Lesson Plans from a Plane

Hello from Sophie, currently on a plane to Frankfurt, where I have a layover before heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Altitude:   10494 m
Heading:  72°
Location: 45′ 25″ N, 61′ 44″ W

Another January, another GTL. Last year, I taught Batxillerat (upper high school) students at a public-private school in Spain. That experience gave me an impression of what it would be like to be a high school teacher at a fairly standard school in surburbia. I learned how to plan classes that fit within a predefined curriculum. I designed various practice problems. However, I was limited by my short time with each student cohort and having to get through preset material so that they could pass their intensive exams.

This year, I have the opportunity to design classes and workshops on topics of my own choosing, which is quite exciting. I made some initial proposals to the schools, and we worked from there. My goals are to:
– introduce topics that are generally not in the normal curriculum
– incorporate activities based on problem-solving, so that the students have a chance to practice the concepts and see how they relate to the real world

Class 1: An Introduction to Linguistics

Audience: students grades 7–9.
Linguistics is great because the students already have a very good background – the fact that they speak a language! I want to share the wonder of language: the power of a productive grammar, the diversity found around the world, the existence of underlying patterns.

There are so many subfields, but I will focus on phonetics/phonology at the beginning. Phonetics is generally pretty accessible, and phonology comes with the ability to discover various phenomena by solving pattern-based problems (think NACLO). After these topics, we will touch on syntax and do some problems there as well. Any remaining time would be left for the students to decide what they are interested in hearing more about!

(There is also great potential for interesting linguistic input from the student body. Most students speak Russian and Kazakh in addition to English, and the school has many international students as well.)

Class 2: Activities in Cryptography

Audience: CS-concentrating students grades 9–10.
Information hiding has always been relevant, and it is definitely still so in modern society. I think there is a certain air of intrigue in the subject (secrets! vulnerabilities! attacks!), so that adds excitement to the mathematical concepts that underlie the techniques used. We will talk about different types of ciphers and explore modern methods of encryption. Activities will mainly involve code breaking. Based on student interest, we will also potentially explore the ideas behind hashing, authentication, and modern security protocols.

After-school workshop: Digital Logic in Electronics

Audience: self-selecting students grades 11–12.
I really liked the first unit of 6.004, when we learned how computers are pretty much just bit manipulators. In this workshop, the goal is for students to learn binary logic and be able to apply those concepts to construct some simple circuits that use logic gates. Depending on the students’ experience with breadboarding, we may also try some more complicated designs like a three-bit adder. At some point, we will discuss abstraction layers and how computers are built on top of this layer.


Some of you may have noticed that I really like puzzles. My first puzzlehunt was at CPW, and it was my favorite activity that weekend (Firehose being a close second, of course). Experimenting with different techniques, finding patterns to solve a series of problems – to me, that’s what drew me to MIT. Time willing, I want to share this part of my MIT experience and run a fun puzzlehunt for the students.

I have a co-teacher, Alex Lynch, who will be teaching classes in machine learning and the Internet. We will jointly teach the after-school workshop. We will spend 1.5 weeks teaching at the Haileybury school in Almaty and then (hopefully!) take a 24-hour train to Astana, where we will teach for another 1.5 weeks at the Haileybury school there. I will be teaching mostly the same material in Astana, which gives me the chance to iterate and improve the classes.

Fun fact: Almaty is sometimes translated as full with apples.

🍎 Sophie


3 thoughts on “Lesson Plans from a Plane

  1. Ooh, getting to have complete control over what you teach here sounds awesome 😀 During my GTL interview, they asked me what I’d do if I had complete control over what to do for 3 weeks, and I think I answered something along the lines of what you’re doing, of trying to show them lots of interesting kinds of content that the wouldn’t normally have a chance to see otherwise.

    What’s the formatting of your classes? (Number of classes, length of time for each, size, etc.) I think one of the problems that I personally have is that the shorter amount of time + more students I have, the less I find it possible to engage students on an individual basis. Especially in your classes, which focus a lot on the actual solving of problems, I feel like this level of engagement is super important for it to be valuable, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that.


    1. Most of them are six one-hour sessions. I think the school in Astana will ask us to do two three-hour sessions, which is going to be interesting. My current classes will have around 10 to 20 students each, which is a really small size (but this a private school and they can do that).

      As for engagement, my plans are mainly for us to all work through some problems together and also have the students do things in small groups. Individual engagement is hard. I’m hoping that allowing room for questions and for my students to suggest the next topics they are interested in would help with that.


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