The first-ever classes taught at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) brought an MIT-inspired energy curriculum to Russia in fall 2013 while offering MIT faculty the chance to try new ways of teaching.
Founded in 2011 in collaboration with MIT, Skoltech takes an innovative, experience-oriented approach to education that represents a radical departure for Russian education, which is strong in scientific principles but weak on application, according to Konstantin Turitsyn, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in mechanical engineering at MIT.
“Technology has developed, whereas [the Russian] curriculum has stayed the same,” said Turitsyn, who was educated in Russia himself. “That’s fine in fields like physics and math that haven’t changed that much, but it’s a problem for fields related to technology, which is rapidly changing.”
To address this deficit and jump-start cutting-edge research and innovation in Russia, Skoltech features a cross-disciplinary curriculum organized along five research areas of critical interest to the country: biomedicine, energy, information technology (IT), nuclear science, and space. Skoltech’s energy and IT curricula launched last fall.
“The different organization of Skoltech—where instead of traditional departments, the tracks are structured around some specific problems—that allows you to approach the material in a different way,” Turitsyn said. “This was an opportunity to experiment.”
“Students might erroneously think it’s easier to operate in the structure that we have at Skoltech, that the usual strictures that exist in Russia are more difficult, but I think the reverse is probably true,” said Amy Glasmeier, professor of economic geography and regional planning and former head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “The Skoltech energy classes last fall required integrating a range of points of view to address complex problems. This is infinitely challenging for both students and faculty,” said Glasmeier, who also co-chairs the MIT Energy Initiative’s Education Task Force.
Skoltech’s inaugural cohort of students matriculated last academic year, taking their first classes abroad at partner schools, including MIT. Last fall therefore marked the first rollout of the novel Skoltech curriculum, which MIT helped to develop.
Both Glasmeier and Turitsyn taught classes during the fall term and said Skoltech’s focus on approaching problems from a systems perspective with an emphasis on hands-on learning is a major advantage of teaching there. “Even for math-intensive classes, you can do projects and make them fun for students,” Turitsyn said. “I didn’t realize that before.”
For example, Turitsyn asked his students to examine a technology, describe its fundamental principles, and then discuss how the technology could be improved. “That turned out to be the highlight of the class,” he said. “Students enjoyed this process of bridging the gap between their knowledge of basic scientific principles and actual real-life problems.”
Turitsyn taught Energy Physics and Technology, a subject designed to provide students with a foundation in modern energy technologies. For students on the energy track, Turitsyn’s course was followed by Glasmeier’s class in Global Energy, Decisions, Markets, and Policy, which was intended to illustrate how those technologies fit into the larger social and economic context.
Glasmeier admitted she initially had some apprehension that the experienced scientists and engineers in Skoltech’s student body might not interested in exploring energy issues from a social science perspective. “I found a really different experience entirely,” she said. “The students used the class to make connections in their own minds between the experiences that they had had at school, at work, and in real life. It gave them an aperture much larger than the ones they had in terms of how the world works.”
Each class taught at Skoltech is just eight weeks long, divided into six weeks of instruction, one week of assessment, and one week of application, a model that presented both challenges and opportunities to the MIT faculty members.
“If classes are well-organized, it can be a very efficient system,” Glasmeier said, noting that the intended sequence enables students to gain skills, learn to apply them, and finally execute a large, collaborative project that synthesizes the material to address a real-world problem.
In Glasmeier’s class, for example, students worked on designing a new energy system for China that would reduce that country’s dependence on coal. The course culminated with students presenting their findings to Russian energy experts and entrepreneurs at the end of the weeklong application period. “It is very intensive for faculty to do—when you do a six-day project eight hours a day,” Glasmeier said. “But the development of capability you see take place in the students is also worth it,” she said, adding that the final presentation was extremely well received.
MIT faculty also had to adjust to the compressed time frame at Skoltech. “When you go to a six-week class, you get rid of the redundancy that exists in every class, and that’s basically the handoff from one class to the next,” Glasmeier said, noting that she had to dive right into core material and rely more heavily than usual on students having a foundation of skills from other classes. “It’s much more fun for faculty… but I think it’s more difficult. There’s no room for error.”
While coordinating this handoff presented challenges for the instructors in Skoltech’s first term, both Glasmeier and Turitsyn had high hopes for fine-tuning the process in the years ahead. “Courses are never done perfectly the first time, [but] there’s a huge opportunity for a lot of coherence,” Turitsyn said. Since it’s impossible to cover all energy technologies in one six-week class, for example, he intends to focus in the future on the specific technologies that will be needed most by students continuing in Skoltech’s energy curriculum, he added.
Ultimately, Glasmeier and Turitsyn both said the experience of working at Skoltech was inspiring and they hope to teach there again in fall 2014. “All the students were really driven by the desire to change the world,” Turitsyn said. “It is quite an accomplishment that MIT was able to bring this culture to Russia.”