MIT MEDIA LAB
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MIT MEDIA LAB

Remote Teaching and Learning at the Media Lab

By Canan Dagdeviren

Credit: Emma Suh, Sara Fernandez, Fiona Cai and Sophia Chen

Quick Response and Transition

Back in March of 2020, universities and academic labs across the world were forced to cease operations and ramp down due to the coronavirus pandemic. My academic cleanroom at the MIT Media Lab was no exception. Although restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, etc. were already under heavy restrictions, it still came as a shock when I was told that the MIT Media Lab would be closing down until further notice. On this day, I stood in my group’s office space with the remaining staff who had not yet transitioned to remote working — myself, my lab manager, my research scientist, and my administrative assistant — as we discussed the steps that would need to be taken to ramp down our lab and transition my course to being fully remote. It was surreal.

In a way, our group was uniquely equipped for this unprecedented situation. We already operate under a management system called 5S Methodology that provides for nearly seamless ramp-down of not only our office space, but our academic cleanroom as well. Even before the pandemic, we highlighted the impact of lean lab practices by publishing a peer-reviewed research article, “Research Resiliency Through Lean Labs,” in the Journal of Advanced Intelligent Systems with a special invitation from the journal editor.

This work was highlighted in MIT News as well as MIT’s homepage.

Figure-1: MIT News features our paper on their main page. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

Admittedly, when I built my lab in 2017 and implemented the system, I had not considered how useful it would be in the event of a global pandemic. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful that we were able to ramp down so quickly because it became one less thing to worry about. Instead of fretting about this, I was able to pivot to an entirely new concern: the wellbeing of my students, and how I would transition from a fully in-person teaching style to a fully remote one.

I was about six weeks into teaching my spring semester course, Decoders 1.4: Project Realization in the Cleanroom. During this initial period, when it was unclear exactly what would be happening at MIT in terms of faculty and student access to campus, I told my students not to worry about their projects or grades, and instead to focus on their health, which included their mental and emotional health. My students were experiencing all sorts of pressures — unclear housing situations, uncertainties surrounding midterms, concerns for family members — all amid a deadly virus outbreak spreading rapidly throughout the world.

“MIT shut down in mid-March. This was a logical outcome for those of us who had been monitoring and calculating the exponential growth of the outbreak, so it was reassuring to see the university being so proactive. Remote classes resumed a month later, and I think both the professors and students were committed to making it work. Canan’s humanistic approach to teaching has been very helpful in reducing the stress associated with classwork and social isolation.” — Colin Marcus, EECS, Class of 2023

I decided I wasn’t going to add to that stress in any way whatsoever, and made myself available to my students and staff not only as a faculty member, but also as a personal resource to help alleviate some of their stress in any way that I could.

“I am so grateful to have access to mentors like Canan who are just as invested in their students’ health and mental wellbeing as they are in their education. I have gone to her multiple times for personal advice and have left the call every single time feeling lighter and more confident in myself.” — Emma Suh, MechE, Class of 2023

One of my favorite memories from the spring semester was sending out Ramadan pide (bread) packages to all of my students at their homes, to be shared with their families and friends. To me, this represented the true significance of Ramadan: the sharing of a meal, conversation, empathy, love, caring, and/or understanding with one another unconditionally.

Figure-2: Decoders 1.4 course students pose with their Ramadan pide. Students featured (from left to right starting on the top row): Sara V. Fernandez, Debbie Yu, senior lab manager David Sadat, David Mejorado, Rachel McIntosh, Mohamed Abdelhamid, Fangzheng Liu, Jan Wojcik, and Sara V. Fernandez with her family. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

Not only did I send packages to my course students, but I also mailed some macaroons to my research group to show support for small businesses affected financially by the pandemic, as well as to lift their spirits! MIT’s Instagram page highlighted a collection of our photos.

