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Drinking from the ‘MIT fire hose’

| September 1, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Don Duffield

If you are scientifically inclined, you will more than likely be familiar with the iconic status of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the American state of the same name, Massachusetts.

It is with good reason that it has been ranked the top technology university in the world for three years in a row, according to the Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS) world university rankings.1

Since the inception of the Nobel Prize at the start of the 20th century,2 eighty-one MIT academics have won it, including nine current faculty members. It is also the home of many commonly known modern-day inventions such as the global positioning system (GPS), the fax machine, voice recognition technology and technicolour. As the QS website succinctly states when referring to MIT and the other great “US techschool”, Caltech:3 “…[F]rom quantum physics to supercomputers, string theory to nuclear reactors, these are the places where the world’s best and brainiest gather to push back the frontiers of scientific and technological knowledge.”4

SEPT: An opportunity to ‘drink from the MIT fire hose’

The MIT professional education website5 says that the MIT expression, ‘Drinking from the fire hose’, “…suggests the flood of ideas and rapid intellectual growth that happens at the Institute.” I recently had the privilege of experiencing this phenomenon directly through a unique programme at MIT, via the Science and Engineering Programme for Teachers (SEPT).6

Over the past 26 years, during every summer break, MIT has provided approximately 25 teachers from around the world who are recognised as innovative, creative and dedicated teachers in their own schools and communities, the opportunity to participate in an intensive one-week programme. Participants attend lectures presented by top MIT scientists, are exposed to the latest technology developed at MIT, visit state-of-the-art research units and have the opportunity to network and ‘cross-pollenate’ with other passionate and worldclass educators.

In typical MIT style, we were introduced to some of the greatest scientific minds on earth (including a Physics Nobel Laureate) in a very down-to-earth, unpretentious and personal manner. Topics on current scientific research covered ranged from cosmology to astrophysics, the search for exoplanets, materials science, hydrogeology, biological engineering, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, nuclear engineering, biomimetic robotics and lowtemperature condensed matter physics. We were also privileged to visit MIT’s nuclear reactor laboratory (NRL) and the Belcher laboratory’s scanning electron microscope unit.

Pranks, Lego and gaming

At MIT pranks designed to demonstrate technical cleverness are celebrated.7 So it was no surprise that our Hands-on Physics workshop involved the firing of supercharged water rockets on the lawns in front of the MIT Dome, while a ‘science geek’ ran around like a cast member in an episode of television programme The Big Bang Theory,8 with his shirt off, trying to catch the water-filled balloons propelled by the rockets with his shirt.

In another more serious workshop, we used specially modified Lego kits to learn about protein synthesis in a cell in a concrete and very effective manner.

A competitive element was also introduced in the form of the NRL design challenge, which required us to work in groups to design educational materials for the school groups that regularly tour through the NRL facility. Presentations were made to physicists and representatives from the NRL, and winners were declared.

In 1962, the first ‘shooter computer game’ in the world, Spacewar, was created by three MIT students.9 Following in that tradition, computer gaming is an intrinsic part of how learning takes place at MIT. The fact that there are scientists who continually carry out research at the MIT games laboratory is testimony to this. As part of our ‘fire hose experience’, we also played physics and population dynamics games under the guidance of game designers, and were taught how to create our own simulation games using certain gaming platforms.

Rubbing shoulders with masters of one’s trade

SEPT also provided us the opportunity to rub shoulders with world-class science and engineering educators. The opportunity to share best practice in an informal setting and to network with teachers from around the world is undoubtedly one of the most beneficial aspects of SEPT.

Towards the end of the programme, one is formally introduced to former participants of SEPT – all high-quality, very experienced teachers who form part of the Network of Educators in Science and Technology (NEST).10 Once having completed SEPT, one formally becomes a member of NEST – a truly valuable privilege, as this is a very active network of world-class educators striving to uplift the standard of science, mathematics and engineering teaching around the world.

Spreading the ‘MIT light’

I was surprised to find out from the SEPT organisers that I was the only South African ever to attend SEPT. After having experienced the ‘magic of MIT’, I want to make other South African teachers aware of this wonderful opportunity for their personal growth.

This is undoubtedly the most beneficial and inspirational professional development programme I have ever attended. I would never have had the opportunity to ‘drink from the MIT fire hose’ if it were not for the organisers of SEPT and the senior management of my school, who had the vision to encourage me to apply to SEPT and to fund my trip to MIT. I sincerely hope that more South African teachers will have the opportunity to attend SEPT in the future. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, Edith Wharton, once wrote: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects the light.”11 MIT is undoubtedly the candle, but you can try to be the mirror.


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Category: Spring 2015

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