The What, Who, and How of DUE: Experimental Study Group (ESG)

By Anna Babbi Klein, DUE Communications Manager

[On July 1, 2010, ESG joined DUE as part of the Office of Experiential Learning]

If you travel to the 6th floor of Building 24, you will find a unique freshman learning community. Instead of lecture halls, you will find small, informal classrooms. The common space, which includes couches, a hammock and a kitchen, encourages students to gather and discuss ideas, work through challenges, and connect as a community. The environment fosters frequent interaction between students, faculty and staff both inside and outside the classroom. This is the home of the Experimental Study Group (ESG).

ESG classroomEscher inspired rainbow

Experimental Study Group (ESG): A dynamic educational community

Each year, 50 freshmen enroll in ESG’s alternative academic program that offers a more personalized approach to the core freshman subjects. What exactly does that mean? It means that ESG students take the same subjects as their mainstream peers, such as 18.01, 8.01 or a HASS subject, but they do so in a learning environment where:

ESG Study Group

  • Class size = 5-10 students
  • Classes are highly interactive
  • Students influence the pace of the classes
  • Teaching is the priority

ESG embraces the philosophy that “education works best when everyone is involved and active.” The small classes provide many opportunities for students to interact with the instructors and fellow students. In the classroom, students are encouraged to ask questions and experiment with novel ways of learning the material. Outside the classroom, collaborative learning is fundamental to the ESG community environment. Opportunities for students to engage faculty, staff and peers in problem solving and discussions are pervasive.

Undergraduate peer teaching is integral to the ESG community. Each year, approximately 30 ESG upperclassmen are trained as teaching assistants through the ESG Teaching Seminar. The seminar is taught by an ESG staff member and provides the foundation for effective teaching. These upperclassmen bring their own experiences in ESG to bear as they provide formal and informal teaching and advising to current freshmen. Every year, several ESG-trained TAs go on to become TAs for mainstream MIT classes and Interphase.

In teaching the freshman core curriculum, the ESG faculty and staff strive to incorporate experimental approaches to teaching and learning that not only engage the students but also improve learning outcomes. Some recent examples include: teaching Math, Physics, Chemistry and Biology classes using problems and examples which relate to creating alternative energy sources; a HASS subject which coupled Introduction to Technical Communication with a mechanical engineering design seminar and challenged small student teams to create and write about their own product design; looking at key principles of physics through sports applications such as gymnastics and scuba diving; and developing a screenplay based on a band of MIT students outthinking terrorists as part of an ESG version of Colossal Failures in Engineering.

Undergraduate seminars for ALL MIT undergraduates

The innovative sprit of ESG has been the foundation for the large number of undergraduate seminars developed and offered by ESG each spring. These undergraduate seminars are 6-unit subjects which are designated pass/fail . Through these seminars, all MIT undergraduates have the opportunity to participate in the ESG style of learning in which classes are small and highly interactive. 80% of students enrolled in ESG seminars are not ESG students. While the number varies, ESG offers 10-12 seminars each spring. During the past 20 years, ESG has offered more than 70 seminars which have been primarily funded by ESG alumni.

Not only are ESG staff and faculty encouraged to develop and teach new seminars, but experienced ESG uppserclassmen who have demonstrated excellent teaching skills are also able to develop their own pass/fail seminars under faculty supervision. Some seminars have been offered once while several have been offered for 4-5 years. The range of topics is constantly changing reflecting the interests of ESG staff, faculty, and students as well as changing topical issues. Seminars offered in the last two years include: Chemistry of Sports, Ancient Greek Philosophy and Mathematics, American Photography, Mathematics of Toys and Games, and Life at MIT - The Psychology of Emerging Adulthood.

40 years of educational innovation

In celebrating its 40th year as an alternative learning environment in 2009, ESG alumni were asked what they considered to be ESG’s value to MIT. Their answers provide a good summary of both the value and impact of ESG on student learning at MIT1:

  • place for students to discover themselves and their interestsESG Classroom
  • development and training of future teachers
  • diversity of educational methods and learning styles
  • friendlier and “less scary” version of MIT
  • opportunity for students to learn how to develop and teach their own seminars
  • more multidisciplinary than mainstream
  • incubator/testbed for new courses
  • collaborative learning community
  • place to experience student-centered learning
  • more personal interaction between students and faculty/staff
  • special connection of ESG alumni to MIT because of their sense of belonging to the ESG community


Who works in ESG?

<view teaching staff>
<view administrative staff>

  • Professor Alex Slocum, Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering
  • Dr Peter Dourmashkin – Associate Director, Senior Lecturer and Head of Physics
  • Dr. Holly Sweet - Associate Director
  • Dr. Analia Barrantes – Lecturer in Physics
  • Dr. Patricia Christie – Lecturer and Head of Biology and Chemistry
  • David Custer – Lecturer in Writing
  • Dr. Jeremy Orloff – Lecturer and Head of Mathematics
  • Graham Ramsay - Program Coordinator
  • Dr. Gabrielle Stoy – Lecturer in Mathematics


You want to see more…Check out:


1Source: 2008-2009 ESG President's Report