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K-12 and the Institute

MIT builds pipelines for young learners.
April 22, 2008

What happens when more than 250 members of the MIT community are charged with teaching middle- and high-school students for a weekend? Kids end up choosing from 400 classes in topics as diverse as quantum electrodynamics, chocolate sculpting, video-game programming, and simple–yet explosive–chemistry reactions. This all-in-good-fun approach to learning, enjoyed by nearly 1,700 students each November, is the hallmark of Splash, an initiative begun in 1988 by the Educational Studies Program (ESP).

MIT’s Science of Baseball Program draws eighth graders like Peter Hanbrich (left), Jonathan Vega (center), and Zlanquapea Trosh (right), here at work on a poster showing the layers of a baseball: yarn, string, and the pill, or rubber-encased ball. A final project involved calculating whether program coördinator Jason Larocque, a former Red Sox bullpen catcher, could nab particular pitchers’ curveballs.

“Splash is meant to be an exploration,” says 2007 codirector Yalu Wu ‘09. “A lot of students have discovered what they like and also what they don’t like.” Students can ­sample or deepen their knowledge of the sciences, engineering, liberal-arts disciplines, and hobbies, or they can take prep courses for Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT.

Most of the students get their first taste of college life and personal independence at Splash. And the dynamics of the groups are themselves instructive. Either “students all talk together and completely ignore the age difference,” says codirector David Farhi ‘10, “or the twelfth graders can become mentors helping the seventh graders along.”

Outreach tackles National Challenge
MIT’s interest in preparing young students for science and technology careers dates back at least a half-century. In 1956, MIT physics professors collaborated with high-school teachers to create new teaching materials that emphasized direct engagement with the tools of science, dramatically changing physics instruction in high schools nationwide. And many of the Institute’s scores of K-12 enrichment programs, which sponsor presentations, tours, innovative software and teaching tools, competitions, summer and weekend programs, and research opportunities for students and teachers locally and nationwide, boast decades of success.

Now President Hockfield has spurred MIT to reinvigorate its efforts in the face of low interest in science and engineering in the United States–where only 6 percent of undergraduates are likely to pursue engineering careers. “We need to be the spark that ignites the passion of every child who wants to grow up to make the world a better place,” Hockfield said in her inauguration speech.

Innovative new programs include a website, Highlights for High School, that matches thousands of OpenCourseWare video and audio clips, animations, lecture notes, and assignments to AP courses. The MIT Science of Baseball Program (MSBP), a four-week summer course that began in 2007, teaches math and science to local eighth-grade boys just when they tend to lose interest in such subjects, according to Dedric A. Carter ‘98, MEng ‘99, assistant dean for development and strategic initiatives and executive director of engineering outreach programs at the School of Engineering (SoE).

In the baseball program, the boys compute on-base percentages and predict the flight paths of home runs in the morning; in the afternoon, they take the field to apply what they’ve learned. “The baseball diamond is a laboratory through which math comes to life,” says Carter.

SoE offers many programs aimed at diversifying the pool of future scientists and engineers to include underrepresented minorities, women, and students who are first-­generation college prospects or from low-income families. Carter himself is an alumnus of the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) summer program, which hosts rising seniors from across the nation. Typically, some 80 percent of MITES alumni have gone on to major in science, technology, engineering, or math disciplines, and a third have enrolled at MIT. That number is rising: the Institute granted early-action admission to 59 percent of the most recent class. SoE’s latest endeavor, launched on in February, is MIT Insite, which tries to excite ­middle-school students nationwide about math and science through videos and blogs.

Innovation Trumps Standardization

When speaking to federal commissions and panels, President Hockfield advocates access, innovation, and competition, rather than a standardized curriculum or mandatory testing, as ways to strengthen K-12 preparation in science. The ­Lemelson-MIT Program promotes such healthy competition through its InvenTeams initiative, which offers grants of up to $10,000 to teams of high-school students, teachers, and mentors developing problem-solving prototype inventions. Currently funded projects include an adaptive communication device for people with cerebral palsy and a weight-stabilizing compact stretcher.

MIT programs also enhance ­classroom curricula. The Seminar Series for High-School Teachers established by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research presents nine lectures a year on ­cutting-edge biomedical research and pairs teachers with Whitehead scientists. “The seminar series rejuvenates my excitement and love of ­biology,” says Julie Snyder, an AP biology and genetics teacher at Hudson High School in Massachusetts, who has participated since 1997. “When the teacher is excited, it’s easy for the students to also get excited.” Snyder’s Whitehead partner, MIT graduate student Sudeep Agarwala, talked to her biology class about switching mechanisms in yeast, and Snyder added a lab on yeast mating to her curriculum on gene regulation.

Many MIT alumni clubs sponsor local participants in the Science and Engineering Program for Teachers (SEPT), which selects 50 educators for a weeklong summer campus visit. They recharge their disciplinary knowledge by learning about MIT research in areas such as protein synthesis and particle cosmology, and they refresh their classroom styles through exposure to new teaching techniques, such as tips for delivering physics lessons from MIT’s legendary physics professor Walter Lewin.

These efforts to inspire passion in future innovators and problem-solvers advance what many consider a vital Institute mission. “It’s important to get students awakened, alive, engaged, and hungry to ask these ‘why’ questions that really are at the heart and core of engineering and science,” says Carter.

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