“Coming home from school after the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown of the United States was rather difficult for me. In my everyday life, I interact with so many different people from my frat, my team, my classes, and from the lab that I work at. When I went home and wasn’t able to see or experience anything with the people I normally would, I felt quite lonely and it certainly took a toll on my work. So when I received Canan’s care packages, it reignited that same connection that I had with a very important part of my life — my research group. It was a little spark that I could hold onto and think ‘someone still remembers about me and cares for me and I am not alone in this struggle’. I was particularly touched by the Ramadan bread because I know how important of a symbol it is, and I was happy that Canan was still thinking of me and the group in these times.” — Jan Wojcik, Computer Science and Engineering, Class of 2021

Figure-3: My group members enjoy macaroons at their homes with their loved ones. Group members featured (from left to right starting on the top row): Jan Wojcik; Rachel McIntosh; David Sadat; Debbie Yu; MIT Bear; Farita Tasnim; Lin Zhang and his son, Noah Zhang; and Ellen Long. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

“It was really heartwarming to receive the chocolate macaroons and Ramadan bread. Being a person who often has to switch and transition to a different environment to take a break and start a new task, working from home has truly been a challenge in the beginning. Any social interactions that we often take for granted such as a smile from a stranger on the street or water cooler conversations suddenly become something that is so out of reach. The Zoom meetings with the class and our research group become the new grounding rocks in my life and routine staples.” — Debbie Yu, EECS, Class of 2021

Fall Course

The phrase “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” truly summarized my mindset going into the summer. As time passed and the weather got warmer, it became apparent that I would need to strike a balance between being hopeful for a scientific breakthrough and being realistic about planning for a fully remote foreseeable future — including as a professor for my fall course. I was faced with a daunting question: How do I transition a course that is traditionally highly collaborative and hands-on, to being fully remote? Under normal circumstances, my Decoders series requires 30% of the time in the classroom, and 70% in a 12 x 36-foot cleanroom space performing hands-on experiments. Given the situation this fall, I had to transition all of the classroom teaching time over to Zoom, and figure out a way to give my students the hands-on experience they would usually get in the cleanroom.

This transition was where I discovered my own learning curve as a faculty member. Prior to the pandemic, I was not very familiar with “remote activities,” as I prefer (like many of my colleagues) to always work collaboratively and face-to-face when possible. However, with the help of my students, my staff, and the support of MIT, I was able to get the hang of Zoom pretty quickly. But I wanted to make sure that my students were still getting the most out of the course, and constantly sought and received feedback from them on what I could do differently to enhance the remote learning experience.

In order to avoid monotony, I scheduled weekly guest lecturers with a diversity of expertise from a number of different institutions: MIT’s EHS Department, the University at Buffalo’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Boston University’s Center for Memory & Brain. Each week, students were assigned the guest lecturer’s relevant publications and papers to review as homework, and were tasked with coming to the lecture prepared with questions.

“Being able to teach and interact with Canan’s class was truly a pleasure. The entire virtual setting still managed to achieve an ‘in-the-classroom’ experience by encouraging an active dialogue with the students, Canan, and myself as well. Having read a few papers beforehand too on the topic of the week primed the classroom to be full of big-picture conceptual questions as well as more technical and practical questions, which to me was truly a sign of a successfully designed course as a whole by being both thought-provoking and vibrant.” — Dr. Steve Ramirez, Boston University

Aware of my own feelings of isolation, I tried to help combat this feeling in my students by beginning each class with a relaxing piece of music. I also recognized that this would have to be a semester of flexibility; I changed the original scheduled class time to one that was more convenient for everyone, and also recorded each lecture for anyone who was unable to attend the live session. These strategies helped my students remain engaged, curious, and thoughtful throughout the entire semester, and I believe it staved off the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” that many students experience.

