Dynamic MIT Lecturers Make Active Learning Come Alive at SUTD

By Jesse DeLaughter, SUTD Collaboration Office

June 18, 2014

Each year, the MIT Infinite Mile Awards honor faculty and staff for significant accomplishments in their departments, labs or centers. This year, two lecturers deeply involved in the collaboration between MIT and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) received this accolade. Peter Dourmashkin and Patti Christie were honored in May for their extensive work developing and strengthening the SUTD undergraduate science curriculum. Their deep knowledge of active learning, acquired through years of teaching and experimenting with pedagogy at MIT, is helping to distinguish SUTD as “the place” for active and experiential learning in Singapore.

In higher education across much of Asia, including Singapore, lecture and rote memorization tend to predominate in the classroom. Professors speak, students take notes, and asking questions is not encouraged. From the inception of SUTD, however, President Thomas Magnanti envisioned the university as a place where the hands-on, problem-solving, questioning culture found at MIT would be evident. Students would be able to do more than just memorize formulas and snippets from lectures and reading. They would feel confident in applying their knowledge to solve novel problems in novel ways. Thus, when Dourmashkin and Christie were called upon to develop the SUTD physics and chemistry curricula, respectively, their challenge was to adapt their work using active learning techniques at MIT to a context in which students coming out of high school were not accustomed to participatory classes.

Both lecturers have been involved for many years in MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG), where a group of approximately 50 first-year students take introductory science courses stressing intensive interaction, participatory learning and small-group instruction. Dourmashkin also worked with Prof. John Belcher beginning around 2006 to revamp the way introductory physics was taught across MIT. Building on previous work done by Professors Jack Wilson at RPI, Robert Beichner at NC State, and Eric Mazur at Harvard, they eliminated large lectures in favor of what has come to be known at MIT as the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classroom model. In the TEAL classroom, instructors pose questions and challenging problems. They obtain real-time feedback about students’ understanding by monitoring their responses using an electronic communication system as well as circulating while they work. An array of visualizations and simulations developed by Belcher also enhances the curriculum, allowing students to see electric and magnetic field phenomena not observable under normal circumstances.

In both TEAL and ESG classes at MIT, the focus is on finding out what students know and meeting them where they are. This approach was critical in bringing active learning to SUTD. According to Dourmashkin, “One of the most important things in designing a teaching program is determining how students in a particular culture think and knowing their level of abstraction.” In the case of Singapore, he says, students are used to memorizing and formula manipulation. “They are interested in active learning, but the system is not necessarily conducive to going directly into it.” As a result, he designed the summer introductory physics course at SUTD as a sort of hybrid. In the first year, professors lectured in the beginning of each week throughout the term. Students then broke into cohort groups for the latter part of the week in a structure that resembled MIT’s TEAL classes. Now, in the third year, professors will give big lectures only during the first two weeks, with the remainder of the term structured entirely in cohorts. MIT faculty and graduate fellows will be present to provide guidance and support students in the cohorts.

Christie’s model for introductory chemistry, taught over the summer, is similarly tailored to the SUTD context. She gives two lectures in the first half of the week, with the second half reserved for cohort classes. As in Christie’s classes at ESG, the learning is hands-on and engaging. Students might analyze the structure of molecules using Play-Doh models or calculate the amount of heat generated from a fuel cell in a hydrogen car. The hybrid approach, combining lectures and cohorts, seems to be working well. According to Christie, there was a lot of pushback from students in the first year, but new students know what to expect and are more prepared for the participatory style of learning.

Christie and Dourmashkin are both quick to praise others who have supported their efforts. The faculty and administration at SUTD have been committed to strengthening the active learning approach there. In addition, graduate teaching fellows and other lecturers from MIT have been extremely beneficial in bringing MIT classroom culture to Singapore. Dr. Paola Rebusco, an ESG physics lecturer who has worked closely with Dourmashkin, will be in Singapore this summer to help with the transition to the more cohort-based physics class. She says, “I hope to share my passion for teaching and to help the local lecturers to discover and develop their interactive teaching style.” Dourmashkin points out that the support of MIT departments has been equally critical. The physics department has been completely on board with his work there, not just allowing it, but actively supporting it. “They see it as another aspect of what MIT can do in the world,” he says.

What’s next for active learning at SUTD? Dourmashkin and Christie hope that the new university will become a hub of innovation, enhancing not only tertiary education but the Singaporean system as a whole. Last January, they partnered with the Singapore Ministry of Education to offer workshops for high school teachers to develop active learning instructional techniques. This July, they will offer similar workshops, which will embed the teachers directly into SUTD classes to learn new skills. SUTD faculty will also become more involved in leading workshops, with the ultimate goal that they will run future ones themselves.

SUTD was conceived as a different kind of Asian university where students would not only have a rigorous grounding in the sciences, but would also develop the ability to apply their knowledge to solving real-world problems. Thanks to the hard work and devotion of Christie and Dourmashkin, that vision is beginning to take shape.

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