Nazarbayev’s Education Initiatives (and Australia Day)

Kazakhstan has had only one president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since the office was created following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He established the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University. There’s a naming trend here.

January 26th was Australia Day, the national day of Australia (kind of like Fourth of July in the US), marking the arrival of British ships in 1788. Some people believe it should be called Invasion Day instead. There’s a connection here. Kind of. Only in my experience.

Out of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has arguably developed the most. Although his presidency has not been without controversy or many allegations of corruption, President Nazarbayev has always emphasized the importance of education in the nation’s development.

In 1993, Kazakhstan launched the Bolashak scholarship program, which finances graduate school and living expenses for promising students at overseas universities. In return, the students are required to work in Kazakhstan following their studies. What I learned is that there often do not exist job opportunities that take advantage of the education of those students, which unfortunately consigns them to work in more menial positions. Some people work around this by creating shell companies that are then contracted to overseas companies. I even heard of some students who didn’t want to return and let the government seize their collateral, usually a house property. But hey, if the house was worth less than the education, maybe that’s a good deal.

The Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS), another initiative of President Nazarbayev’s, are a network of twenty-ish schools for talented grade school students in Kazakhstan. Students take an entrance exam to qualify. Tuition is free, and non-local students are given free boarding as well. My impression is that these schools have much better instruction and resources than the average public school. Many of the scholarship students at Haileybury used to attend NIS. (GTL placed 11 MIT students across NIS schools in five cities.) I met two NIS Astana students, Rakhat and Sayana, and they were wonderful. We visited Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest mosque in Central Asia, had delicious beshbarmak at Sayana’s house, and saw a ballet at the Astana Opera.

The Bolashek program is pretty expensive for the state, and maybe it doesn’t make sense to educate everyone abroad, so President Nazarbayev created his own university in Astana. Nazarbayev University (NU) opened in 2010. The university operates entirely in English and hires an international faculty and staff. Tuition and board are free for all students (imagine that!), and students can even receive a stipend to study there. The university has pretty expansive facilities, including new maker spaces, a technocenter, and a hub for entrepreneurship. They are also opening up a new swimming pool.

In Astana, I was hosted by Chris, Saima, and Saima’s two sons: 13-year-old Emad and 9-year-old Zayd. They had moved to Kazakhstan only three months ago to work for NU. Chris is the current (and first) Chief Information Officer, and Saima works as the Director General for IT projects. Pretty fancy. From what I understand, they are trying to move the university to use more modern systems. Saima and I talked about SAP at some point, which brought back some ehhh nostalgic memories of being ESP treasurer.

The family had previously lived in Australia for five years, which is why we were invited to a celebration of Australia Day with a bunch of Australians who currently work at NU. In attendance were Elaine, Janet, and Michelle, who all work at the Graduate School of Education. Loretta, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, was there with her husband Tim, who’s been teaching at some other local university. I also met Alex, the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, and Chit, the new Associate Provost for Graduate Studies. Some pretty high profile people were there although I didn’t realize it at the time.

I got to talk to some of them throughout the evening, which was really interesting for me. I wanted to understand what they did at the university and what drew them there. Michelle teaches inclusive education and is currently researching how clinics in Kazakhstan administer tests for autism and what is happening to the diagnosed children education-wise. Apparently a lot of the time, any child diagnosed with something “abnormal,” whether it be autism or diabetes, does not receive the standard education, if any. Alex recently published a book on hardware chips for machine learning. I think his research deals with cognitive models of machine learning and creating an intelligence that is more general, unlike the models that solve a specific instance of a problem that people throw deep learning at these days.

Loretta used to teach business but now works on the administrative side at NU. I asked her about the admissions process and how the university recruited faculty. She has been in Kazakhstan for around seven years and had many stories to share. The day before the university opened its dorms, there was a mix up with the mattresses, and the Minister of Education (or former one, or something) ended up helping move the mattress onto the beds. Everyone contributed! Several people also shared reimbursement horror stories. One faculty member left with his family during break and never came back. (Just mentioning that this isn’t common.) He didn’t return his boarding passes, which the university needed for proof of travel. Kazakhstan has a culture where the cost of a  mistake or incident is not absorbed by the organization but by the individual. The travel person involved in this situation was panicking because he would have had to pay the full cost of the tickets, which was more than a year’s salary. The passes were eventually returned in an unmarked envelope.

