ESG Seminar Series

ESG sponsors 5-10 six unit pass/fail seminar each spring on a variety of innovative subjects not covered in the regular curriculum, including psychology, chemistry, social networking, mathematics, and physics.  These seminars are open to all MIT students as well as ESG students and are intended to be hand-on and experiential in nature.  For more information about our series, see the article by Dr. Holly Sweet.


ESG Seminars focus on student, staff collaboration for innovative learning

As a member of MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG), Melissa Gymrek ’11 ended her first year at the Institute by taking a Chemistry seminar sponsored by ESG that included competing in a triathlon. The competition was the hardest thing she’d ever done; the 13-mile run portion, “a death march,” Gymrek says. Yet, she considers it her favorite class at MIT.

The combination cycling, swimming and running competition was part of ESG’s “Chemistry of Sports” seminar.

The ESG Seminar Series is part of ESG’s small group learning philosophy and the seminars are an interactive and creative way to teach a subject. ESG seminars are taught in the spring term, and cover a variety of topics, including “New Orleans: Rising of Sinking City,” “Learning as Changing Brain Structure,” and “Physics of Rock Climbing.” Often they are over-subscribed and have waiting lists. About one-quarter of the seminars are led by former ESG students who return to ESG in their upper-class years to teach. While the seminars are part of the ESG academic program, they are open to all MIT students.

Dr Patricia Christie, a member of the ESG staff, and Steven Lyons, a profession triathlete, taught the “Chemistry of Sports” seminar in spring 2007. Lessons included nutrition and the chemical changes the body undergoes during exercise. Gymrek also trained weekly with other seminar participants, helping fulfill her physical education requirement.

Having a triathlete as a teacher gave the students firsthand experience, as opposed to “reading it in a book,” Gymrek says. The format used in the ESG seminars is also more conductive to a deeper understanding of the matter, she says.

“ESG gives you more opportunity to discuss things and discussing things helps me learn better than just listening to someone talk about something,” Gymrek says.

The seminars provide creative opportunities for learning for MIT students. But because some of them are also taught by former ESG students, the seminars also provide valuable teaching opportunities for these upper-class students. ESG alumni/ae have credited teaching seminars with giving them the skills that have helped them land jobs or be admitted to graduate schools.

“I learned from teaching. I learned about how people observe materials. I learned how to make things interesting. I learned how to find reliable information in journal articles,” says Mariya Gusman ’09, an ESG alumna. “I also taught these skills to students to my class.”

To prepare for teaching the seminar “Exploring Pharmacology,” Gusman collaborated with a member of MIT’s medical staff, psychiatrist Dr. Haleh Rokni.

Raja Bobbili ’08 considers the three seminars he taught in ESG among his most valuable educational experiences at MIT. “The seminars were the single biggest boost I had at MIT. They gave me an enormous of confidence and responsibility. I needed to have a syllabus ready. I needed to teach well. I needed to make sure the students were entertained for two hours and were interested in the subject,” Bobbili says, adding that, in teaching seminars, he learned how to motivate others to work for causes about which he is passionate.

“ESG is like the spirit of MIT squared,” says Professor Alex Slocum ’82, director of ESG as well as an ESG alumnus. “ESG is a Socratic environment where students learn in the conventional sense and also by teaching, which is often where the deepest learning comes from.”

ESG’s learning community

ESG was started in 1969 to provide first-year students at MIT with interactive small group learning – classes of five to 10 students – that maintains the Institute’s academic rigor. Because of the smaller class sizes, students interact more with each other and with faculty. The program offers this small group learning in the core subjects within a community-based setting of 50 first-year students, 15 staff and faculty, and 25 upper-class student instructors.

The ESG teaching staff draws from MIT’s Departments of Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, and from the School of humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. ESG students are also able to take some courses in the mainstream MIT curriculum. The ESG learning community and small groups give students more responsibility for their education, and more control over it. For ESG students, the experience also continues after the classes end, as students are able to continue working together in the ESG commons area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The community members also organize trips off campus and weekly lunches.

