Beyond the Classroom: What Students Want From Faculty

Published in Nov/Dec 2012 Faculty Newsletter; Written by Ed Bertschinger, Department Head/Professor of Physics

Prof. Ed BertschingerThis is the first in a series of occasional articles relating rewarding faculty/student interactions outside the classroom.

I know an MIT faculty member who grew up in a poor Latino neighborhood, whose immigrant mother had only an eighth-grade education and whose father never graduated from college, and who was rejected by MIT freshman admissions. Worse, a mediocre performance in freshman physics led to his TA’s written advice to pursue something other than his ambition of theoretical physics. That faculty member is me. Despite the odds and my TA’s assessment, I succeeded; as can current MIT students who may, unknown to their professors, have experienced difficulties similar or even worse than mine.

The challenges I overcame in college exist even now at MIT. I hear about it from some of the students I mentor after meeting them in MIT’s Interphase EDGE (a pre-freshman summer program) or through the American Physical Society’s Minority Scholarship program. Some of these students receive the kind of discouragement I got 33 years ago at Caltech, and even though the faculty may think they are being helpful, they are not. Nationwide, only about 30 physics PhD degrees are awarded annually to underrepresented minorities. Many more are needed. Millie Dresselhaus and the late Michael Feld showed me by example how easy and rewarding it is to improve these numbers. Each of them supervised the PhDs of five African American students at MIT.

Fifteen years ago, the MIT Admissions Office asked me if I would supervise a promising young summer student in a program called Research Science Institute. It was the first time since graduate school that I had worked with a high school student in research. I was most fortunate and hit the jackpot as a research mentor – the 13-year-old Hispanic girl I supervised won first place in the Intel Science Talent Search the next year and soon graduated from MIT with an SB in physics, followed by a PhD at Harvard. She is now a tenured professor and a leading theoretical particle physicist. I have supervised or helped find supervisors for RSI students ever since.

The MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) also presents a golden opportunity for faculty. MSRP seeks to boost the academic careers of undergraduates from outside MIT who show strong promise for graduate education. It also seeks to improve the research enterprise through increased diversity. It has been inspiring to see our MSRP physics students admitted into PhD programs at MIT, UC Berkeley, and other top universities. As a result of these and other efforts, the MIT Physics Department trains (through MSRP and our own degree programs) more than 10% of the underrepresented minority PhDs in physics.

My greatest satisfaction as a faculty member has come from mentoring students – not just research students, but also undergraduates who want and need the encouragement of a role model.

The Office of Minority Education creates an excellent framework in its Mentor Advocate Partnership program, making it easy for any faculty or staff member to help our students thrive. Freshman advising plays a similarly important role, and has provided my greatest satisfaction this semester. Unfortunately, these programs have a severe shortage of faculty mentors.

These are just a few of the ways we can make a huge difference in the lives of our students. I invite you to add your own examples to the list. Please consider what you can do – our students want and need your advice and encouragement.