Curveballs in China

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Mohib Jafri | 11/06/2022

Through this experience, I learned what makes a good class. A good class is accessible to anyone, responsive to feedback, and leaves students with something tangible. As I explore leadership in this new capacity, I’m excited to further dive into the world of education.

From August 12 to 28, 2019, I went to Shanghai, China under the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC) as a seminar leader. In this 7-day intensive educational program, I ran my own course, led extracurriculars, and mingled with students as the “Dean” of a student dorm. Taking this responsibility taught me a lot before, during, and even after the experience. Throughout this journey, I discovered a newfound passion for education that I never would have thought existed in me.

The months of planning leading up to the program gave me a space for creative expression that I haven’t previously had before. We were to create a curriculum-- lectures, homework assignments, activities, and exams-- for a six-day course with three hours per day of lecturing-- a lecture repeated for three separate classes a day. I elected to teach a class titled, “Self Driving Cars: An Introduction to Embedded Systems Engineering” where I attempted to bring an eclectic approach to learning systems engineering from the perspective both of a software engineer and an electrical engineer. This was no easy feat.

Through classes at Harvard and MIT, conversations with friends, and an internship with MS’09 Jennifer Quintana at Boeing Defense and Space, I’ve had the privilege of going very deep into the intricate engineering of many systems. I was overly excited to teach my students ​everything I knew about engineering: every minute would be packed with fast-paced lectures, videos, and hands-on activities. However, it took sharing my vision of the course with my fellow Seminar Leaders teaching their own courses to realize that I would be overloading the students. And, to be quite frank, a lot of information up front is not how you truly learn quite anything. You can memorize a lot, but to get to the highest level of cognitive learning, it takes time and energy focusing on a few concepts at a time. As married as I was to the idea of lifting the whole world in seven days, I made the decision to control my excitement and take a cooler head in leading this course. And so, after a much-needed trimming of the material, I took off from LAX headed to Pudong International Airport to begin. I felt ready.
I wasn’t ready.

To (mis)quote Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only constant is change.” And, boy, was there change. I encountered immediate pushback on three sides: prior knowledge, language, and anticipated effort.

It had been a while since I’ve been a classroom where the prior knowledge of the class was so varied. There were students who had never even heard of a self-driving car, let alone have seen a line of code. But there was also a handful of kids that had made their own apps several years prior, or had engineer parents and knew all the terminology from the get-go. The first day of lecture was a tough one: getting a mix of blank stares and eager nods made it impossible to judge the general feel of the pace of the class. Designing a class that is interesting to both ends of the spectrum is an incredibly difficult feat. I learned that you cannot design for the person in the middle: you will leave both ends incredibly unsatisfied.

We were promised that students would be fully fluent in English. Unfortunately, fluency is not a well agreed upon term. For example, I led a class on protocols, where we uncovered the differing methods by which chips and devices talk to each other (I2C, SPI, UART, and more). After going in depth on these protocols, a student finally asked at the end of class, “What is a protocol?” It dawned on me that many students lost the intuition for these complex I2C/UART schemas simply because they didn’t fully understand that ​protocol​ is analogous to ​language​. Taking this feedback, I worked with my teaching assistant, a fully bilingual college student, to create a daily word-box on the whiteboard for key terms in the day’s lectures. We also took more frequent breaks throughout lecture to check in on any clarifying questions so fewer students got lost early on. This uncomfortable experience showed me how to fight fires at a moment's notice, and to be receptive to feedback.

The final curve ball thrown at me was the varying levels of interest across the three groups of students I taught. Students had the option of electing one class as their “Concentration Class,” where they focus more time on that course and even conduct a Capstone research project relating to the course material. The students in my Concentration Class were always excited to learn past the purview of the lecture. Regardless of where they started, they were eager to charge forward in their pursuit of understanding engineering. On the flip side, another class felt so devoid of energy that I struggled to understand why those students even picked my course in the first place. The challenge became finding ways to excite both classes in their own way. I gave the Concentration Class more: I frequently veered away from the notes and went on tangents, talking about engineering topics that had no particular relevance to the coursework. This kept the classroom discussion open and lively. For the apathetic class, I found that that same trick wouldn’t work: instead, it was a matter of proving to them that engineering, while a learned practice, is more intuitive than they think. For example, during our coding workshop day, I placed heavy emphasis on showing that much of the logic of our normal lives are analogous to coding logic in C++. It was incredibly gratifying to think hard about what motivates each student, and to use that to change the feel of the course.

While I learned so much about teaching throughout the week, it was only a month after that the gift of education began to really shine. I got a WeChat message from a student in the “apathetic” class, and she wrote to thank me for getting her interested in engineering. She was saddened that classes, her family, and her country at large often discouraged trying the applied sciences, especially to women. Taking the class brought her a new conviction to learn. It was then that I knew that being an educator was perhaps one of the most gratifying positions I would ever have the benefit of being in.