Mostly, I heard the story of a university being born. Of the opportunity to establish new systems and programs, to be part of the beginning of something. Throughout January, I asked several people about Kazakhstan’s issue with brain drain, and some responded by pointing to examples such as this – the opportunity to fill a sector that is still underdeveloped – as a possibility for encouraging people to stay. I wonder how things will develop in the upcoming years.


The Rolling Sauna

After a wonderful week and a half of teaching at Haileybury Almaty, we set off for the sister school in Astana. Originally, we had two options: the 1.5-hour flight or the 14-hour overnight train (the Spanish Talgo train). I like trains, so I indicated my preference for the latter. We were told that we would see very little on the overnight train, so we ended up deciding to take the 24-hour old Soviet train instead! (I like trains.)

The day of departure, it became clear that David, the coordinator, could not come with us due to a contagious illness. He knows enough Russian to get by. As neither Alex nor I knew Russian, the headmistress wanted us to take the plane instead. After a few hours of agonizing and getting a better sense of what the risks realistically were, we decided to keep our train reservation.

The school reserved an entire compartment of four bunks for us so that we didn’t have to share with strangers. One teacher warned us that the ride would be interesting for the first fifteen minutes, but we’d soon get tired of the endless snowy steppes. After school on Tuesday, we took a cab to the Almaty-1 railway station.

We found our compartment and settled in. The sun had already set, and it was very dark. It was also extremely warm, a feature that gives this train its “rolling sauna” nickname. I think I was slightly sweating throughout the entire trip. Vendors roamed up and down the train, selling fruits, bread, drinks, snacks, and clothing. I read my book and ate a light dinner of salami, bread, and mandarins before retiring to sleep at 9 pm.

I woke up early the next day and watched the snow and the sunrise.

The next nine hours was a mix of more reading, napping, snacking, contemplating, and stretching. The train would stop for short times at tiny stations along the way. There was no cell service for most of the trip. I tried exploring the train (someone mentioned there may be a dining car) but only found the other cars to be just like ours.

I also amused myself by taking pictures of my travelling companion Totoro.

All in all, the ride was pretty uneventful. Nothing more exciting than having to pantomime a it when the train operators came around and tried to exchange bedsheets for our tickets (they didn’t collect the tickets from other people, I think they collected ours because we weren’t local or something?). No run-ins with drunk people, nobody trying to give us food. Before I knew it, the sun was setting and we were arriving in Astana.

Would I do it again? Probably, with the right people. I still want to take the Amtrak across the US at some point. But now I can say I survived a 24-hour train ride in Kazakhstan, and that ups my train cred. 🚆

Aspects of Kazakhstan (and Britain)

The schools I am teaching at, Haileybury Almaty and Astana, are offshoots of Haileybury in England, which is one of those fancy British schools. Just relate everything I say to what you know from Harry Potter. Haileybury Almaty has 650 students ages 5–18, with only about 40 students in the sixth form (last two years of high school) because most families send their children to the UK or US for those last two years of high school. The school then has to recruit more students and get some scholarship students as well for the sixth form. Those students are doing their N.E.W.T.s A-levels.

The students are divided into four houses (and the colors are red, yellow, green, and blue, of course). They all wear uniforms – the upper school boys are in suits and the girls in suits with skirts. The girls complain about not being able to wear trousers. Currently, there is no boarding option, but the school is building dorms for future years. The school has a headmistress, and almost all of the teachers here are from the UK.

On Tuesday, the upper school had a morning assembly. The headmistress, upper school head, and we MIT students formally walked up to the front in some kind of procession. (It works a lot better to imagine that this is happening in some English cathedral instead of a modern-looking school atrium.) The headmistress and upper school head congratulated the Year 13 students who got into Oxford and Cambridge (ooh) and gave the rest of the students a reminder of the merit of hard work and personal growth. Then, Alex and I each talked about our journeys to MIT and gave some general advice. Alex talked about the differences between high school and college. I encouraged the students to pursue interests outside of classes.