“There’s a lot more responsibility and ownership of what goes on. Students’ absence or presence makes a huge difference,” says Graham Ramsay, ESG program coordinator.

ESG not only gives its students a better understanding of their core subjects; the experience also teaches them skills that make them better students in their upper-class years at the Institute. Those skills also benefit them after they graduate.

“They’re more likely to take risks. They tend to go out to start companies. They tend to be more visible because they learn how to speak up,” says Dr Holly Sweet, associate director of ESG.

Small groups increase understanding

Gymrek, who is studying electrical engineering and computer science, benefitted from ESG’s smaller and more interactive classes. Besides chemistry, the ESG experience gave her a better understanding of physics and biology, and provided her with a strong foundation for the next three years of her MIT education, she says.
“It taught me to take a more active role in my learning and to deepen my understanding to the point where I could help teach someone else,” says Gymrek.


Past ESG Seminars

ES.S10 Fiber Seminar

Instructor: Debra Slocum

Ever wondered how your clothes were made or what they are made of?   New England is full of cities and towns where textiles where the major product for many years, where in fact, advances in textile machinery became the driving engine for the transition from an agricultural economy to and industrial economy.  We will look at fibers, where they come from, how they are processed, and why different fibers are used for certain processes.  We will also look at the history of fiber processing.  Then we will actually take raw fibers and process them into yarn and either weave or knit them into something fun and useful.

 ES.S20 Polymathy: The World in 10 Curves
Instructors:  Charles Fadel, Nadezhda Belova

Feed your inner DaVinci by exploring the range of human disciplines from philosophy to physics, from anthropology to zoology. By focusing on ten curves (from hyperbolic to sigmoid to cusp etc), you will explore how phenomena represented by the curves can be found in all walks of life and disciplines—not only scientific and technical fields, but in the social science and humanities as well (e.g. philosophy, history, law, art, music, etc). By the end of the course, you will have gained a keener understanding of the *concepts* behind the curves. You will construct your knowledge through exploration and synthesis. In doing so, you will co-create an innovative example of how to teach polymathy, practice project-based learning (very little lecturing) and skills such as collaboration, and design the course materials, video and book/e-book for the next generation.

 ES.S41 Speak Italian…with your mouth full
Instructor:  Dr. Paola Rebusco

The participants to this seminar will dive in the Mediterranean diet while learning basic conversational Italian. For the past 50 years scientists have studied the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but a good diet is not based on recipes only, it is also rooted in healthy habits and in culture. On the other hand it is well known that language immersion courses are more effective and lasting than traditional language courses. 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. At the end of the seminar the participants will be able to cook some healthy and tasty recipes in their dorm and to understand and speak basic Italian.

videos/some photos:
- blog:
- DUE art:

ES.S60 The Art and Science of Happiness
Instructor: Dr. Holly Sweet

In the seminar we will look at current theories on happiness and positive psychology as well as practical implications of those theories for our own lives. We will explore the concept of happiness, different cultural definitions of happiness, and the connection between happiness, optimism, and meaning. Time will be spent on sources of unhappiness particularly applicable to undergraduates (such as academic failure and social rejection) and how to help turn those crises into opportunities for growth. Weekly class discussions will be supplemented with speakers, movie clips, in-class exercises, and student presentations discussing their own videotapes focusing on interviews about definitions of happiness from people from other cultures and from their own grandparents.  Readings will include excerpts from The Art of Happiness, The Geography of Bliss, and Learned Optimism.

 ES.S61 Introduction to Trading
Instructors:  Kanjun Qiu, ’12  Di Wu ‘13, Ted Hilk ‘13 & Thiago Vieria ‘13
Faculty supervisor:  Professor Alex Slocum

The goal of this seminar is to teach students trading fundamentals and strategies not commonly taught in business or finance classes. Our class will help prepare students for future full-time jobs and internships. At the end of the term, students will be able to understand the basics of trading and exchanges, discuss markets fluently, generate models using Excel, and, most importantly, are able to create their own trading strategies.

