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Redefining how we teach

MIT BLOSSOMS program shows students how math and science pertain to daily life
Professor Richard Larson and Elizabeth Murray, center, pictured with the MIT BLOSSOMS team in Saudi Arabia, where they held a BLOSSOMS workshop this past July for 200 high school teachers.
Professor Richard Larson and Elizabeth Murray, center, pictured with the MIT BLOSSOMS team in Saudi Arabia, where they held a BLOSSOMS workshop this past July for 200 high school teachers.

Ghada Marmash can teach you math through juice. In "The Juice Seller’s Problem," one of myriad educational videos presented through MIT BLOSSOMS, Marmash poses an interesting question. If a juice seller has two smaller cylinders full of juice and wants to consolidate them into a third, larger container, what is the most efficient way for him to do this, with the least amount of steps required?

Though it might seem simple, the problem in question requires a lot of thought, which is exactly what Marmash, a participant in MIT BLOSSOMS, intends. Blended Learning Open Source Science Or Math Studies, or BLOSSOMS, seeks to show students that math and science pertain to their daily lives while also encouraging critical thinking skills.

After presenting the initial problem, Marmash, a teacher at King Abdullah II School For Excellence in Irbid, Jordan, relates the problem to the math necessary to solve it. Marmash reviews the Pythagorean theorem then challenges students to ask themselves if the theory remains valid for triangles or cylinders, such as the ones in the juice problem.

The series of short video segments alternates between Marmash speaking and frequent pauses for teacher-led classroom exercises. The idea is for a "duet system," where a video expert teaches in tandem with the classroom’s own teacher. The idea here is not to replace teachers or threaten them with the new technology, but rather “offer a ‘gentle introduction’ to technology-abled education.”

Furthermore, the BLOSSOMS video modules are presented in VHS and DVD format so that no Internet connection is required, making them accessible in developing countries.

Developing countries are what inspired Professor Richard Larson and Elizabeth Murray, principal investigator and project manager, to pursue the BLOSSOMS project. Larson and Murray visited a classroom in rural China where students were red with cold, and learning seemed near impossible in the frigid environment. They felt deeply moved when they saw the children attentively watching a biology lesson from Tsinghua University via DVD, eagerly lapping up the information despite their rough surroundings. Larson and Murray began to consider the best ways to educate the students of today, particularly those in poorer areas.

“The video lessons aren’t supposed to be something your average teacher would teach; they come at a topic from a different point of view," Larson explains. "How math is related to students’ lives gives them real world context and shows how it can be exciting.”

Larson and Murray grew increasingly aware that education had stagnated and needed a modern update. After researching and witnessing many classrooms first-hand, they saw that teaching today is often centered around ‘teaching to the test’ and rote memorization.

“How do you teach critical thinking?” Larson asks. The answer may lie in the BLOSSOMS system. A partnership between MIT and organizations in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Lebanon and now Brazil, BLOSSOMS lets top educators from all over the world upload their own videos, with quality control provided by MIT. These videos run the gamut from topics such as "The Physics of Donkey Carts" to "How Cold is Cold: What is Temperature?” Videos are taught by experts from the Jordan Ministry of Education, MIT graduate students and professors, IBM scientists, Pakistani engineers, Harvard assistant professors, and many more.

As Murray explains, the videos also provide an important cultural and social context. “Girls in Jordan see women in high-powered careers teaching the videos and it is very inspirational to them." She explains that career opportunities are very limited to girls in places such as Saudi Arabia, and yet they can see the world at large has greater opportunity when they learn directly from women at MIT’s Broad Institute. Murray and Larson have made several trips to the Middle East, where they noted a cultural divide and hoped the videos can surmount it.

As stated by Larson and Murray, “Our view is that the world will create these BLOSSOMS modules. MIT is quality assurance.” The team at BLOSSOMS has set it up so that nearly anyone who thinks they have something valuable to share can do their part at educating the public. “We welcome submissions for new ideas,” Murray says.

If you would like to submit ideas, watch some of the modules, or just learn more, please visit the BLOSSOMS website.

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