“When I first learned that all of my courses for the fall semester would be virtual, I was disappointed and concerned about the quality of my classes. I feel that this course truly adapted to the virtual semester by recognizing and accepting the limitations of a fully remote course while still thinking outside the box to facilitate learning. By utilizing guest lecturers and class discussion, I was able to stay engaged while learning about a variety of interesting topics from leaders in the field.” — Rachel McIntosh, EECS, Class of 2021

A particularly memorable class for me happened in mid-October, when I invited a group of students from Kadir Has University (KHU) in Istanbul to join one of our classes via Zoom. This class was very dear to me, as it allowed me to feel connected to my home country of Turkey and Turkish students from afar. I wanted to bring students from KHU together with my MIT students to help emphasize that even when times are difficult, it’s important to realize that we are not alone. We must lean on each other, reach out, check in, and continue making connections even in the midst of a pandemic.

Figure-4: A second-year student from Kadir Has University, Barış Özdizdar, gives a wonderful presentation to my MIT students during our course. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

“Getting invited to a class at MIT — the MIT — was already really exciting for me. And the fact that it was Dr. Dağdeviren’s class made it a hundred times more exciting. When we joined the class, I was under the impression that it was going to be a simple introduction to flexible decoders; suffice to say, I was wrong. All of us were left speechless by Dr. Dağdeviren and her team’s project, and it motivated us to keep working, not just to study for the university but also to do something outside of the university to improve ourselves.” — Mustafa Emre Gündüz, KHU, Computer Engineering, Class of 2022

Transitioning the “hands on” component of my course to a virtual environment was perhaps my biggest challenge, but I vowed not to let remote learning compromise the quality of the students’ learning experience. Even though they wouldn’t be able to physically use our state-of-the art cleanroom — nicknamed YellowBox — to learn about microfabrication techniques, I still wanted to leave the students feeling confident and knowledgeable in this area. I brainstormed different ways to bring the cleanroom experience to the students, and finally came up with a solution: I would create a package filled with materials, tools, and supplies that students would normally become familiar with through hands-on experiments in the lab, and send the packages to the student’s homes! They would even be packaged in a way to pay homage to our cleanroom — in mini YellowBoxes.

Figure-5: The YellowBox cleanroom is behind me in the bottom right photograph…the rest of my students hold their mini versions in their hands. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

A lot of dedication and collaboration went into composing these mini YellowBoxes. I was lucky enough to work with the Program of Media Arts and Sciences—the Director of Academic Program Administration, Mahnaz El-Kouedi, and the Academic Head, Tod Machover — and MIT EHS Department to acquire funding for the course. I have a strong history of collaboration with the EHS Department, including our recent publication on the importance of using the 5S Methodology in our cleanroom. Our partners at EHS helped us confirm that all materials we would be sending out to our students would comply with state/government regulations. They even provided us with some “swag” to include! I especially would like to thank my administrative assistant, Ellen Long, who secured a one-time access pass to the MIT Media Lab and worked with me to pack the YellowBoxes. We were highlighted by MIT’s Instagram page too!

Figure-6: From left to right: me posing with our fully assembled mini YellowBoxes, the contents of which are laid out on a table, and a birds-eye view of the packed boxes, which included PDMS, EcoFlex substrate, silicon wafers, ACF cables, and much more. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

I wanted these packages to function as both a resource for the students to use throughout the semester on assignments that would facilitate discussion on microfabrication techniques and tricks, and also as a “care package” of sorts, as they included several personal items accompanied by encouraging little messages. For example, an eraser was included because “sometimes you may make mistakes — and that’s okay!” One of my personal favorites was the stress ball each student received. These simple, small gifts, like energy bars, stress balls, Post-It notes, and a warm welcome letter were meant to remind the students to check in with themselves, and be sure to take care of their mental health during this odd semester.

I created a description sheet and diagram to accompany that box, to help explain exactly what each item was for. The description sheet was a key resource during Zoom classes, when I would ask the students to look inside their box and identify a specific material that we would be working with and discussing that day. I believe that having the ability to actually touch and explore each item as I explained its function was much more beneficial than my simply showing it over a screen. Although we weren’t in the same physical space, we were learning together.