There was a parent session after school on Wednesday, and we spoke again at that assembly. The parents were there to help their rising Year 10 students pick IGCSE subjects for next year. Afterwards, several parents remained to pick our brains about the admissions procession and what their children should currently be doing. I don’t mind talking about this stuff, but I am starting to grow weary of it. I am also not used to talking about myself, and having to give monologues about me and my past was quite the instructional experience.

We arrived in Kazakhstan last Friday, and we visited the school on that day to get settled. We went through a “safeguarding” training, which is pretty much Haileybury’s version of ESP’s minors policy. (Don’t be alone with the students, don’t act inappropriately, etc.) All the classrooms and offices have windows for hallway-facing walls, so you could see everything that is going on. The school is very serious about safeguarding; they even flew in a safeguarding consultant this past month. Interestingly, we are also not allowed to take pictures of the students, because some of their parents have not consented for that. However, the school photographer (yes, there’s a school photographer) knows which students to take pictures of.

Essentially, parents send their children to this school to give them a good chance of getting into universities abroad. I am frequently told that the universities in Kazakhstan are terrible and that there is no much opportunity here due to governmental corruption and a failing economy. If someone wants to do something that matters, they need to go to the US or Europe. To that end, the school focuses on high-level instruction and also tries to emphasize the idea of a holistic education. (One thing they do is force all students to participate in an after-school activity, which is met with some disgruntlement.)

This week has been a whirlwind of prepping, teaching, eating, and meeting people. I am exhausted every night, but I wake up early (around 6 am) to do more prep for the day. It’s been great, and I will have more thoughts to share about teaching later.

Some fun tidbits / incidences:

🏠 My co-teacher and I are both staying with the same family. They have a nice big house with a glass elevator. The two older sisters currently study computer science (!) at the University of San Francisco, and the father has his own finance-technology company. The three daughters have all taken their father’s first name as their last name. This is in an effort to dissociate from the –ov, –ova naming convention that is a remnant of the Soviet era.

🐕 The family has a husky named Java with complete brown / blue heterochromia.

🚗 Before the days of Uber and Yandex (Russian Uber), you would hail a ride by sticking out your arm at the side of the road. A car stops, and you determine if your destination is somewhat on the driver’s route. If so, you and the driver agree on a fare, and you hop into the car. Apparently this was a very common practice and a nice way to make a quick buck.

🏰 “I am pretty sure there is not a Disneyland in Uzbekistan…”

🧭 The city of Almaty has hills and higher elevation in the south. Instead of telling someone to go south or north, you would tell them to go up or down the street. An Almaty native currently studying in Boston tells me he also tends to do this in Boston, where it doesn’t make as much sense… This up / down thing also causes some maps to be printed “up-side-down,” where south is at the top.

🍣 Sushi is apparently popular in the world’s largest landlocked country.

🍵 However, boba is nowhere to be found, much to the sorrow of David (the counselor who has been in charge of our stay), who is from California. The Kazakh people drink tons of tea though, often with milk. I am offered tea several times a day.

🇬🇪 Alex, my co-teacher, and I both grew up in Georgia. David took us out for Georgian food our first night here, which he thought was hilarious. The food was pretty good.

🐎 Horse meat is traditional here. Our host family made beshbarmak for us!

Until next time,


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



At ESP, we aim to spread our love of teaching and learning to local students and the MIT community. This IAP, many of our members are taking the “spreading” part a bit farther, quite literally, by going abroad and teaching via MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs program.

We have
Abhijit, Paolo, Sarah, and Sid in Italy,
Wendy in Jordan,
Saranesh and Sophie in Kazakhstan,
Michelle in Korea,
Brandon in Scotland, and
Lexi in Spain.

(Edit) We will also have Phil writing about his experience teaching chemistry to local 10th graders for the MIT Scheller Teacher Educator Program and Evan writing from Palo Alto, CA, about his experience working with Project Invent, a program that supports high schoolers in inventing problem-solving technologies.

We will be sharing our personal stories with teaching and traveling on this blog, and we hope you will join us as we write about our experiences this January.

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A note on “Splash on Planes”: ESP used to run a program called Splash on Wheels, where ESP brought Splash (the teachers and courses) to local high schools. In this case, we’re bringing the learning to students by flying to other countries!