The Experimental Study Group was started in the fall of 1969 as an educational experiment, funded by the Edwin Land Foundation. The original committee of planners included faculty and staff members Peter Elbow, Anthony French, Robert Halfman, Arthur Kaledin, Daniel Kemp, John King, Mark Levensky, Margaret MacVicar, Edgar Schein, Arthur Steinberg, Gilbert Strang, George Thomas, and George Valley (who also served as ESG’s first director).
The program was created as an alternative to the highly structured instructional methods (lectures and recitation sections) that were the standard in the late 1960s at MIT. Students were allowed a great deal of flexibility in the pace and content of their studies at ESG. Independent work was encouraged, as was close staff-student interaction. Students were encouraged to learn at their own pace, gain self-awareness, learn to cooperate with others, and, most of all, be actively involved in their learning.
ESG was evaluated periodically by MIT’s Committee on Educational Policy. In 1980, the program was given permanent status under the jurisdiction of the School of Science. Since that time, ESG has grown to include a highly successful undergraduate seminar series (with typically 5-10 new seminars offered each spring to all MIT and Wellesley undergraduates) and an extensive student teacher training program, with an average of 25 undergraduates per semester helping out with instruction in the core subjects.
Past ESG directors include Professor George Valley (1969-1975), Professor Robert Halfman (1975-1985), Professor Kim Vandiver (1985-1989), Professor Vernon Ingram (1989-1999), Professor Emeritus Travis Merritt (1999-2002), and Professor Alexander Slocum, who is also an alumnus of ESG class of 1982 (2002-2013). Professor Leigh Royden has been ESG’s director since 2013.
Many ESG students have gone on to become celebrated alumni, including: four Rhodes scholars (Toby Ayer ’96, Christopher Douglas ’99, Susanna Mierau ’00, and Mary Clare Beytagh ’17); one Marshall scholar (Võ Tiến Phong ’16); two Fulbright scholars (Anna Waldman-Brown ’11 and Alicia Goodwin-Singham ’14); one MacArthur fellow (Marin Soljacic ’96); and a Nobel Prize winner for physics (Carl Wieman ’73).