Secret superheroes of EECS
Lecturers ensure technology, curriculum & instructional delivery of MIT’s classroom education keep up with dizzying pace of research
By Jane Halpern | MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is a crucible for technological innovation, but one of the most important aspects of the program’s leading global status has nothing to do with computers or circuits, artificial intelligence, or algorithms. It has to do with an elite group of educators who have dedicated their careers to ensuring that the technology, curriculum, and instructional delivery of MIT’s classroom education all keep up with the dizzying pace of its research.
They’re called: the lecturers.
Started nearly 10 years ago, the lecturer track within EECS promotes student outcomes and educational innovation above all, making it an appealing path for educators interested in influencing the next generation of computer scientists, electrical engineers, and AI scholars. The difference between the lecturer’s career path, and that of a tenure-track faculty member, comes down to a matter of prioritization. While tenure-track faculty are expected to run a research laboratory, recruit graduate students, help secure funding, supervise multiple student projects as they move towards publishable results, and issue a steady stream of publications within their own field, lecturers have a comparatively singular focus: the development and refinement of curriculum to improve student outcomes.
“Our dedicated lecturers have contributed deeply to the growth and development of EECS,” says Professor Asu Ozdaglar, head of EECS. “Because of their focus on student outcomes, they have been fearless innovators in the classroom, embracing new models of educational technology and ensuring that all our students are given the tools they need to succeed.”
Those lecturers have found the role’s focus to be deeply rewarding. “I sought out [the lecturer position] because I love teaching, and this is the role that lets me devote the most time and attention to educational endeavors,” reports Max Goldman, a principal lecturer in the department. “I also love that I’m able to advise awesome undergraduate and MEng research projects without spending time writing laborious grant proposals, because of resources like UROP, SuperUROP, and teaching assistantships. Finally, I love building new ed tech tools, and being a lecturer gives me a great deal of freedom to turn ideas — collaborative pair programming for in-class exercises, a replacement for Zoom to fit our active learning model during the pandemic, many others — into systems that students use.”
Depending on the systems in play, the work of a lecturer can have an outsized impact; in a large university like MIT, where introductory courses are offered both in-person and over Zoom to hundreds of students at once, the effect of a skilled lecturer rapidly becomes almost impossible to calculate.
“Lecturers have broad impact,” says Joel Voldman, faculty head of electrical engineering within EECS. “First, of course, is the direct impact on students. In addition, the pedagogical tools they develop can gain wide acceptance, even beyond MIT — for example the CAT-SOOP learning management system led by Adam Hartz, or the programming book written by Ana Bell, or the educational conference papers written by Joe Steinmeyer, just to name a few.”
While the lecturer role is free from some of the pressures applied to tenure-track faculty, the role remains a balancing act. Besides pushing the envelope of educational technology to deliver a suitably modern and interactive class experience, lecturers must keep up with the most recent developments within their subject areas, constantly revising their lectures to keep up with the state of the art in electrical engineering, computer science, and artificial intelligence plus decision-making.
“They are not actors delivering scripted materials,” explains John Guttag, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of EECS. “None of our lecturers come out of schools of education; they all come out of the fields they are teaching and have credible expertise. The students at MIT will see through you very quickly if you don’t deeply understand what you’re teaching them.”
That deep understanding must extend to encompass multiple learning styles, anticipating the requirements of a diverse student body with a broad spectrum of needs. “A lecturer can meet one-on-one with students who are having problems and give them time, which faculty members often cannot spare,” Guttag explains. “Notably, for the last two terms we’ve offered a special section of 6.0001 [Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python] aimed at students who need instruction at a slower pace; having lecturers around makes it possible to offer special sections when we realized there was a need for them. Additionally, since lecturers’ primary interest is education, they tend to be much more aggressive in thinking about innovation and pedagogical experimentation.”
One such innovation has had enormous impact on the educational landscape: massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have reached millions of learners globally since their inception. The introductory courses from EECS, 6.00 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), 6.0001 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python), and 6.0002 (Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science), are the most popular courses on the MITx platform — and a lecturer, Ana Bell, is behind their continued success.
“Through 6.00.1x and 6.00.2x [online versions of 6.0001 and 6.0002] Ana has reached an enormous audience, with nearly 2 million unique learner registrations, of which more than 70,000 have completed the course and earned a certificate,” explains Denny Freeman, education officer for EECS and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering.
“These enrollments are important not only because they are the highest records for any MITx MOOC, but also because many participants in 6.00.1x and 6.00.2x go on to take further MOOCs, and thereby enhance MIT’s outreach efforts.”
