The University Without Walls: Splash Brings Teaching and Learning Together

The traditional model of university learning truncates students’ vision on both ends. High school students may be told that they should aspire to higher education, but unless family members are part of that tradition they may not know why.  Once admitted, undergraduates study academic subjects and are tested for signs of accomplishment, but have limited opportunities to take the next step of sharing their knowledge and skills with others.

MIT Splash 2014 scene at the registration desk in the Infinite Corridor, Memorial Lobby

In my role as a parent, I recently accompanied my ninth-grader to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Splash program. Taking place every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Splash is a 2-day, 20-hour marathon of 1-hour classes taught by MIT undergraduates on subjects tending heavily toward the natural sciences, computer science and mathematics but also including the social sciences, humanities, arts and popular culture. Some classes are designed for attendees who are already advanced in mathematics, computer programming or other technical skills, but most classes require no prior knowledge at all. To get a full idea of the breadth of Splash, see 2014’s course catalog and its list of 618 unique classes. Any high school student may attend, and the cost of attendance is a relatively low $40 (with financial aid available).

MIT Splash Session on Systems of Voting and their functional outcomes -- November 2014

To keep Splash focused on high-schoolers and to let those high-schoolers spread their wings, parents are prohibited from attending sessions, but a separate session for parents led by Jordan Moldow ’14 was informative. Moldow’s “Behind the Scenes” presentation gave me a sense of the scale of this effort:

MIT Splash 2014 Statistics: 2500 students, 457 teachers, 618 unique classes, 30 student administrators

Put together 2500 students, 457 teachers, 30 administrators and many more volunteers and you’ve got a takeover of the MIT campus for a weekend. MIT donates space, which is helpful considering that this is a non-profit student effort. It’s also a smart move by MIT, considering that 2500 geek-minded young people every year have a chance to fall in love with the campus; you couldn’t dream of a better effort to recruit future applicants.

MIT’s Splash is not an overnight success; rather, it is the result of long, cumulative investment. MIT inaugurated its ESP (Educational Studies Program) for teens in 1957 with its High School Summer Project, and ESP launched its first Splash weekend in 1988. Splash is now in its 26th year, and has become such a phenomenon at MIT that according to Moldow, “a large portion of MIT students will at some point during their time here do something for Splash.”

The organizational effort to keep Splash is considerable. No Splash leaders or organizers are paid; all are volunteers. Chairs, treasurers, secretaries, administrative organizers, art directors, publicity directors, website administrators and directors of teacher development form a core group that meets twice a week during the school year, once to make group decisions and once more in a work session to carry out those decisions.

New Splash teachers are cultivated every year, months before the event itself. Veteran teachers act as directors of teacher development, Moldow explained to parents. Their role is to “communicate with teachers and critique their syllabi or class descriptions. We run 3-6 teacher trainings each year to talk about what are effective methods of presenting materials to a class, to make sure students absorb information, to make sure it is entertaining and to make sure that students are engaged.” A few members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts community volunteer to teach Splash classes, but most teachers are undergraduate MIT students. By learning to teach, MIT students improve their command of the subjects they study while practicing the important skill of communicating advanced knowledge in a concise and comprehensible way. “Just as we are trying to serve students by teaching them, so we are also trying to serve teachers by helping them to become better teachers,” Moldow said.

As Splash has become more and more popular at MIT, the organizers of Splash have sought to expand the program beyond that university’s walls to involve other campuses. In 2009, Splash alumni formed Learning Unlimited, a non-profit organization that organizes an annual “SplashCon” and supports over 20 universities that have started running their own local Splashes. If students at your university are interested in starting a Splash, Learning Unlimited will bring them into a nurturing network of advisors and supply them with the software they need to make a Splash run — at no charge. Get in touch with the leadership of Learning United here to spread this model of education that so spectacularly brings down the Ivory Tower’s walls.

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