't understand well enough to explain to the students, but it's really satisfying to reinforce my learning from last year while teaching younger students. It also gives me a new appreciation for the instructors. The role of teacher's assistant or even instructor doesn't mean you actually know everything!" Fries said.