In this section, Michael Short shares his insights about developing and teaching hands-on courses.
After teaching 22.S902 DIY Geiger Counters, I realized that the kind of hands-on experience it offers students is exactly what we need in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Despite being in the School of Engineering, we haven’t traditionally been a very hands-on department. It’s one of the things I always wanted to change as an undergraduate at MIT, and now, as a faculty member, I have the opportunity to design these kinds of courses.
A One-Time Investment with a Huge Payoff
Developing hands-on courses is a lot of work, but it’s a one-time investment with a huge payoff. Whenever I put in the extra effort to make a hands-on course, the work I get back from students is better. It's quicker to grade. It's also more fun to teach hands-on courses because the students get what's going on instead of just sitting silently through class. Plus, students come to MIT for robot-building and flame-throwing acid-alien stuff—not static lectures. If you can teach the same content in a better way, then why wouldn’t you put in the extra work to do it? I wanted to pilot 22.S902 DIY Geiger Counters, in part, to show my colleagues how beneficial it can be to implement a hands-on course and to convince others to make the investment in active learning . You really can take almost any course and make it hands-on. It might take some creativity upfront, but the rewards are pretty cool.
In fact, I'm thinking about how to incorporate active learning into another one of my courses, 22.74 Radiation Damage and Effects. My research group is working on a technique to measure radiation damage changes in material properties as they get irradiated. Because we have a tabletop mechanism for exploring this topic, I'd like to include some labs in the course. Or perhaps I’ll include simulations. This is something I currently do in my teaching. Instead of just teaching from the book, I code a lot of differential equations in a finite element solver and have students play around with them. Simulations allow students to tweak variables, such as temperature, and observe the effects. When you’re in control of the knobs, you remember more.
Combatting Fear of Failure in a Hands-on Class
In 22.S902 DIY Geiger Counters—a hands-on course geared toward freshmen—the goal of the course was not to sort out who could build from those who couldn’t. The goal was for students to learn. This kind of goal requires that, as an educator, you earn students’ trust. They have to trust that you will put in extra time and effort to help them complete the hands-on component of the course. If you don’t earn their trust, they’ll resist doing anything for fear of screwing up.
Most of the students came into the class so afraid of making mistakes. I had to say over and over again, sometimes every 5 minutes, “This is the class in which I want to see things exploding. This is where I want to see you do the high-voltage dance. This is where I want everything to go wrong, because you can’t get it to go right unless you see what goes wrong. This is a safe place where you can screw up.” I had to remind them of this constantly. I told them they earned points for screwing up in this class because that’s how we learn. I told them that the only way to fail was to do nothing.
Presenting students with very small debugging challenges can help boost their confidence. For instance, when we teach them to solder, students inevitably get cold solder joints everywhere, and they think, “Oh, my Geiger counter doesn’t work.” Then we teach them what a cold solder joint is and why it's not a good connection. We show them how to touch the soldering iron to certain points and how this results in the Geiger counter working again. They do this, and they think, “Oh, I can actually debug.” And then they look for cold solder joints everywhere!
I don’t think students—especially the ones who have been academically successful in their secondary schools—have really learned the value of screwing up, because they’ve never screwed up before! And, as I’ve heard other people say, if you’re not screwing up, you’re not challenging yourself. I want to bring every MIT student to the point where they get so frustrated with something that they have to put it down and really think about it.