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Learning/Innovation  

Undergraduate Seminars

ESG seminars are open to all MIT students and are intended to be hands-on and experiential in nature.


ESG sponsors a number of three, six or nine unit pass/fail seminars each year on a variety of innovative subjects not covered in the regular curriculum, including topics such as psychology, cooking, social networking, ethics, and language. These seminars are open to all MIT students and are intended to be hands-on and experiential in nature.

Spring 2020 Seminars at ESG

All seminars are six units P/F credit unless noted otherwise.

ES.010: Chemistry of Sports: Understanding How Exercise Affects Your Body

Instructors:  Dr. Patti Christie, Steve Lyons
Time and location: Tuesdays 3-5 pm in 24-619

This seminar is designed to look at the science of a triathlon/sports from a molecular/chemical/biological point of view. We will be able to use our own bodies to see how exercise affects the system, through observations written in a training journal. We will also improve the overall fitness of the class through maintaining a physical fitness program over the course of the term. The end of the term will have us all participate in a mini-triathlon.

Dr. Patti Christie is Department Head of Chemistry and Biology at ESG. She has been teaching at ESG since 1995 and is the designer of the long-running seminar Kitchen Chemistry. Patti is the course coordinator for both 5.111 and 5.112 and is very familiar with the Chemistry GIRs. She also helps run the MIT Masters swimming program at the Z center pool. Patti graduated from the MIT chemistry department with a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry in 1996. She worked in a cardiovascular laboratory in the Biology Department from 1996 to 2005, where she helped develop and study a mouse with a predisposition for heart attacks.

Steve Lyons has been involved in the sport of triathlon for 18 years. He is a former member of the US National Team and a veteran of 13 Ironman races including the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. After helping out with the seminar last spring, he placed second in his age division in the Olympic Distance Los Angles triathlon, September, 2007. He is a successful lawyer in civil and criminal litigation and a partner in the Boston firm of KSL & G Assigned Readings.

ES.S10:  The Future of Food Security

Instructor: Azzo Séguin
Time and Location: Tuesdays 7-9 pm in 24-619

By 2050, food production must increase by 50% to accommodate population growth and changing diets. This seminar covers the issues in sustainability that will affect our increasing food production, including GMOs, food waste, pesticide use, water security, and conservation. Using a hands-on approach that emphasizes policy concerns and technological problem-solving, we will investigate how to address these sustainability issues on an individual and a societal scale.

Azzo Séguin is a senior in 21S (EAPS and Creative Writing). He has devoted much of his time to studying agriculture and sustainability, including having spent a summer working on water quality in India. He is a current TA for ES.7012 and has formerly taught a seminar at ESG called Poetry beyond the Page. 

ES.S20:  Python and ES.1803 (3 units)

Instructor: Jeremy Orloff
Time and Location: Fridays 12-1 pm in 24-618

“Science is knowledge that we know so well that we can teach it to a computer” (Donald Knuth)

ES.S20 is the 1803 python seminar. It is designed to use programming to enhance learning differential equations and differential equations to learn some programming. No programming experience is required. We’ll start from the beginning and cover enough to do some fun graphical and computational projects. Those with more experience can help teach the beginners.It’s open to anyone who has taken or is currently enrolled in ES.1803 or 18.03.

Jeremy Orloff  studied math as an undergraduate at Brown and as a graduate student at MIT. He wrote his doctoral thesis under Sigurdur Helgason on harmonic analysis on symmetric spaces, finishing in 1985. He then spent five years teaching and doing mathematics research, including stints at Tufts and Northeastern universities. The birth of his son coincided with a decision to leave academia, after which he spent 10 years studying speech recognition as a principal research scientist at Dragon Systems. As a mathematician, he was used to an infinity of data. The transition to speech scientist was difficult, but he learned how to draw useful conclusions from a handful of noisy data points. In 2003 he returned to MIT to teach, although he continues a slow-motion research project on speech processing and some hearing-related learning disabilities. He plays fast-pitch softball, runs and, like many of his colleagues, loves to hike. He is also a firm believer in the value of commuting by bicycle and a big fan of Krazy Kat, Calvin and Hobbes, and Gurbo the rat.