ES.S70: More than a Website: Creating Your Own Dynamic Brand on the Interweb
Instructor: Graham Ramsay

How do can we best communicate our ideas in the year 2011?  How do we present ourselves professionally to others?  How can each of us use technology to our advantage when looking to apply to graduate school, get the ideal job, internship, or consulting gig?  How can we use the web most effectively to promote that great idea for a startup, help get the capital we need, or promote our products and services?

This seminar addresses the many facets of presenting oneself and one’s ideas to the greatest effect using a wide variety of tools currently available.   Through guided in-class discussion, case study, and hands-on exercises this class will explore:

  •          how to identify your essential skills, knowledge, and talents in order to effectively promote yourself and your ideas
  •          which tools are most effective in presenting your ideas to a specific audience
  •          using video, audio, and images to articulate your ideas
  •          using blogs and vlogs (video blogs) as a tool for self promotion
  •          basic theory and practice of sound web design
  •          how to effectively write about yourself and your ideas
  •          the use of social media as a tool for self-promotion

This class will include guest speakers with specific expertise in communications, marketing, and self-promotion.  The final project for the class will be the creation of a dynamic website by each student as a means for promoting his or her ideas for a specific audience.

ES.010 Chemistry of Sports: Understanding How Exercise Affects Your Body Chemistry
Instructors: Dr. Patti Christie & Steve Lyons

This seminar is an exciting way for students to study and apply chemistry knowledge to the improvement of their biological systems. We will be focusing on three sports (swimming, cycling and running), with a slight emphasis on running. There will be both a classroom and laboratory component to the seminar. The classroom component will introduce the students to the chemistry of their own biological systems. We will look at nutrition (to understand how to fuel and rebuild your body), anatomy and physiology (to better build your system), and how the body can be improved (or hurt) through physical activities. We will examine the chemistry of sports equipment including swimming (wetsuit and swimsuit manufacture), bicycling (including a field trip to a bicycle shop), and running (how running shoes are manufactured). We will also look at ways your body deals with exercise through building up and repair of muscles, improvement in lung and cardiovascular capacity, the chemistry of supplements and their effectiveness, and how we can use this knowledge to improve our physical fitness.  The two components to the laboratory portion of the class are the running study and training for and completing a triathlon. The students can earn up to 2 PE points during the term if they attend the supervised Triathlon training workouts. The students can also earn some PE points by completing the Mooseman Triathlon in NH in early June. Upon completion of the running study, participants will own a new pair of Newton running shoes and a heart rate monitor.

This year the course was once again oversubscribed. We only allowed 25 students to register. The highlight of the term was getting everyone in the class to complete a mini-triathlon held in the third last meeting of the class. We announced at the beginning of the term that we were going to have everyone in the class complete a mini-triathlon and the group really was enthusiastic. We offered triathlon training classes on Thursdays throughout the term, and had a master class on both swimming and running. The week after the students completed the triathlon we had them write about the experience and share with the rest of the class. Everyone in the class learned something about themselves while completing the course.

SP.268 Topics in the Mathematics of Toys and Games
Instructors: Melissa Gymrek ’11 & Jing Li ’11
Faculty supervisor: Professor Erik Demaine
Many common toys and games actually involve non-trivial mathematical concepts. In this class we will explore the connections between topics in mathematics and combinatorial game theory and their applications to popular toys, games, and puzzles. We will analyze algorithmic approaches in single-player games and logic puzzles, as well as strategies in multi-player competitive games. Students will be introduced to a variety of applied math and game theory topics and be able to implement the algorithms and competitive strategies in actual game play.

SP.271 Beta-testing Your Life at MIT:  Search for Identity in a Time of Transition
Instructors:  Dr. Holly Sweet & Donna Denoncourt

Through readings, journal writing, discussions, structured exercises using photography, art and writing, and guest speakers, students will explore different aspects of emerging adulthood from a chronological point of view, particularly as it applies to their own lives.  These aspects will include:

•    looking at your family background and how it impacts your identity today
•    reviewing turning points in your life
•    looking at the role of key people in your life and what they have taught you
•    handling your  transition from high school to college
•    exploring your racial and ethnic identity
•    looking at spiritual and moral aspects of yourself
•    evaluating your mental and physical well being
•    understanding your friendships and romantic relationships
•    exploring the impact of your gender on who you are and how others see you
•    imagining who you want to be and where you want to head in the future.

