Ali Abdalla’s path at MIT has been an unconventional one. Abdalla, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, spent an entire year away from MIT doing two full-time internships. During the most recent one, from February through August, he worked with a design team at Tesla on high-voltage car components.
To beef up his knowledge of electronics and stay connected to campus while in California, he simultaneously took 6.S064, an online version of 6.002 (Circuits and Electronics). “It actually helped,” says Abdalla. “I ended up doing one project in my internship that was strongly related to parts of the class, so I learned a lot.”
Abdalla’s DIY academic experience epitomizes the vision for x-terms, a spring semester pilot that is the brainchild of seniors Drew Bent and Gabriel Ginorio. The pair wants to find a way to make Abdalla’s hybrid learning approach easier to pursue and available to any undergraduate at MIT.
The x-terms concept is straightforward enough: Students work 20 to 25 hours per week doing a paid internship at a Boston-area company, while taking one or two classes on campus. Although many MIT students intern during the summer months, x-terms can be weeks or even months longer, so students can dig into more substantive projects.
To make the hybrid learning model work, x-terms leverages light course-loading, when students take less than 36 units (compared to the standard 48). They can still do enough classwork to complete their degree on time and live on campus, so they can maintain close ties to their friends and extracurricular activities.
X-terms executive director Dawn Wendell, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, describes x-terms as the industry equivalent of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. The overlap between class and work experience helps students “really think about what this means for what they want to do in the long run, and how they can bring their experience in the real world to the classroom,” she says.
Bent and Ginorio’s excellent adventure
“It’s all super serendipitous,” says Ginorio about the origin of x-terms. He and Bent met during the fall semester of their first year, thanks to a mutual interest in online learning and the future of education — and a desire to shape it. That desire led them, independently, to seek out Sanjay Sarma, then-director of the Office of Digital Learning and currently vice president for open learning.
Around the same time, Sarma had been approached by other students with similar interests, so he arranged a seminar in 2015 to explore topics in education, from cognitive psychology to the role of technology. They discussed ongoing conundrums like how to increase access to education at MIT without increasing the class size or number of residential dorms, and how to give students more flexibility in their education.
“It opened up this big question,” Bent recalls. He and Ginorio decided to delve into it together. And so began a lengthy and eye-opening adventure, as the pair developed the concept for x-terms and shopped it around the Institute.
“We met with every top administrator you can imagine,” says Ginorio, including the chancellor, vice chancellor, deans, and leaders of the Committee on Curricula (CoC) and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. Bent and Ginorio consulted more than a dozen faculty and presented their concept to the Engineering Council in the School of Engineering. They also surveyed students, spoke to staff at Northeastern’s co-op program, and made the rounds at Career Fair last fall to gauge interest among local companies.
Finding the “minimal viable product”
Bent and Ginorio’s original concept for x-terms was to create a program in which students could spend a semester off campus, anywhere in the world — to do an internship, service project, or even launch a startup — while taking required MIT classes online. Ideally, the classes would tie into the experience. Although they received plenty of support, encouragement, and feedback from faculty and administrators, there were roadblocks, as well.
Although MITx offers many classes, a wide range of required classes across majors would need to be represented for their idea to work. That depth and breadth is not available in all areas yet. Moreover, they realized that getting approval for such an extensive program by the necessary Institute committees — and ensuring that students would get course credit — would be a significant challenge.
So Bent and Ginorio changed course last year. “We stripped it down to the bare basics, asking, ‘What would be the least number of variables that we can do in a semester? What can we get out there and prove to people that this can work, and evolve on that?’” explains Ginorio. “We almost had to think like an entrepreneur and say, ‘What is the minimum viable product here?’ And we came up with the idea of having local Boston internships, so people don’t go away and have to take online classes, but instead take residential classes.”
“Ultimately, we would love this to be done anywhere because there are lots of opportunities outside Boston that people want to do,” says Bent. “But for a pilot program, actually there are a lot of opportunities here, especially in computer science, chemical engineering, biological engineering, and medicine.”
Bent and Ginorio have recruited two juniors for the spring pilot: Madeleine Haworth, a mechanical engineering major working on fabrication and improving processes at RightHand Robotics, and Hannah Gaudet, a math major doing data analytics for a Boston-based sports franchise.
Haworth was drawn to x-terms to gain a wider range of industry experience, and to help her decide on a career path after she graduates. “As undergrads, we really only have three summers to work in the ‘real world,’” says Haworth. Enabling students to do co-ops or internships during the school year is “super important,” she adds, noting that many other schools already have established programs. “Before x-terms, there was no avenue at MIT to go about doing this, so I’m really glad to be part of the pilot.”
“I’m doing work I’m really excited about,” says Gaudet, who will intern for about five months. After working full time during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, Gaudet scaled back to part time when classes began. “I can actually learn something over the course of the full semester while still being connected to the MIT community and not needing to give up the things I’m engaged with on campus, like if I’d gone and gotten an internship in California.”
X-terms is in good company, as there has been a steady drumbeat of student-centric educational initiatives and experiments underway at MIT. The School of Engineering is piloting an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum called New Engineering Education Transformation. And a new spring course, 2.S991/2.S990/CMS.S63/CMS.S99 (Designing the First Year at MIT), challenges students to use a systems-design approach to develop and evaluate potential changes to the first-year educational experience.
“I applaud efforts like x-terms,” says Ian Waitz, vice chancellor. “At MIT, the best way to motivate change is not necessarily top down, but to give students the knowledge, resources, and ability to reimagine what could be.”
Wendell encourages students to emulate Bent and Ginorio by “getting out there and talking to people” about their ideas for improving learning on campus. “Having students who are currently immersed in the educational process stand up and say, ‘Hey, I want a different opportunity,’ or ‘I would learn better in a different way’ is part of what allows us, as MIT, to grow and to be the best that we can be,” says Wendell. “We love it when students who have ideas share them and follow their passions.”
At this point, Bent and Ginorio have spent so much time together conceptualizing, iterating, and lobbying for x-terms that they can (and do) finish each other’s sentences. Despite the circuitous route, their passion and determination haven’t wavered over the past three years. And although they won’t be among the pilot’s beneficiaries (“We’re doing this out of the goodness of our hearts,” Ginorio quips), they’re excited the pilot is underway and are working with Wendell on a succession plan for next fall. Sophomore Edward Fan, who serves on the CoC and is one of the students who helped shape the Designing the First Year course, has already joined the team.
Bent’s mom, Stacey, a professor of chemical engineering and senior associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at Stanford, serves as independent confirmation that they may be onto something with x-terms. “She’s like, ‘Hmmm ... You guys are doing interesting things [at MIT],’” Bent says with a grin, adding, “So we’ve got to move very quickly.”