Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science Collaboration

 In 2007, Lynn Andrea Stein, professor of Computer and Cognitive Sciences and now director of Olin’s Collaboratory, took at one-year sabbatical at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). At Harvard, she started a new class based on Olin’s Human Factor and Interface Design, which continues to this day. She also engaged numerous professors around an active learning approach, which included moving her class out of the traditional lecture hall into the atrium to encourage team- and design-based learning. In response, Harvard designed a classroom explicitly for active learning based on Olin’s use of space.

 Eric Mazur, Harvard professor of physics, is a pioneer in “flipping the classroom” where students read a book or watch lectures at home at their own pace and use classroom time with faculty to make meaning out of that content.

 Eric Mazur, Professor of Applied Physics

Headshot of Eric Mazur

When I became a professor at Harvard, I basically received no training on how to teach so I did to my students what my teachers had done to me – I taught physics in a large lecture hall. What happened in retrospect was rather disconcerting. I got stellar reviews reinforcing my illusions. For many years I believed that I was the world’s best physics teacher. That illusion crashed hard when I decided to administer a word test (no equations) to see if my students truly understood the basic physics concepts I had been lecturing about. By the time that test was completed, I had been dragged out of my ivory tower. The students weren’t grasping the most basic concepts.  

 Good teaching is not what is really needed. Good learning is what is needed. What really matters is what happens inside the heads of our students.

 I decided to throw out all of the information transfer and I started what is now known as the flipped classroom. In class, I teach by questioning rather than by telling so students have the “ah ha” moments in the classroom. When you think about learning, the information transfer is the easy part and can be done online or by video. The hard part is making meaning out of that information for students.

 I have developed an approach called Peer Instruction that involves students in their own learning during lectures and focuses their attention on underlying concepts. My personal experience and research suggests that this approach is a far more effective way to learn than traditional lectures.

 We need more lab schools like Olin that are co-developing new and improved ways of learning. I recently took a year off to completely rethink my approach to teaching and switch to team-based and project-based learning. I visited Olin several times during that year and was inspired by how students at Olin take ownership of their learning.