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Teaching at MIT by Kathleen E. '22

we live and we learn and we teach

As my second semester at the Institute draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve spent my time outside of class. Of the various activities I have tried here at MIT, teaching has stood out because of how it has consistently inspired me and given me a sense of fulfillment.

Teaching is an exercise in both design and effective communication. I love solving the problems associated with creating a curriculum and breaking down complex concepts into clear explanations. I knew I enjoyed teaching before I came to MIT, but I had few opportunities to formally pursue it. This semester, I took advantage of three types of formal teaching opportunities. Each opportunity was different from the others in how many hours I spent teaching, the actual tasks I carried out, what I learned from doing it, and how I was compensated. I’ve put all the details below!

[1] CodeIt

[program description] MIT CodeIt is an outreach program which aims to introduce middle-school girls and nonbinary students to computer science using Scratch and Python programming. This is one of many outreach programs at MIT.01 Some of MIT's other outreach programs include BoSTEM (a summer STEM program for underrepresented minorities), dynaMIT (a summer STEM program for low-income students), and Leadership Training Institute (a semester-long weekend program aiming to teach leadership to high schoolers). Like CodeIt, students who serve as mentors for these programs are volunteers and work directly with students.

[total time commitment] 40 hours (5 hours on Saturday, for 8 weeks)

[tasks] Scratch is a visual programming language (and it was actually developed here at the MIT Media Lab). Although many people wouldn’t call it a “real” programming language, Scratch was an invaluable stepping stone in my journey to pursuing computer science. I first learned to use Scratch in high school in order to compete in a Science Olympiad event called Game On. I quickly fell in love with it and used it to make a lot of silly games and procedurally generated animations. These experiences gave me a foundation on which I pursued more advanced coding. Throughout the semester, my goal was to help my students experience the same feelings of inspiration and confidence I felt through using Scratch, from which they could pursue bigger things. I helped my students work through several code labs and eventually develop their own final projects. I also guided them through fun engineering challenges we did during breaks. Watching my students grow into young computer scientists was absolutely amazing!

[what i learned] I’m getting (a little bit) old. There were many instances where I found myself unaware or less excited by the music, trends, and public figures that my students liked. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was occasionally out of the loop (there is a six year difference between my students and I, after all), but it was nevertheless a reminder that I’m a college student now. I also learned to adapt my teaching style rapidly to a lot of different types of students. Some students struggled more than others, and I had to learn how to keep them motivated without frustrating them but also without giving them the solution to their bugs.

[compensation] I enjoyed a free breakfast and lunch each Saturday. I also had the opportunity to tour Google’s Cambridge office with my students.

[2] Stretching, Anatomy, and Chill Vibes (Spark)

[program description] This one-hour class was taught as part of Spark, an annual weekend event organized by MIT’s Educational Studies Program (ESP) in which 7th and 8th graders come to MIT to take a variety of classes taught my MIT students and alumni. It is one of many programs organized by ESP.02 In addition to Spark, ESP organizes programs such as Splash (a weekend event for high schoolers), HSSP (a semester-long set of weekend classes for middle and high school students), and Cascade (a five-weekend set of classes for high school students).

[total time commitment] 1 hour

[tasks] My co-teacher (Janice T. ’22) and I made a powerpoint on stretching and human anatomy. We also made a very chill Spotify playlist. With a background of lofi hip hop, Janice and I taught our students several different stretches and some of the human anatomy underlying the moves we were doing. In particular, we discussed spinal anatomy, different groups of core and leg muscles, and the concepts of ligaments and tendons. Our goal was to provide our students with a period of relaxation in their otherwise action-packed days. We asked them at the end to reflect on the feelings they experienced because of Spark.

[what i learned] It is harder than I thought to make middle-schoolers quiet down, especially when they’re naturally boisterous and excited to be away from their parents. Since our class was scheduled towards the end of the weekend, we had expected our students to be a bit tired. A few of them had loads of energy and would have had a better time running around outside than chilling on yoga mats indoors. Regardless, it was cool to review a lot of the anatomy I had previously learned in high school for Science Olympiad, and relate that knowledge to the stretches I do with my workouts.

[compensation] I got free lunch and a t-shirt! ^_^

[3] Lab Assistant

[program description] For many programming classes here at MIT, there are “Lab Assistants” (referred to as LAs) who assist students at office hours. I worked as an LA for two half-semester courses, 6.0001 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python​) and 6.0002 (Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science). At the start of freshman year, I took an Advanced Standing Exam to receive credit for 6.0001 and then actually took 6.0002 in the second half of my freshman fall semester. I loved the class, applied to be an LA for the next semester, and landed the job.

[total time commitment] 120 hours (10 hours a week, for 12 weeks)

[tasks] I served as a resource for students during office hours. Students could come in to ask about lecture concepts and get help debugging their code. I also helped grade students by giving “check-offs” in which I’d ask students conceptual and coding questions relevant to a given week’s problem set.

[what i learned] I gained a much deeper understanding of all the concepts I had learned in 6.0002; when I needed to explain a concept to my students, I had to truly understand it beyond the level needed to just complete the problem sets. I also became much, much faster at debugging. I could spot syntax errors quickly and became more effective in my approach to checking for possible sources of bugs. This benefitted me in a class I was taking (6.009, Fundamentals of Programming) which I hope to LA in the future.

[compensation] I was paid the standard rate for a Lab Assistant in Course 6, which is $17.00 per hour.

All in all, after spending the majority of my nights and weekends teaching, I’m able to say that it has been one of my favorite experiences here. I didn’t expect teaching to be such a popular activity in college, but every semester hundreds of students take advantage of teaching opportunities here to make an impact on their peers and the Boston community. I hope to continue teaching in events like Spark, mentoring through outreach programs, and working roles like LA/TA in courses I enjoy.

  1. Some of MIT's other outreach programs include BoSTEM (a summer STEM program for underrepresented minorities), dynaMIT (a summer STEM program for low-income students), and Leadership Training Institute (a semester-long weekend program aiming to teach leadership to high schoolers). Like CodeIt, students who serve as mentors for these programs are volunteers and work directly with students. back to text
  2. In addition to Spark, ESP organizes programs such as Splash (a weekend event for high schoolers), HSSP (a semester-long set of weekend classes for middle and high school students), and Cascade (a five-weekend set of classes for high school students). back to text