ES.S41: Speak Italian..with your mouth full

Paola Rebusco, Lecturer, ESG

I teach Physics, but I am not only a physicist. Like many at MIT, I have a polyhedric personality- among other things, I love to eat, cook, and speak different languages. I have always dreamed of melting some of my diverse interests into a unifying project, however I never had a chance to do it until now. In Europe, where I come from, academia tends to be compartmentalized. At MIT, I have finally had a chance to explore and grow in different directions.

As a staff member at MIT's Experimental Study Group (ESG), I am continuously encouraged to develop creative approaches to learning and to experiment with interactive and interdisciplinary curricula. ESG experiments not only with freshmen GIRs, but also sponsors innovative seminars every spring, open to all MIT students, on a variety of subjects that are not covered in the regular curriculum.

I am thrilled to teach, for the first time, a seminar on my language (I am a native Italian), culture, and food all woven together: Speak Italian.. With Your Mouth Full. Each class is based on the preparation of a delicious dish and on the bite-sized acquisition of parts of the Italian language and culture.

Paola Rebusco

The inspiration for my seminar came when we were discussing the open design for the new ESG kitchen --- it is ideal for educational purposes. We already used the kitchen for weekly community lunches, pasta dinners, review and cookie nights. The ESG kitchen has also hosted the successful "Kitchen Chemistry" seminar, designed and taught by Dr. Patti Christi, for many years. The new kitchen is large, modern, and embraces the other living areas. It feels like a friendly lab, with large counters around which many people can work all together and with an open connection to a larger common area that is furnished with tables and blackboards.

It is well known that language immersion courses are more effective and lasting than traditional language courses, and this seminar creates the same "immersion experience" without requiring the students to travel abroad. We start each class by introducing new grammar and building new sentences. Then we smoothly migrate to the kitchen counter, where all the ingredients are labeled in Italian. After working on the pronunciation, we are ready to cook! The students absorb the language while they collaborate to cook together. They are not only learning to understand and speak basic Italian, there are added values: the participants are learning some simple, healthy and tasty recipes that they can reproduce in their dorm (the assignments include some individual cooking) and they are naturally socializing in a relaxed atmosphere. Moreover, language and food open the opportunity to introduce elements of Italian geography, history and culture. For example, when we cooked risotto, we discussed where rice is grown in Italy. Two traditional Italian treats, frittelle and chiacchiere, provided us with a chance to talk about the tradition of Carnival in Italy.

Students cooking as part of Speaking Italian with your mouth full seminar

This experimental method definitely appeals to the students! About 90 undergraduates registered to participate, but we could take only 12. They all love the idea of learning two things at once, and the kitchen-lab context drives their curiosity and enthusiasm. Considering how much interest the seminar stimulated, we decided to create a blog and to video record the seminars as additional on-line content for ESG, OCW and possibly iTunes U. Graham G. Ramsay is filming each class and creating short videos that will carry the audience through the new words and dishes. Due to the nature of the seminar, the spectator is compelled to stop the video and participate actively, chopping, stirring and talking.

ESG is considering to have a series of similar seminars for different languages --- i.e. Speak Spanish...with your mouth full, German, French,... .

On my side, I find it fun and fulfilling to teach Electricity and Magnetism during the day, and then to wear the apron to teach Italian at night. I feel like a teacher superhero, or maybe a more human teacher --- a representative to assure our students that scientists have well-rounded lives and that the choice of a major does not cut a person into disconnected pieces as they often fear.

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