A Brief History of ESG

Scrapbooks from the ESG archive

ESG was founded in 1969 as an alternative to the highly structured instructional methods (lectures and recitation sections) that were standard at MIT at the time (and still are). Funded by the Edwin Land Foundation, ESG was an educational experiment designed to answer a basic question: Given a minimal amount of structure and an opportunity for self-governance, what would a really intelligent, science-focused group of students do with their educational experience? Many notable MIT faculty and staff members helped to design the ESG experiment, including ESG’s first director George Valley, Margaret MacVicar , Edgar Schein, Peter Elbow, Anthony French, Robert Halfman, Arthur Kaledin, Daniel Kemp, John King, Mark Levensky, Arthur Steinberg, Gilbert Strang, and George Thomas.

The first classes of ESG students were allowed total flexibility in how they learned the MIT core curriculum. Independent work was encouraged, as was close staff-student interaction. Students learned at their own pace, in whatever mode worked for them. To demonstrate knowledge of a subject, they could take an exam, write a paper, give a talk, or suggest another method. Throughout this process, ESGers gained self-awareness, learned to cooperate with others, explored their educational interests, and, most of all, were actively involved in their learning.

Since that time, ESG has evolved from the self-study model to teaching the core curriculum in a small-class setting. The importance of students taking charge of their own learning and discovering their educational passions remains a fundamental tenet of the ESG experience.

ESG directors have come from a wide range of departments at MIT:

• George Valley, 1969-1975, Professor of Physics
• Robert Halfman, 1975-1985, Professor of Aeronautics
• Kim Vandiver, 1985-1989, Professor of Mechanical Engineering
• Vernon Ingram, 1989-1999, Professor of Biochemistry
• Travis Merritt, 1999-2002, Professor of Literature
• Alexander Slocum, 2002-2013, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and an ESG alum
• Leigh Royden, 2013-present, Professor of Geology and Geophysics

Many ESG students have received highly prized awards in their post-MIT careers, including the Rhodes Scholarship, Marshall Scholarship, Churchill Scholarship, Fulbright Scholarship, Schwarzman Scholarship, Mitchell Scholarship, Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Goldwater Scholarship, Knight-Hennessy Scholarship, Hertz Fellowship, MacArthur Fellowship, and the Nobel Prize for physics.