Students will also present a class topic in a workshop they design to a group outside of the seminar (such as a living group). This class is designed to be highly experiential, with room for significant student input.

SP.233  Vlogging the ESG Experience
Instructor:  Graham Ramsay

This seminar was designed to illustrate to prospective ESGers and others what it feels like to be a freshman at ESG by creating weekly video blogs.  These “vlogs” document the day-to-day goings on in the life of freshmen, from problem solving sessions and classroom experiences to the more social aspects of the program.  Each student commented on the program from their own unique perspective, allowing outsiders to get a real feel for the place.  Each week, these videos were uploaded to the ESG YouTube channel, and during Campus Preview Weekend, the videos were advertised to the incoming freshmen as a way to better communicate the essence of the program.  This seminar not only serves as a tool to recruit new ESGers for the fall, but also creates long-term historical documentation about the program.

SP.236 Exploring Pharmacology
Instructors:  Mariya Gusman & Zak Fallows
Seminar supervisors: Dr. Patricia Christie and Dr. Haleh Rokni
Did you know that Viagra might reduce jet lag, or that the chemical warfare agents BZ and VX nerve gas are mutual antidotes for one another? Would you be surprised to hear that there is a narcotic painkiller ten thousand times more potent than heroin? From Abilify to Zyrtec, the world is full of interesting drugs. Such substances have cured diseases, started wars, and ended careers. This seminar will explain how drugs can elicit a range of medicinal and recreational effects. Planned topics include over-the-counter drugs and "dietary supplements," drugs of abuse, treatments for neurological disorders, hormone-based therapies, and many more. Prior experience is neither expected nor required, but student participation is essential.

SP.251 American Photography and Its Influence
Instructors: Graham Ramsay & Theresa Mislick
This seminar will introduce students to the work of influential American photographers from photography’s early beginnings to the present. Through visual survey, selected readings, video presentation and discussion, students will learn about how these photographers helped to both document and influence American culture and society. Discussions will focus on the connections between the medium, its technical development over time, image content, subtext and cultural implications. Each student will choose one photographer to study in depth and will make an in-class presentation on their subject as well as write up their findings for a final project. Field trips and resources will include the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, the print collections of the Harvard Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and MIT’s Rotch Library.

SP.264 Ancient Greek Philosophy and Irrational Numbers
Instructor:  Dr. Lee Perlman
This seminar will explore issues raised by developments in Greek mathematics for Greek philosophers in the 4th century B.C. Participants will read, critique and participate in substantive editing of the seminar leader's book manuscript on the subject. The seminar will be conducted as a research seminar, and participants will be credited for the contributions when the manuscript is published.

SP.265 The Psychology of Terror and Hope
Instructor: Dr. Holly Sweet
This seminar will look at situations that can cause fear in people and the various factors that lie behind why some people are terrified and overwhelmed, whereas others are able to retain a sense of hope and efficacy. We will do some reading in the psychology of trauma, hopelessness, and helplessness. We will look at some specific events (including 9/11 and the current global economic crisis) and different reactions people had to those events which either helped them mobilize in the face of threat, or shut them down. We will also look at people who were able to survive in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, including a Nazi concentration camp and the massacres in Rwanda. Finally, participants will look at practical ways they can handle feelings of fear and helplessness in their own lives. This seminar  was made possible by funding from the Office of Naval Research.

SP.266 Butterflies: Chaos Resulting from Small Events
Instructor: Dr. Patti Christie
This seminar will explore how simple low-cost things might cause major disruptions and unhappiness. For example, removing a few bolts from the base of each of a few transmission towers might cripple the electric grid. How could this be prevented? Each week, a potential disruption is identified, and the following week, possible remedies are explored. We will consider possible disasters involving water supplies and containment, energy infrastructures, and transportation links and investigate ways to prevent the disasters from happening. This seminar was made possible by funding from the Office of Naval Research.