Staffing the Course

In this section, Prof. Haynes Miller and Susan Ruff describe the responsibilities of each member of the course team, as well as the rationale for changing the course staff from term to term.

The course is staffed with:

  • One lead instructor, always a faculty member from the mathematics department
  • Two co-instructors, typically one postdoctoral researcher and one graduate student from the mathematics department
  • One communication instructor with background in mathematics and mathematical communication, from Writing Across the Curriculum

Having four instructors for a course with 27 students is a serious commitment of resources, but this allows us to provide students with personal mentorship, with encouragement and support as they confront the uncertainties of research, and with feedback and guidance on their presentations and papers.

In fact, the student-to-instructor ratio is roughly in line with that of many of MIT’s other upper-level mathematics courses. The course also provides an excellent and exciting training ground for graduate students and postdocs.

In addition, students benefit from the close interaction with instructors in ways that extend beyond the course. Working together on a research project can help students learn that faculty aren’t too different from them after all. After the class, the instructors typically have a good sense of the students' talents and can write informed letters of recommendation.

We have found that the best instructors typically:

  • Are sincerely interested in working with students on research
  • Can exercise forbearance and let students find their own way instead of pushing students too much in a particular direction
  • Have worked with undergraduates on research before
  • Work well as part of a course team

Changing Course Staff

From Spring 2004 through Spring 2013, Project Laboratory in Mathematics was taught 17 times with nine different lead instructors and many different co-instructors. Changing the course staff offers two main benefits:

  • Building faculty support for the course. The success of an educational innovation depends as much on faculty buy-in as it does on student acceptance. An innovation is much more likely to be successful if it does not depend on the involvement of a single person. Throughout its history, Project Laboratory in Mathematics has been very successful in this regard. MIT faculty have been eager to teach the course, and the course has become much more stable as a result of the broad-based participation of faculty.
  • Bringing a range of perspectives and expertise to the course. The course has benefited greatly from the fresh energy, varied expertise, and creative thinking contributed by each new instructor.

The structure and objectives of the course can be as unfamiliar to its incoming faculty as they are to its incoming students. It is helpful if new lead instructors sit in on some of the activities of the course in a preceding term.

Some constancy of staffing can also be beneficial, particularly in writing instruction, provided for the course by the MIT Writing Across the Curriculum office. Susan has worked with the course almost since its beginning. She knows the history of the course and what has or has not worked, and she helps faculty who are new to the course understand and structure the course.

Responsibilities of the Course Staff

(S13: Saul Glasman and
Dr. Nat Stapleton)
(S13: Susan Ruff)
Preparing for the course Refine project topic list and add new project topics; create the course calendar; survey students for team formation; and create grading rubrics. Help the lead instructor understand the structure and resources associated with the course; and assist with preparing for the semester.
Preparing and running class sessions Prepare and run the course introduction session and the writing workshop; and facilitate the various workshops. Help deliver the presentation workshop. Prepare and run the teamwork workshop; and work with co-instructors on the presentation workshop examples and lead the following discussion.
Mentoring student groups Mentor a different set of 3 teams during each of the 3 project cycles; and help students engage in mathematical research and overcome frustrations and obstacles. Available to meet with students about communication.
Reviewing first drafts of papers Give feedback on first drafts for their 3 teams. Lead instructor may comment on all papers. Give feedback on select first drafts.
Participating in debriefing meetings Participate in all debriefings (9 per project cycle = 27 total). Participate in debriefing meetings for their current 3 teams, and sometimes for the next 3 teams they are about to start mentoring. Participate in some debriefings, especially for weaker teams.
Grading final drafts Grade the papers for their 3 teams. Lead instructor may do more. Grade select papers.
Participating in practice presentations Attend all practice presentations and give feedback. Attend practice presentations for their teams and give feedback. Attend all practice presentations and give feedback.
Attending and giving feedback on presentations Attend all presentations; and compile instructor feedback and assign grades. Attend all presentations and send feedback to lead instructor.
Total Time 6–12 hours/week. The time investment from the lead instructor varies from term to term, depending on factors such as whether the lead instructor attends all of the debriefings and practice presentations. 5 hours/week for most weeks; 10–15 hours/week for debriefing weeks. 4 hours/week for most weeks; 25 hours/week for debriefing weeks; 7 hours/week during revisions.