On a cold, drizzly December afternoon, a few dozen freshmen assembled in a large classroom in Building 34 to demonstrate their final projects for the semester. There was a levitating droplet fountain, motorized skates, and a Rubik’s Cube solving machine, to name a few. One student, Lujing Cen, issued a command to his digital automaton: “Draw the weather.” The automaton, a robotic arm perched over a whiteboard and holding a marker, was still for a few seconds. After searching the internet and retrieving an image — in this case, a conventional weather icon — it drew an amorphous cloud with a few raindrops.
The display of innovative contraptions marked the culmination of 6.A01 (Mens et Manus: Building on the Science Core), a new freshman advising seminar. The class is one of 54 advising seminars offered each fall as an alternative to traditional freshman advising. Seminars allow a small group of students to get to know their advisor while learning about a topic of interest to them — from nucleic acids, operations research, and the solar system to blacksmithing, leadership development, and the arts at MIT.
What sets 6.A01 apart is the emphasis on hands-on learning — with a healthy dose of making — that relates directly to concepts freshmen learn in their science General Institute Requirements courses (GIRs). Three class projects — a simple loudspeaker, a brushless motor, and the final independent project — provide real-world context for the material students learn in the seminar.
Ampere’s Law in 10 different ways
Each project acts as a medium in which to gain a deeper understanding of principles covered in the science GIRs. “For us, it’s about giving these sorts of physical interpretations to things they’re seeing in more equation-based formats in other classes,” explains Dawn Wendell, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering who is one of the seminar’s four instructors.
For the loudspeaker project, students learn about electricity and magnetism, but in 6.A01 they don’t derive all the equations and variables covered in 8.02 (Physics II). “We don’t want to teach the physics class,” says Wendell. “Instead, we say, ‘Here’s Ampere’s Law. Now let’s try using it in 10 different ways.’”
“Students are so much more motivated to learn if they see what is at the end of the process,” says Dennis Freeman, dean for undergraduate education and professor of electrical engineering. He co-created the seminar along with Wendell, Martin Culpepper (MIT’s “maker czar” and professor of mechanical engineering), and postdoc Scott Page. “So for example, students make their first loudspeaker prototype based on their intuition about what is important, and then refine their design and optimize performance based on theories and equations they’ve seen elsewhere, like 8.02. Aligning formal theory and intuition strengthens both, and leads to a principled design methodology that is both effective and technically satisfying.”
The class has been well-received by freshmen. “I love how we’re making everything from scratch,” says Francisca Vasconcelos, the creator of the levitating droplet fountain. Students use 3-D computer aided design software to design their projects and learn maker skills like laser cutting and 3-D printing to create parts. They can also opt to complete additional training, called MakerLodge training, to access shops around campus, join maker communities, and get MakerBucks for their own projects.
Cen clearly sees connections between 6.A01 and his science GIRs. “Many of the concepts I’ve learned in 8.01 [Physics I] and 18.02 [Calculus] are directly applicable to my final project, which I think is really cool,” he says, rattling off several examples, such as calculating the forces on the robotic arm, determining the angular acceleration, and using linear algebra to make the arm reach a particular point in space.
Trading breadth for depth
The seminar came about as a by-product of Freeman’s interest in “the early years” of MIT students’ education. Compared to MIT’s peers, he says, “we’re unusual in having so much math, physics, chemistry, and biology in the core GIR classes.” While this makes for a rigorous curriculum, it also means other things get squeezed out: GIR science classes have no lab component, which Freeman feels is “completely the opposite of what it should be.”
“If you count the number of facts per minute, lectures are much more efficient than labs,” Freeman says. As a result, notes Wendell, depending on their major, some students may not have a class with a lab until the spring of their sophomore year. “Especially for our students who are mostly scientists and engineers, to not have that feels like a missed opportunity.”
Freeman’s experience developing and teaching the sophomore course 6.01 (Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I) provided the inspiration for the freshman advising seminar. In 6.01, a series of hands-on activities involving a mobile robot are used to introduce software engineering, feedback and control, circuits, probability, and planning.
Freeman wanted to use a similar approach for 6.A01. For example, in a two-hour class period, students are given a magnet, wire, and paper and are tasked with making the loudspeaker. “Could we have covered more of Maxwell’s equations had we used the two hours for a lecture? Yes, I could have gotten through all four of them. Would they have understood all four of them? No!” he says with a laugh. “So I’d rather have them gain a deeper appreciation of one. At least now they know Ampere’s Law, they have experience with it. I think they’ll recognize when they could use it in the future.”
In addition to the curriculum itself, Wendell believes 6.A01 is beneficial to freshmen in less tangible ways, such as building community. Vasconcelos agrees: “Everyone in class has an interest in making, so I got to meet all the other freshmen who find making cool.” Students also have the opportunity to get to know several instructors in a supportive role, rather than just their own advisor. And because the projects are inherently multidisciplinary, Wendells says, “students realize their classes are not as separate as they think they are.”
The seminar also challenges how freshmen are accustomed to learning, both in high school and even in the GIRs: the premise that answers are either right or wrong. The real world is often more nuanced, of course, and Wendell cites the motor project as an example: Students may have successfully learned the physics and equations, machined the parts, and programed the electronics, but the motor still might not work.
“That’s hard, and that’s really where engineering gets complicated, where it’s no longer that perfect, idealized system. ... The outcome is not guaranteed,” she says. Often students get stuck, which presents an opportunity for them to learn how to approach a problem — an essential skill for scientists and engineers that transcends mastering content alone. “It’s not about right or wrong answers,” adds Wendell. “It’s more try something, learn from it, iterate.”
For now, the instructors are iterating as well, evaluating what worked and what resonated with students to decide how to tweak the seminar next fall. Ultimately, Freeman notes, the long-term goal is to use the 6.A01 model to develop a new freshman learning community, like Concourse or the Experimental Study Group. “The sort of students we attract are highly stimulated with this maker framework,” he says. “It’s not something I would endorse for everybody, but I think it could be very effective for some people.”