The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives program (MISTI) places over 500 MIT undergraduate and graduate students with international internship and research opportunities each summer. Through MISTI Global Teaching Labs (GTL), an experimental teaching program, nearly another 150 MIT students now travel abroad during MIT’s January Independent Activities Period (IAP) to teach science and engineering in foreign high schools.
“GTL attracts top students looking to share the Institute's unique approach to science and engineering education while learning to communicate in a foreign culture,” Serenella Sferza, MISTI GTL founder and MIT-Italy Program co-director, explains. In fact, because of its popularity among students, the program remains very selective, accepting only top candidates from all MIT departments. Launched in 2009 as a pilot program in Italy, MISTI GTL has grown to include programs in Germany, Israel, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Spain.
Before going abroad, MISTI GTL students attend several cultural and educational trainings. To prepare students for their immersion in a new culture, MISTI program managers lead country-specific training sessions to explore a host country’s economy, politics, and society. Faculty and researchers engaged in rethinking residential education at the Institute, including MIT senior lecturers Peter Dourmashkin of the Department of Physics, Tony Eng of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Scot Osterweil of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and Dipa Shah of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory, lead educational and subject trainings. Through these workshops, GTL participants learn effective teaching and classroom techniques that emphasize hands-on learning through group work and digital media.
Sami Alsheikh, an MIT junior in electrical engineering, traveled to South Korea this past January to teach at Yeomyung, an alternative school in Seoul for North Korean defectors and their children. “At Yeomyung, the students’ resilience and desire to learn despite their backgrounds was most impressive to me,” says Alsheikh. “I was very pleased with how eager the students were to learn and understand the materials we had prepared.” Charged with developing science and engineering workshops for North Korean refugees ages 14-27, Alsheikh was proud to share MIT’s “mens-et-manus” or “mind-and-hand” approach to learning. “With more hands-on activities,” he says, “the students were more compelled to learn.”
In 2014, GTL partnered with the MIT Office of Digital Learning to introduce free online courses throughy MITx to the GTL student teachers. Tasked with exploring the role MITx could play in educating foreign students, these ambassadors received MITx-specific training and beta access to MITx classes. “All MITx ambassadors were deeply engaged in promoting and gathering feedback about MITx while teaching STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — subjects,” Sferza says, “and some even produced new online content.”
In South Africa, a team of MITx ambassadors was asked to address the drop-out rate among South African first-year students. The MITx team, comprised of MIT students Juan Jose Hernandez, Jennie Zheng, Janet Lin, Ishwarya Ananthabhotla, Kelly Liu, and Leyatt Betre, interviewed South African students and teachers to understand why the drop-out rate is high. In their report, “Addressing the Academic Transition from Matric to University through an Online Course,” the team explains their finding that “the combination of cultural and language barriers, the heightened level of academic rigor, and the insufficient training in critical thinking creates a challenging environment for first-year students.” As the sometimes difficult transition from secondary school to university often leads to drop-outs, the MITx team proposed introductory MITx courses for high-school students focusing on fundamental concepts and problem solving.
In conjunction with Wits University in Johannesburg, the team developed its first experimental course, stating, “We created a sample of an online course specifically tailored to the curriculum of first-year physics.” The course, which was made available on Wits University’s edX platform and on mobile phones, introduced high-school students to key concepts they would need to know for university. The MITx ambassadors tested the course in 12th grade classes at the Parktown Girls School and Eqinisweni Secondary School. While IAP has ended for 2015, the team believes they are just starting to see the potential in their MITx course. “This work could be scaled across the continent,” they explain, hoping to one day test their course prototype in other locations.
Whether working as a team or teaching one-on-one, a majority of MISTI GTL participants and MITx ambassadors found the MITx platform to be an asset. Jiwon Victoria Park, a chemistry sophomore who taught in Mexico, used MITx courses and materials to prepare one of her students for his International Baccalaureate (IB) exam and to teach three other math classes. While at Prepa Tec in the city of Puebla, Park found MITx to be beneficial to her students. “Incorporating MITx online courseware and using more real-life examples allowed the student to experience the beauty of math,” she says. In fact, Park found that by asking her students to mimic instructional videos as they watched them in class, her students were more attentive and quick to learn. “GTL was so much more than purely teaching,” Park says. “The program allowed me to experience working in a foreign country, adapt to the culture customs of Mexico, and strive to be a better educator.”
MISTI GTL participants, while proud to teach so many high-school students, are also impressed with what they learn by teaching in a new culture. Alejandro Gomez, an MIT junior in electrical engineering, reflects on his teaching experience in Israel, “I exchanged knowledge with bright young minds that are the future of their country, and I learned that a global perspective is vital to better understanding your own environment.” An alumnus of MISTI GTL, Gomez traveled to Tel Aviv in 2014 where he taught engineering courses at Ort Gilboa High School. A former MIT-Germany intern as well, Gomez was particularly struck by the impact his students and host family had on him. “I learned the importance of voicing your opinion, breaking stereotypes and being patient,” he says. “Don’t leave home to explore the world; make the world your home.”
Now in its sixth year, MISTI GTL is poised to grow in size and scope, with a mission that includes adding more countries, strengthening its partnership with MITx and other MIT education-focused groups, and potentially offering GTL opportunities over the summer. The Global Teaching Labs Program is part of MISTI, MIT’s flagship international education program. Each year, MISTI matches over 700 MIT students with professional internships, research, entrepreneurship and teaching placements around the world.
To see videos of 2015 GTL students in Italy, Korea, Mexico, and Russia, visit the MISTI YouTube channel. You can also read MISTI GTL student stories and learn more about the program at the MISTI website.