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Chalk Radio shares MIT’s teaching techniques with the world

Podcast from MIT OpenCourseWare showcasing the Institute’s inspiring instructors and their courses enters second season.
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Chalk Radio host Sarah Hansen says she hopes the podcast's second season will help inspire its audience during a dark time: "If this podcast can help spark listeners' curiosity and confidence in their abilities to bring light through learning, then [it] will be a huge success.”

How do you make abstract concepts accessible and tangible in the classroom? What does it take to motivate students to personalize learning? How do you navigate complex conversations, facilitating productive, respectful discussions in a lecture hall, seminar, or remote classroom?

These are the questions Chalk Radio, the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) podcast, aims to answer. The show highlights some of MIT’s most engaging courses, along with the often-unconventional, always-inspired educators who create and teach them. Each episode features an interview with selected instructors, offering highlights from the subject matter as well as insights into each professor’s approach to teaching — the craft of turning expertise into accessible content. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes apiece, each episode delivers a breezy yet heady experience of casual conversation with some of MIT’s finest minds.

Season 2 of Chalk Radio provides a wide-ranging exploration of the practice of teaching. The first episode, released on Oct. 28, features MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Gary Gensler discussing the deeply human lessons he imparts to students in his course on “FinTech” (financial technology). Gensler’s teaching philosophy by its very nature contradicts any stereotypes about business school as a cutthroat experience: Indebted to the older mentors who supported him as a young professional, the former Commodity Futures Trading Commission chair takes a community-building approach to his courses, nurturing his students and encouraging them to take on mentorship roles as their careers develop. 

Later episodes will include a conversation with Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Dava Newman on “using AI to better understand Earth,” a discussion of the complexities of writing about race and racism with Department of Urban Studies and Planning Visiting Scholar Garnette Cadogan, and Department of Materials Science and Engineering Professor Jeffrey Grossman’s take on why all chemistry classes should come with a “goodie bag.” Host Sarah Hansen, who holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction, acts as a guide through the minds of these educators and their courses. Without visual aids to demonstrate what they’re talking about, she leads them down a path of anecdotes and insights, challenging them a bit on the way. 

Chalk Radio’s first season featured a diverse array of memorable teaching stories from across the Institute. The premiere episode featured Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering Professor Michael Short talking about how he asked his students to bring their toenail clippings to class, so that they could use radiation to analyze levels of gold and arsenic in their own bodies. Later episodes covered topics as diverse as learning to fly small aircraft in an immersive classroom experience, exploring cultural prejudices by examining the histories of the languages we speak, and illustrating economic concepts with pop culture examples like Kim Kardashian’s exercise corset.

Season 2 takes a look at life on our planet from multiple perspectives. We get a view from "the third dimension," or outer space, and explore how using satellite data can help us become better inhabitants of planet Earth. Three upcoming episodes feature nuanced conversations about climate and environmental issues. Other instructors look at both the physical materials and the social constructs that make up our world, their focus sharpening to spotlight issues relating to racism, gender, and remote professional learning opportunities for educators as they grapple with the complexities of life today.

As OCW’s senior manager for open educator and strategic initiatives, Hansen created the podcast with the intent to invite audiences into the MIT experience. “For a long time we created videos where I interviewed faculty about how they developed courses they shared on OpenCourseWare. We launched ​Chalk Radio​ as a more contemporary way of creating that content — there’s a storytelling element, as well as a back-and-forth of in-depth discussion.” She likens the format of the interviews to the kind of conversation one might have while walking down the Infinite Corridor with a professor after class. “It’s amazing to be around these people who are so passionate, so into what they’re doing. This podcast is such a great way to make people feel like they are here at MIT.” 

Hansen and co-creator/producer Brett Paci want Chalk Radio to be for everyone — learners, educators, and anyone interested in the subject matter of any given episode. Says Paci: “My background is in art and design, so I go into most of the recording sessions with very little understanding of the subject matter our guests teach in the classroom. But they work so hard to make things understandable and accessible to their students, and that really comes through in these interviews.”

“It’s exactly what MIT should be: experimenting, making it, learning as you go. Working with the faculty to make something that they love, that they can be proud of,” Hansen says​. Though the first season was created with the aim of sharing some of what makes MIT special with the world beyond campus, in the wake of Covid-19, Hansen hopes it fills another need as well: "Inspiration to keep learning in what feels like a dark time. If this podcast can help spark listeners' curiosity and confidence in their abilities to bring light through learning, then Season 2 will be a huge success.”

New episodes of Chalk Radio Season 2 will be released over the course of the fall and winter. All 11 episodes of the first season are also available to stream, hosted on Simplecast and distributed on Apple Podcast and other popular podcast platforms. Each episode also links to the guest professor’s course materials on OpenCourseWare.

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