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Merritt to continue ESG traditions as new director

The Experimental Study Group (ESG) is celebrating its 30th year under a new director, Professor Travis R. Merritt, who succeeded Professor Vernon Ingram on January 15. Professor Ingram headed ESG for ten and a half years.

Explaining why he accepted the directorship, Professor Merritt said, "I just couldn't resist the opportunity. I like the people, the distinctive physical setting and the clear prospects for making even better things happen during the next few years. In addition, my earlier experience as a co-founder of Concourse gives me some sense of special affinity with the ESG spirit and ethic."

Professor Merritt, who has been at MIT since 1964, served as dean for undergraduate academic affairs from 1986-96.

Since 1968, ESG has provided an alternative academic experience for a diverse group of freshmen who are interested in a more flexible and personalized approach to their education that allows them to maximize their learning.

Approximately 86 percent earn degrees, about the same as students who followed the traditional path as freshmen. The GPA for students in ESG is slightly higher than classmates who take the traditional curriculum. This year, 53 incoming students chose the program (51 remain), placing the number who have been involved over the years at about 1,400.

"It's a creative meritocracy," said Holly Sweet, ESG's associate director, who has been with the program since 1977. "The students tend to be outspoken, intellectually curious and self-reliant."

Under Professor Ingram's leadership from 1989-99, the program promoted educational innovation in a variety of areas, including a biology wet laboratory; a variety of seminars on subjects including photography, robotics and psychology; and hypertext for teaching molecular biology, developed for ESG but now available all over the world.

"It has been well received," Professor Ingram said. The senior staff also conducts a mandatory, credit-bearing teaching seminar for first-time and undergraduate teachers. "This is a wonderful innovation, very popular and very effective," he said..

Looking ahead, Professor Merritt believes ESG can be a key player in showing the way to achieve the goals of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning and the Educational Design Project. "In a way, I suppose this means reasserting the term 'experimental' in the program's name," said Professor Merritt, founder of IAP's Charm School and winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize.

"Perhaps the most distinctive thing about ESG," he added, "compared with the other 'alternative' ventures, is that, from the time of its founding, it has tried to achieve a strong 'vertical' dimension, aspiring eventually to the status of a special 'college' within the Institute, whose educational aims embrace not just freshmen but a cross-section of undergraduates at all levels.

Although we've made some progress toward this goal -- by having a number of upperclass students take instruction here and by involving a great many of them as teachers -- we hope to make even more impressive progress along these lines as the new century opens."

The program, supported by the School of Science, occupies a 14-room suite on the sixth floor of Building 24, dominated by a lounge with sofas and chairs, a hammock and an oversized magnet that can be hazardous to credit cards. There are also a kitchen (with a microwave, a "public fridge" and a "private fridge,"), a computer room, a piano room, offices and classrooms. The doors to the common area are never locked.

"It's a wonderful place that is always alive, even very late in the evenings -- people talking to each other, helping each other, surviving in the face of 'the firehose of MIT,' which is made much more tolerable in the ESG atmosphere of friendship," said Professor Ingram.

The curriculum includes all first-year subjects in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, taught by faculty, lecturers, graduate students and undergraduate teaching assistants (many of whom were ESG students themselves as freshmen). Humanities subjects and seminars involve intensive discussions and projects, with students providing substantial input. Classes are small, discussions are lively and students proceed at their own pace.

Typically, students devote five class hours a week to their core science and math subjects, scheduled at times mutually convenient to students and instructors. Humanities subjects meet two or three times a week.

In addition, intellectual exchanges are encouraged at weekly Friday lunches with guest speakers, and periodic evening study sessions. Cultural and recreational field trips are also scheduled. Professor Merritt plans to maintain the tradition of learning in small groups.

"At an institution like MIT, there must continue to be some influential locale which practices the gospel that any class larger than a dozen is riskily huge," he said. Added Dr. Sweet: "ESG's small size and interactive format give our staff and students an opportunity to experiment. Sometimes our experiments work and sometimes they don't. You get feedback pretty quickly."

About 30 percent of the instruction is done by undergraduates trained in the ESG seminar. The Todd Anderson Undergraduate Teaching Award carrying an annual prize of $1,000 was established in 1997 by Mr. Anderson, a former chemistry staff member at ESG.

"A vitally important distinguishing mark of the ESG community is the quality of its teaching staff," said Professor Ingram. "These include the many, many undergraduate teachers who are much more than 'regular' TAs because they are responsible for teaching the whole syllabus of a core science subject, not just grading and conducting recitation sessions.

"This is a much more challenging teaching experience, one which teaches the teachers a very great deal. Most of the undergraduate teachers are former ESG frosh, so the community continues. In addition, the graduate staff, the PhD staff and the emeriti professors are a dedicated and experienced lot who form the backbone of our teaching. Without them the ESG frosh would be without intellectual leaders."

"Professor Ingram really developed ESG in an innovative and academically rigorous fashion that has helped create and maintain a very exciting program at MIT for staff, faculty, graduate student instructors, and students," said Dr. Sweet. "Our senior staff (including David Custer, Dr. Peter Dourmashkin, Dr. Lee Perlman and Craig Watkins) has been crucial in making many of these ventures happen."

ESG alumni/ae include MIT Professors Alexander Slocum and Paul Viola; Danny Hillis, founder of Thinking Machines; and Gregory Moore, a partner in the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray. Christopher Douglas, a 1999 Rhodes scholar who entered MIT at age 15, is also an ESG alumnus who remains involved as a student instructor.

Before Professors Merritt and Ingram, ESG's directors were Professors George E. Valley Jr. (1969-74), Robert L. Halfman (1974-84) and J. Kim Vandiver Jr. (1984-89).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 27, 1999.

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