Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Luis Perez-Breva

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Luis Perez-Breva, Lecturer

Class: Innovation Teams, 10.807/15.371 
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Chemical Engineering

Key Takeaways

  • Creative technical setups demonstrate the practice of innovation and can help instructors to see students and slides simultaneously. They can provide exciting alternatives to traditional class formats. 
  • Replacing traditional homework assignments with practice sheets and opportunities for peer-review of work can deemphasize grades and enhance learning.
  • Challenging students to present technical projects to a curious but novice audience, such as middle school students, can yield more genuine and well-articulated presentations. 

Interview Transcript

00:00 Can you describe your typical approach to teaching the Innovation Teams course?

To me, every semester before the pandemic broke, I have to explain a lot to students, and to faculty, and to the people that collaborate with us, that we are not your standard class on how to build a startup. That we don’t really care. Actually I personally don’t care, I’ve built startups myself. I think it’s a tough thing to do. If you do it you need to be convinced there is no other way. And I don’t buy into this whole celebration of let’s do more startups.

So I don’t think I’m teaching the same class year over year, my class is rigorously made. I spend a lot of time coming up with projects, working with students, coming up with the content, and updating the content every semester. And every year I meet a different cohort of students.

So from the outside people that do not educate often, or that just see education from afar, think that we’re just a parrot that repeats the same content year on year. That’s nowhere close to the reality. And it’s not just a tap in the back saying, hey, we work a lot. No it’s not that. Students change so much from one year to the next, that you cannot take absolutely anything for granted.

My job is not repeating stuff. My job is to cause, to provoke thought, and fight the resistance from students in a way. Think of it as a sparring game. Students come to the class wanting to learn. But at the same time they think they already know. And this happens to them and it happens to me when I go to a classroom. So it’s not that it’s a problem with– I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s just the way we humans learn. We need to encounter content that feels counterintuitive and fight it a bit. So my role isn’t just expose content, my job is to create that moment in which they spar with the content. 

01:42 What strategies did you use to engage students via Zoom?

A lot of what I teach, a lot of what I wrote about in my book– a lot about bringing technology to the world, is understanding how to work with what you have. So in my class we take technology to the world. By, not simply assuming that the technology is already a product, but trying to figure out the following. Oh look now we know how to do that. What problem is out there in the world, that we could solve, now that we know how to do that thing there?

So it’s not simply pushing technology. It’s not simply assuming someone else knows what to do. Or that someone knows– it’s not– it’s like a massive problem solving at a large scale, with real technologies. So there I find myself at the beginning of the semester saying, how do I do this kind of massive problem-solving here, with what I have at my home, so that they see me, as if I was there with them, or at least better.

So it started by the simple stuff, which is hooking up screens so I can separate the class list from their persons, from whatever other notes I may have over there. And that helped. Then get good sound. And this evolved as we started teaching. It’s not like I had the perfect idea from the get go.

So screens came first, a good mic came next, then I realized I didn’t want to ever again have to share slides on Zoom, because everything disappeared. The whole world disappeared, when you share something on Zoom. And then you start to have to search for faces. Where did these people go? It’s a very strange environment.

So I found another way to present, which I can show you. It’s very silly. I need– now you have the luxury of being able to see the latest version of this. So let me first get rid of my forest. So that it doesn’t interfere. We’ll get it back later. So the second thing is– what I can do is show you slides in the following way. And this took a whole semester to figure out. I can show you slides like this. Now this is in a loop. I talk about my class, and my stuff, I can point to them.

And I have the beautiful idea of showing you slides the way Harry Potter saw magic move around. And sure, now I could create a whole new setup that’s not as complex as mine, because I’ve learned how to do it that way. As we did that I also used the own setup as a means to explain to my students how you actually go about innovating.

It’s not about this fantastic new idea. It’s not what you hear about, this fantastic pitch and people with clairvoyance. It’s literally– you start with what you have, and a problem that’s not even clear to you at the outset. So the whole class became, in a way, an exercise on what we teach. And it could have backfired, it kind of worked.

And the interactivity came to us in these ways. Like the moment you see me do silly stuff, you don’t feel as concerned at saying something to others. The moment you see that I see you in a big size, it feels more invigorating to you than seeing me bored, looking at you like this. And as they see me walking and my voice projects, they too get the sense that there is something going on. That it’s not just– we’re not just waiting for the new normal. We just created the new one.

04:58 What changes did you make to assignments and grading?

The first week of class, which is the week from which I learned how I needed to amp my game to be able to survive the semester. I also realized that I had no means to truly evaluate the class the way I did every other semester. And I had to think about two things separately. One is, did students learn? And the other one is, how do we grade that? And it’s a tricky question because, I would not– I was not going to be capable of knowing until we were done, how far we would go into the content.