The courses’ status is reflective of the enormous effort put into polishing and refining their content on an ongoing basis. “It’s easy to think of a MOOC course as the videos, but that’s only a part of the story,” says John Guttag, who helped produce the first version of 6.00.1x and 6.00.2x before handing the courses over to Bell for further development. “The real meat of the content is the constant attention to detail, keeping things up to date, creating new exercises and interactions with students, organization.”
With thousands of students to shepherd through the courses, Bell came up with an ingenious plan to make the MOOC experience more personal, recruiting past graduates as volunteer tutors for current online students. “These are people who took the course, loved it, and wanted to pay forward the experience they had to future generations,” explains Guttag. “We don’t pay them, and it’s incredibly great that they wanted to help, but you still need someone to organize that effort and make sure that students in different time zones all have convenient tutoring options available. Ana did an excellent job of organizing this complex system, staying on top of it, and keeping it running.”
Given their responsibilities for some of the largest-enrollment classes MIT EECS has to offer, it’s not surprising that lecturers work at pedagogy’s cutting edge, taking advantage of new learning systems and (in many cases) pushing the envelope of classroom technology.
“Their job is really to understand the state of the art in their field, and then to advance the field of education from there,” says Guttag, who notes that many of EECS’s lecturers routinely publish and present at prestigious conferences in CS and EE education.
Lecturer Kimberle Koile, a staple on the conference circuit, has accumulated extensive experience guiding K-8 teachers to integrate technology into their curricula and classrooms — such that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tapped her to serve on their Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel, which drafted updated district standards for a comprehensive technology program for K-12 students. When she was called upon to contribute to 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence), a class that challenges students both to build “intelligent” systems and to build systems which understand and model human intelligence, Koile designed a series of lectures to appeal to a wide variety of learning styles. All of Koile’s classes start with a preview of the lecture’s “pay-off” — i.e., the skill the student will master by the end of class — and incorporate a mixture of computer demos, live props, board work, videos, and slides. Additionally, guest lectures from leaders in academia and industry help relate the theoretical work at hand to real-world challenges.
Hands-on learning also takes center stage in 6.08 (Introduction to EECS via Interconnected Embedded Systems), a class co-created by Voldman and lecturer Joe Steinmeyer in which students work in small teams to design, build, and program an internet-connected wearable or handheld device — a daunting challenge requiring a lot of trial and error, experimentation, and personal attention from a small army of lab instructors, graduate teaching assistants, and undergraduate lab assistants. The popularity of the course, now taken by over 350 students every spring, belies the massive organizational effort required to implement and refine the homework, lab activities, and lectures (plus back-end structures, such as grading rubrics) that comprise 6.08.
That balance — between hands-on learning and the demands of an introductory lecture course, between individual attention and scalability — lies at the heart of the lecture track. “I think empathy with the students is very important, because you have to really care about the students and want them to learn; that’s at the top of the list of personal qualities that matter,” says Guttag. “But our lecturers are also very well-organized. Typically, they’re engaged with our larger classes, and running a subject for 400 students requires a lot of organization, not just of data but of people. If you have a big team of TAs and graders and you’re trying to keep it all humming, there’s a huge amount of management and people skills that come into play.”
The payoff for all that organization is pedagogical fulfillment: “When all these pieces come together, and a student solves a tough software engineering problem because they had the right scaffolding to support their learning and tools to enable effective practice, that’s certainly a highlight of my day,” says Goldman.
The birds’-eye view that makes lecturers good at organizing large introductory courses also primes them to advance innovation at the department level. When Katrina LaCurts, Senior Lecturer, took on the role of undergraduate officer, she inherited an office serving over 1,600 students — a daunting responsibility that LaCurts handled with aplomb and a keen eye for systems management. One of the first systems which she improved was the office’s complex and outdated audit system, in which multiple databases clashed to create significant inefficiencies. LaCurts’s complete overhaul of the audit system called on both her deep knowledge of computer science and the organizational skills that allowed her to manage large-enrollment core classes, such as 6.02 and 6.033. The streamlined audit system that LaCurts implemented has made information more accurate and accessible for students and advisors, while reducing and balancing workloads across faculty members — a net win for the department.
And when EECS decided to refresh the face it shows to the world by revamping its website, Senior Lecturer (Emeritus) Chris Terman, himself a former undergraduate officer, contributed key insights from his role on the core team, helping to design an intuitive, easy-to-navigate home page that could flex and grow to meet the department’s evolving needs. “We owe a special thanks to our dedicated lecturers for the key roles that they play in meeting the challenges of our department’s rapid growth and change,” said Dennis Freeman.
As rapid change continues to define the computing and technology landscape, the critical importance of this skilled team of accomplished planners and educators will only grow. Lecturers: assemble.
Originally published at https://news.mit.edu on May 2, 2022.