American school children need better educational opportunities and more compelling forms of exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—and to the people who work in these fields. Less than 5% of all university degrees awarded in the U.S. are in engineering (compared to 45% in China and 12% in Europe); only 0.8% of these degrees are being earned by women and 0.6% by underrepresented minorities. Further, 69% of U.S. public school students in 5th through 8th grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics: 93% are taught physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences. This crisis in STEM education is colliding with, and being compounded by, grim economic realities in most U.S. states. As a country, we are poised to expend fewer resources on one of our most pressing long-term educational and economic challenges. The National Academies have likened this crisis to a rapidly approaching, category-5 hurricane.
MIT has a unique relationship to these issues. We don’t have a STEM problem. As a world leader in engineering and science education and research we continue to attract a strong, diverse, and technically superb applicant pool. Half our undergraduate students choose to major in engineering; half are women; and a quarter are under-represented minorities. Moreover, because of our need-blind admissions policy, 19% of undergraduates in our most recent class come from families with incomes less than $50,000 per year, 37% come from families with incomes less than $100,000 per year, and 14% are the first generation of their family to attend college. However, our unique position also presents us with an opportunity to participate in the solution for the broader problem. These are challenges for our fields, our country, and our collective future. Finding solutions is not merely an opportunity of leadership—it is an obligation.
In December, 2011, Ian Waitz, MIT’s Dean of Engineering, launched the MIT-K12 project, driven by a series of questions: How can we change the perception of the role of engineers and scientists in the world? What can MIT do, right now, to improve STEM education at the K12 level? What if MIT became a publicly accessible “experiential partner” to the country’s K12 educators? What if MIT students generated short-form videos to complement the work those educators are already doing in their classrooms and homes?
MIT has a resource of 10,000 brilliant young people who represent the future of engineering and science — our students. They want to change the world, and are wiling to start by offering meaningful contributions to the national challenge facing K12 education. They also have access to some of the most sophisticated laboratory and experimental facilities in the world. As an initial test in the fall of 2011, the School of Engineering funded 38 student teams, at $1,000 each, to produce videos illustrating that the best spokespeople in the battle to engage young people in science and engineering are other young people — especially MIT students. Those videos, which are included in this site, told us that there might be some answers out there — but that we needed this to be bigger. We need to ask for a lot of help.
The Pilots: Our own learning starts at home
Since July 2011, we have successfully implemented two pilot rounds of video production by MIT students. The students who participated in the original pilot were each given $1,000, and a 90-minute tutorial on how to shoot and edit video. They were given no guidance on content, but were asked to view videos on teaching methods. About half of the videos they produced were excellent; others had poor audio quality and too much “chalk-talk.” Moreover, the students were uniformly enthusiastic about participating in the program. They actively discouraged the suggestion of a video contest—believing that everyone should win by giving back, and asked instead to make more videos, but with more guidance and direction from K12 educators. They were interested above all in the efficacy of their work—they wanted to know that kids would learn something useful by watching the videos. (This public service orientation was also apparent in the actions of two MIT students who donated the money we paid them to after-school programs for kids in the Cambridge area.)
We also conducted a formal assessment of these videos, creating an online survey for students, which generated 300 responses, and a version for K12 teachers to use after viewing the videos with their classes. The results of the surveys bore out most of our objectives. For example, while nearly 90% of student respondents indicated that the videos “showed me that science and engineering could be cool,” the teachers’ survey indicated that the program would benefit from more direct involvement with educators during the assignment phase. (The MIT students had sound intuitions about their work.)
We were able to integrate some of this learning before we initiated the second round of pilot videos. For round 2, we provided students with more support on production and pedagogy and settled on a “classic experiments” theme for the videos. The participating students responded very favorably to the additional support, and the quality and range of the videos submitted for the second round significantly exceeded that of the first.
Applying what we learned, learning from ourselves, and making something BIG
Providing educators from around the country a productive pathway into MIT and effectively supplementing their classroom needs is not so daunting a challenge — all we need to do is ask them. After consulting with a number of MIT’s 73 existing internal K12 outreach programs, we discovered that many outreach relationships already exist within the Institute, they just aren’t configured to this purpose. There is a network of several thousand MIT alumni who focus on K12 education; the Blossoms program provides 50-minute science and math video lessons to high-schools, the Edgerton Center and the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs run a variety of programs that engage K12 teachers by delivering supplementary engineering and science programming to their students; the Scheller Teacher Education Program licenses K12 teachers in mathematics or science instruction for grades 5-12—this is just to name a few; there are many more.
By leveraging existing connections within our own networks and catalyzing new ones, MIT will respond to the needs of students and teachers and establish relationships between the MIT students creating content and the people who will ultimately use it. The model for MIT-K12 has the potential to scale-up quickly; we will harness the energy of 10,000 of the brightest young engineers and scientists in the world.
Harnessing Smart Crowds
Our goal is to develop and host an open platform for crowd-curated content relevant to K12 STEM education. Our efforts will not only allow us to identify specific and advantageous areas for student work, they will also allow us to create a sense of community around this work, and its effects, among educators and students at every level.
A crucial component in the success of MIT-K12 will lie in the program’s ability to make MIT “available” to educators and to catalyze contributions from outside MIT. This implies, at least in part, a responsive arrangement—one in which video developers listen to K12 teachers and students and deliver videos that suit their needs. Despite MIT’s many existing programs and relationships with educators, we don’t know, for example, which concepts in high school physics are especially difficult to convey to students, and might be better conveyed with the right piece of equipment, and the right (age-appropriate) explainer. We have similar gaps in knowledge about chemistry, biology, anatomy, geology, botany, environmental studies, etc.
MIT-K12 will be an avenue for determining how to best assist teachers because it will be comprised of tools and systems that will allow educators from anywhere in the world to submit requests for demonstrations of scientific principles or experiments. Since MIT-K12 will also accept suggestions from other field experts, it will also provide educators with an environment where they can learn from each other about ways in which to improve pedagogical practices and techniques. If MIT-K12 gives a middle school science teacher the opportunity to integrate a new design-build curricular component in his or her class, or if it gives a high school biology teacher ideas for a new unit in genetic engineering, it will have exceeded its specific purpose—not through a direct intervention, but an indirect one.
We do not assume that every video segment produced by an MIT student will be of the highest caliber and quality, or that it will deliver exactly the teaching result that was intended (though it may deliver others). To that end, we will employ crowd-sourced quality controls and feedback mechanisms to ensure that the best videos get the most attention and the best placement, and those that need work are responded to in an appropriate and timely way.
Crowds + Partners = Efficiency
Given the scale of the problem MIT-K12 is hoping to address, we are extremely wary of models or interventions that implicate administrative costs and overhead. In this space, a successful model is one that costs less per educational output over time, and with increased adoption, not more. By using a crowd-sourcing model to solicit, curate, and manage the content of this project, we can reduce both the administrative and promotional burdens that would normally be associated with such a large and ambitious undertaking.
MIT-K12 is not like any other project that has been undertaken by the Institute, and as such, we expect we will learn even more along our way, and adapt to those changes. However, it is also an opportunity to change how MIT relates to the world, and how the world of K12 students and teachers relate to engineering and science. Our challenge in this arena is steep, as an institution and as a country, but the impacts of not meeting this challenge are grave.