So there was another layer of uncertainty there. So what I did, both for assessments and so on is, I told the students the following. First, this is a joint endeavor. We’re all going to learn how this gets taught and gets learned in remote. So I engaged them as partners. I even asked one of them every week to become my unofficial teaching assistant. Only so they could see what was going on and tell me about problems.

I kept the channel open 24/7 with students. For them to send me comments about the class, questions, or even– this last we forgot about this, but the fall of 2020 was horrible in so many ways. And stressful in so many ways, that half of the way through the semester everybody was lost. Fortunately because I had built this connection with students, I realized that. And so I added lots of signposts along the way for them to come back to our reality and our flow. So that partnership paid off.

The other thing we did is we changed all the assignments. So what used to be assignments, I figured, I didn’t really want people working more from home. The whole idea of homework felt a bit absurd. Everything was homework.

So we went on and we started– I created practice sheets out of every prior assignment and created different lectures. Where every 20 minutes, we change the activity and we discuss these things. Then you might say, well, what about grading? Well I’ll say, I don’t really care that much about grading. Grading is the thing we have to do, it’s not the core of education. The core of education is learning.

So what we said is instead of grading, I’m cross-grading, I created a different kind of rubric. Which I announced to the students ahead of time, about how we were going to do it. But instead that I said, what would have been me alone grading every one of these with teaching assistants and graders and so on, now it’s going to be each of us discussing in very minute settings, like three or four people at a time, how the other people face the same assignment.

And I did that every week. It became the practice sheet whereas, they did it in their teams, they discussed with other teams how they had faced it. And then we discussed one of them, all of us in class. So every assignment that would have been a lonely thing, became the core of the interaction. That’s one thing.

Then what about the content? Well, I pushed as much content as I could onto the web. Anything that could be read was on the web, in Canvas. So I used Canvas as live updates of content. I ignored every other feature of it. So of course I still conveyed the content but it was always on their exams. It was always through discussion. 

07:59 What changes did you make to final project presentations?

As the semester went on my daughter, who’s 11, 12 now said, could we show this in my school? And I said, OK, so let’s figure this out.

So now fast forward to the end of the semester. We created this event, 300 middle-schoolers connected via Zoom, all the faculty of that middle school connected via Zoom. And we prepared my students to do two-minute presentations. Now, but this is not a pitch. Better yet, no one’s posing as presenting to investors, because there is no investors in the room. There’s just people. The people that will actually get to benefit from this 10 years down the road.

So how do you tell these people how awesome is this technology? How great is it that you can actually solve problems with it? How is it that they’re planning on doing it? And how do you do it in a manner that sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders will actually understand and ask questions? And how do you engage those sixth and seventh, eighth-graders afterwards in asking questions, feeling empowered?

So this is the way it worked out this year. My students did a phenomenal job. They actually boiled down the essence in two minutes, and I told them you cannot give up on real technology. So this is not about wishy-washy, you could do this or you would do that. No, this got to be real.

Second, don’t dumb it down, these are simply young, they are not dumb. So explain it to them in a manner that you would to a person that is just learning. And they care to know about this. And the third thing I told them is that, this needs to be representative of something you would care about doing. Not something that you think investors would like. So this became the most genuine final presentations of my class in all years.

My students felt, oh my god, this is the way we should present technologies all the time. So I said, well, then do it. Do it this way. That’s why you come to MIT to learn how to truly use technology as this force for good. Sure, we can also make money of it, absolutely. Doing good and doing well at the same time.

The students in the middle school were uplifted by this presentation, because they got to see technologies. Maybe they understood some of it, maybe not. But it was for them. So– and they were able to ask questions and they inundated us with questions.

10:14 What key takeaways from remote teaching would you like to share?

So a lot of people think that advancing the state of the art is just about research, and then we somehow educate. But what this pandemic has taught us, or reminded us, is something that’s very unique to MIT and how we think about MIT. And I’m so glad I have a chance to say this out loud, because it may not have been said so much in the last recent years. Which is that we also advance the state of the art by finding– finding ways to make it more accessible for our students.

And MIT has an incredibly long tradition of phenomenal educators. Patrick Winston, who passed away recently, was a dear friend. Paul Penfield, Jr., and even more so that you could go in the back, in history, that made it a point to advance the state of the art by becoming amazing teachers. And then by making things more accessible, understanding them themselves better. And in so doing, coming up with incredibly new ideas. And thinking of knowledge as a tool. So that’s the tradition of MIT, and this pandemic has caused me to remember that.

There’s always a few students who don’t have anyone. And I think that’s creating moments where they can meet someone if they want to or at least feel like they’re valued as a person and get to know other people. I think that could help them and help the classroom camaraderie.

But if I think back to like when I was an undergraduate, I did my best learning with my peers. So getting to know– or having times where I can get to know my peers better, I think that’s worth creating a space or a time for that, at least to me it is.