Adding Hands-on Practice to Science and Engineering Classes

Published in MIT News on January 31, 2017, by Elizabeth Durant, Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education

A new advising seminar incorporates making and other types of hands-on learning to enhance first-year required courses.

On a cold, drizzly December afternoon, a few dozen freshmen assembled in a large classroom in Building 34 to demonstrate their final projects for the semester. There was a levitating droplet fountain, motorized skates, and a Rubik’s Cube solving machine, to name a few. One student, Lujing Cen, issued a command to his digital automaton: “Draw the weather.” The automaton, a robotic arm perched over a whiteboard and holding a marker, was still for a few seconds. After searching the internet and retrieving an image — in this case, a conventional weather icon — it drew an amorphous cloud with a few raindrops.

The display of innovative contraptions marked the culmination of 6.A01 (Mens et Manus: Building on the Science Core), a new freshman advising seminar. The class is one of 54 advising seminars offered each fall as an alternative to traditional freshman advising. Seminars allow a small group of students to get to know their advisor while learning about a topic of interest to them — from nucleic acids, operations research, and the solar system to blacksmithing, leadership development, and the arts at MIT.

What sets 6.A01 apart is the emphasis on hands-on learning — with a healthy dose of making — that relates directly to concepts freshmen learn in their science General Institute Requirements courses (GIRs). Three class projects — a simple loudspeaker, a brushless motor, and the final independent project — provide real-world context for the material students learn in the seminar...

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