In the late 1990s, educational innovations in teaching freshman physics, specifically a method called interactive engagement, were delivering greater learning gains than the traditional lecture format. These innovations were not lost on Professor John Belcher, teacher of first-year physics at MIT and one of the three principal investigators on the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) project. Belcher was grappling with the mismatch between traditional teaching methods and how students actually learn. Despite great lecturers, attendance at MIT's freshman physics course dropped to 40% by the end of the term, with a 10% failure rate. Even though MIT freshmen had good math skills, they often had a tough time grasping the concepts of first-year physics. Traditional lectures, although excellent for many purposes, do not convey concepts well because of their passive nature.
In the TEAL project, Belcher teamed up with Co-Principal Investigators Peter Dourmashkin and David Litster to reformat the teaching of freshman physics at MIT with a new mix of pedagogy, technology, and classroom design. They borrowed from innovations made at other universities, most notably from North Carolina State University's Scale-Up program, and added visualizations of electricity and magnetism to meet the needs of 8.02, MIT's second term intro physics course in electromagnetism. Belcher was heavily involved with 8.02, but the effort involving 8.01, MIT’s first term intro physics course in mechanics, was developed entirely by Dourmashkin and Litster.
Funding came from several sources. MIT funded the renovation of two classrooms for $1.5M each. The d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, iCampus—the MIT-Microsoft Alliance, and the School of Science provided funding for projection equipment, laptop computers, and redesign of both the first and second-semester intro physics courses. In fall 2000, the TEAL project kicked off with a prototype course in 8.02 for 150 students.
The two 3,000-square-foot TEAL classrooms each contain an instructor's workstation in the center of the room surrounded by 13 round tables, each seating nine students. Thirteen whiteboards and eight video projectors with screens dot the room's periphery. Each table holds three groups of three. Groups are formed by mixing students of varying levels of knowledge in a single group to facilitate peer instruction. Each group uses a computer to view lecture slides and collect data from experiments.
A typical 8.01 or 8.02 class incorporates lecture, recitation, and hands-on experiments in one presentation. Instructors deliver 20-minute lectures interspersed with discussion questions, visualizations, and pencil-and-paper exercises. Students use animated simulations designed to help them visualize concepts, and carry out experiments in groups during class. Instructors periodically ask concept questions, which students discuss and answer through an electronic polling system with handheld voting keypads. Instructors no longer lecture from a fixed location, but walk around with a wireless microphone talking to students about their work, assessing their understanding, facilitating interaction, and promoting better learning.
A variety of assessment techniques used by TEAL have shown the effectiveness of interactive engagement across a range of student backgrounds. The teaching methods used in the TEAL classroom produced about twice the average normalized learning gains for low-, intermediate-, and high-scoring students when compared to traditional instruction. These findings replicate the results of studies performed at other universities.
At least two classrooms closely patterned on the TEAL classroom have started construction in Taiwan as part of the iCampus Outreach effort. One of these rooms began operation in fall 2005. The steady stream of visitors from universities around the world to examine the classroom indicates that more classrooms of this type will likely be built. MIT expects that within a decade, every physics course in electromagnetism in the US will use visualization material originally developed by or inspired by the TEAL project. To speed that process, MIT freely shares materials developed for teaching in this format through the MIT iCampus outreach and the OpenCourseWare website.
John Belcher is Class of 1922 Professor of Physics in the Astrophysics Division at MIT, a MacVicar Fellow, and a Class of 1960 Fellow. He has twice received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal: in 1980 for his contributions to the understanding of the plasma dynamics of the Jovian magnetosphere, and in 1990 for his role as Principal Investigator on the Plasma Science Experiment on the Voyager Neptune/Interstellar Mission during the Neptune encounter. He and Peter Dourmashkin were responsible for the development of the TEAL curricula and desktop experiments for 8.02 Electromagnetism I.
Peter Dourmashkin is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics and Associate Director of the Experimental Study Group at MIT. He has been actively involved in undergraduate education at MIT since 1984, and has presented results of the TEAL Project at the annual meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Physical Society. Previous to his involvement with the TEAL Project, Dr. Dourmashkin worked with Prof. John King of the MIT Physics Department to develop two experimental physics courses, 8.01X and 8.02X for first-year students. He has also developed a Physics Teaching Workshop and follow-up Seminar, Physics Teaching, which is a required course for all new graduate teaching assistants in the Physics Department.
David Litster is one of the Principal Investigators of the TEAL Project at MIT, and is responsible along with Peter Dourmashkin for the development of the curricula and desktop experiments for 8.01 Mechanics I. He has taught in both the electromagnetism and the mechanics version of the studio physics courses in the TEAL format. From 1991–2001, Professor Litster served as a Vice President and MIT’s Dean of Research. From 1996–99, he also served as the Dean for Graduate Education. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics from the American Physical Society in 1993.
TEAL in Action
Technology for active learning by Yehudit Judy Dori, John Belcher, Mark Bessette, Michael Danziger, Andrew McKinney, and Erin Hult (PDF)How Does Technology-Enabled Active Learning Affect Undergraduate Students' Understanding of Electromagnetism Concepts? by Yehudit Judy Dori and John Belcher (PDF)