ES.S30:  Airplanes and Airlines

Instructor: Dongjoon Lee
Time and Location: Fridays 3-5 pm in 24-623

How much do you know about the airplane you’re flying on? How does it fly and what do pilots really do? How do airlines operate and what drives the aircraft market? Gain insight into aerospace industry product development and build engineering intuition by tinkering with toy airplanes. Come explore the future of travel and transportation!

Dongjoon Lee  is a junior at MIT studying Aero and Astro.

ES.S40: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? [3, 6, or 9 units]

Instructors:  Henry Lieberman, Christopher Fry
Time and location: Monday & Wednesday 3-4:30 pm, 24-618

Indeed, why can’t we all just get along? Why do people fight with each other in situations where it makes absolutely no sense? Why do we still have war, poverty, and other social ills, despite the fact that no one wants these things? Are they inevitable? It is just human nature? Why do these problems remain so difficult, despite all the other advances society is making?
This “big think” course will ask fundamental questions about the nature of science, psychology, economics and politics, through the lens of understanding the tradeoff between competition and cooperation. We will study mathematical models of this tradeoff, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and connect with evolutionary theory. We will examine the psychology of motivation, and optimism vs. pessimism about the “human nature” debate.
The thesis is that technological change increases the value of cooperation and decreases the value of competition. This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to redesign our institutions so that they cooperate rather than compete with their constituents. The key advances of artificial intelligence and personal manufacturing (3D printers) will soon make it possible to end the material scarcity that prevents us from developing the culture of empathy, cooperation, and rationality that we need for the future. We will examine alternative designs (and welcome yours!) for the economy, government, education and justice systems.  Come save the world with us!
For more information, see http://www.whycantwe.org/

Henry Lieberman is a Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science
and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.  His interests are in the
intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer
Interaction, to make computers smarter and more helpful to people.
Prior to that, he directed the Media Lab’s Software Agents group as
Principal Research Scientist.

Christopher Fry moved to Boston in 1973 to attend Berklee College of Music (the MIT of Jazz). Realizing his musical skills needed augmentation, he moved across the river to MIT (The Berklee of Computers). He’s worked at BBN, IBM, MIT’s Experimental Music Studio, Sloan (business) School & Media Lab and a host of start-ups. He’s written languages for music composition (Computer Improvisation and Flavors Band), general purpose computing (Macintosh Common Lisp and Water) and decision support via reasoning (Justify). His latest language and development environment is to help makers describe processes for robots to make anything.

ES.S70: WHERE IS EVERYBODY? Arguments For and Against the Existence of Extraterrestrial Civilizations (3 units, ends week 6)

Instructor:  Wade RoushPaola Rebusco
Time and location: Fridays, 2-4 pm in 24-611A

For thousands of years, humans have wondered whether there are other worlds, and whether they might also be home to intelligent beings. But it wasn’t until 1950 that physicist Enrico Fermi put the question concisely: “Where is everybody?” Meaning: if there are other high-tech civilizations, there’s been plenty of time since the formation of the Milky Way for them to colonize the entire galaxy, so why haven’t we detected them? We’ll attempt to come to grips with this question, drawing on arguments from astrophysics, planetary science, biology, anthropology, history, science fiction, and many other fields.

Wade Roush is the author of Extraterrestrials (forthcoming from MIT Press, April 2020) and host and producer of Soonish, a narrative nonfiction podcast with the motto “The future is shaped by technology, but technology is shaped by us.” He writes a monthly column about innovation for Scientific American magazine, and is the co-founder of the Boston-based Hub & Spoke audio collective. He has contributed radio pieces to WBUR and WHYY, and has worked as a freelancer, audio producer, and consultant for numerous shows, publications, and startups. His works of science and technology journalism have appeared in Science, MIT Technology Review, Xconomy, and many other publications. In 2014-15 he was acting director MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program, and in 2018 he was the editor of the hard science fiction anthology Twelve Tomorrows from MIT Technology Review and the MIT Press. He has a B.A. in history and science from Harvard College and a PhD in the history and social study of science and technology from MIT.

Paola Rebusco was born in Italy, near Lake Garda. She earned her master’s degree in theoretical physics from the University of Trieste (Italy) in 2003. She received her Ph.D. in astronomy from the Ludwig Maximillian University (Munich, Germany) and the International Max Planck Research School for Astrophysics in 2007. She then crossed the Atlantic and spent three years as a Pappalardo Post-Doctoral Fellow in physics at MIT. Paola is not only interested in teaching and theoretical astrophysics but also in how specialized knowledge is made publicly accessible. Apart from being the European Southern Observatory Network representative in the United States, Paola comments on scientific news for the Italian radio program Moebius and contributes to the Italian science magazine Newton. Paola loves traveling (especially to warm places), sailing, writing and reading, cooking and eating, and playing basketball with her husband. Read Paola’s webpage, http://space.mit.edu/home/pao, and her blog for the spring seminar Speak Italian with Your Mouth Full at http://speakcookitalian.blogspot.com.