Figure-7: A diagram of the contents of the mini YellowBox packages sent to each student. Credit: Canan Dagdeviren

“Having the mini YellowBox at home helped clarify in my mind what some of the materials that we were learning about actually felt and behaved like. This made reading and listening about microfabrication processes make more sense and easier to connect.” — David Mejorado, EECS, Class of 2021

We even focused a lesson on 5S Methodology. After Tolga Durak from MIT-EHS and David Sadat (our senior lab manager) gave a lecture on the importance of research resiliency in lean labs using 5S, I requested each student to locate the colored electrical tape in their box and use it to implement 5S somewhere in their daily lives. I hoped that they would use this assignment to organize their workspaces, but I was absolutely thrilled with the creativity that many of them used in implementing their own 5S. From decluttering drawers to completely color-coding their garages, my students sent me proof that they had taken the lesson to heart, and truly brought an important aspect of our cleanroom to their own space at home.

Figure-8: Two examples of my students getting creative with 5S implementation in their own homes. Fiona Cai organized her desk space on the left, and Colin Marcus organized his kitchen counter on the right. Credit: Colin Marcus and Fiona Cai

It never ceases to amaze me how my students’ creativity extends beyond just the assigned coursework. I am always impressed by their abilities to blend art with science. One student, Sophia Chen, observing me during lectures, created a beautiful, hand drawn portrait of me, pictured below.

Figure-9: (Left) One of my very talented Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) participants, Sophia Chen, works on a beautifully made portrait of me using colored gel ink pens on paper. Credit: Sophia Chen

“It would be an understatement to say that this was a challenging semester. Between the global pandemic’s effect on my nuclear and extended family, to each week of classes being the harbinger of more academic stress, I was in desperate need of certainty, stability, and positivity. I cannot emphasize enough how having such an attentive and caring professor transformed my mindset, motivation, and happiness. Prof. Canan is one of the most sunniest and supportive individuals I’ve had the pleasure of knowing — I see in her a role model and inspiration. She is always brimming with passion, and lights up every (Zoom) room with her big heart. She’s invested in everyone not just as CD group members but as people; without a doubt, she has made my past semester, and the world around her, just a bit more colorful.” — Sophia Chen, Departments of Mechanical Engineering & Architecture, Class of 2023

Our Diversity Statement

Another profound teaching and learning milestone that I experienced during this time was working with my students to create a group diversity statement. The events this summer not only highlighted the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, but shocked and appalled my group members and course students, and prompted us to seriously reflect on our actions and the role we play in the movement. A group of my undergraduate students worked with graduate students and researchers on drafting the statement. They did a beautiful job, and the final product is displayed proudly on our website.

“In the midst of this pandemic, a strong stand was taken against the systemic oppression and racial inequities that plague the modern age. While the Conformable Decoders group is motivated by the development and enhancement of conformable devices for improving the lives of all people, it is jointly committed to upholding high standards of diversity, inclusion, and antiracism. This viewpoint is exemplified in the diversity statement composed by myself and other students and can be found on the Conformable Decoders website.” — Sara V. Fernandez, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Class of 2023

Conclusion

Over these past two crazy semesters, I learned so much about these amazing people with whom I interact in a way that I had never experienced before. In my three years as a faculty member, I have always had the privilege of getting to know students in a thoroughly academic setting. Their brilliance in the classroom and cleanroom has always been remarkable.

However, getting to know them on a more intimate level in this whirlwind of a year has been a joy that will stay with me. I know them now not only as the gifted scientists that they are on the path to becoming, but also as dedicated family members, mindful thinkers, problem-solvers, artists, and, above all, people who care deeply about humanity and the role that they each play in the “bigger picture.” This new level of teaching — a level that has involved an incredible amount of learning on my part — is the silver lining of this very difficult yet enlightening year. And I am grateful for the insights it has given to me.

Note: I would like to extend my special thanks to Ellen Long and Ellen Hoffman for their valuable feedback and contribution on my essay.

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The MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations, where designers, engineers, artists, and scientists strive to create technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities, and environments.

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