ES.S71: How to get off the struggle bus

Instructor:  Carter Jernigan
Time and location: Wednesdays 7-9 pm in 24-619

Free yourself from friction and achieve your goals. Using the latest scientific research and tools, learn how to achieve peak experiences as individuals and teams with practices to thrive at MIT, in the workplace, and throughout life. Topics covered include neuroscience, chronobiology, and physiology, as well how they relate to engineering practices and wearable technology.

Carter Jernigan is an inventor and entrepreneur, with 8 issued patents and having started 3 technology businesses. Carter’s latest startup is Frictionless Systems, which is developing technologies to get people “in the zone” so they can be their most effective. Carter is also teaching a seminar at MIT, based on the neuroscience research being done at his startup. Beyond his own ventures, Carter has 13 years of tech industry experience at giants like Apple, Akamai, and Intel, and well as startups in finance, analytics, logistics, and food. Carter graduated from MIT in 2008 with a BS in course 6-3 (computer science), a minor in course 15 (management), and a concentration in course 9 (psychology).

ES.S91: Building the Beloved Community

Instructor:  Thea Keith-Lucas, Shannon Schmidt
Time and location: Mondays 6-8 pm at Boston Pre-Release Center

What do we owe to each other? In this applied ethics course, students will be asked to deeply consider the real-world application of a range of moral and philosophical principles. This course will be held as an inside-out class, bringing together a cohort of MIT students and a cohort of incarcerated students in a minimum-security prison facility, the Boston Pre-Release Center in Roslindale, MA.

Since 2013, Thea Keith-Lucas has coordinated Radius, a program that supports ethical reflection at MIT. A Harvard Divinity School graduate and ordained clergy member, she has led a variety of workshops and classes on philosophical and psychological topics, including the ESG seminar Getting Beyond Us and Them, which examined the moral implications of our human tendency to sort into tribes.

Shannon Schmidt recently graduated with a master’s (MTS) in religion, ethics, and politics at Harvard, where one of the emphases of her studies was restorative justice. She currently belongs to a community of formerly incarcerated men, most of whom reside in halfway houses in the city of Boston. Shannon’s background is in electoral organizing and campaign management, interfaith organizing, and faith and politics research. Her introduction to political organizing took place through the Florida Democratic Coordinated Campaign in 2016, and she has since been active in a range of organizing spaces and organizations. She is originally from Central New Jersey, conducted her undergraduate studies at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, and now resides in South Boston with her loving partner and their many plant-children.

ES.92: Authenticity

Instructor:  Lee Perlman
Time and location: TBA

We will explore the question of how to live an authentic life, through works of western and eastern philosophy and contemporary psychology.  Topics include emotions, anger, honesty, forgiveness, non-violent communication, conflict resolution, kindness and cruelty and compassion. This class takes place in a correctional facility in Massachusetts.  Half of the students will be incarcerated men or women pursuing college education in prison.

Lee Perlman earned his B.A. from St. John’s College (Annapolis), and then pursued graduate work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He completed an M.A. in political philosophy at Georgetown University. Before earning his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Perlman spent eight years working in the political arena as a public interest lobbyist and political organizer. In 1978 Baltimore Magazine named him ‘the most feared lobbyist in Maryland’. He has taught at Harvard University, Brown University, Swarthmore College, Phillips Academy (Andover), and, for the past 20 years, at MIT. Dr. Perlman considers himself to be primarily an educator, and prides himself on designing and teaching a number of courses at MIT which offer students an integrated view of the humanities and sciences in the western tradition. Among these are his current courses “Ancient Greek Mathematics and Philosophy” and a course jointly listed in the Philosophy Department, “A Philosophical History of Energy.” His other signature course is Philosophy of Love. He has twice been awarded the Irwin Sizer Award for Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education (1997, 2015). Lee is also a composer and musician, and the Music Director of the Deborah Abel Dance Company, which has toured in the US and India.