Battushig Myanganbayar: From Mongolia to M.I.T.

This is a very cool story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old teenager from Ulan Bator, Mongolia who caught the attention of M.IT. officials by participating and doing exceptionally well in an online course (a MOOC) in Circuits & Electronics. He has now enrolled in M.I.T. as a freshman as a result of his accomplishment.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

How does a student from a country in which a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe, ace an M.I.T. course even though nothing like this is typically taught in Mongolian schools? The answer has to do with Battushig’s extraordinary abilities, of course, but also with the ambitions of his high-school principal. Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of the Sant School, was the first Mongolian to graduate from M.I.T., in 2009, and he has tried since then to bring science and technology labs to his students. “My vision,” he told me, “is to have more skilled engineers to develop Mongolia. To do that, everything has to start from the beginning.” In the past decade, Mongolia, which had limited landlines, invested heavily in its information technology infrastructure and now has an extensive 3G network. Most homes in Ulan Bator have Internet connections, and almost everyone, including nomads, has at least one cellphone. Even on the steppe, with only sheep in sight, you can get a signal.

On comparing these Mongolian students to the M.I.T. students taking this same course:

Battushig was one of 20 students, ranging in age from 13 to 17, to enroll in the class. About half dropped out. The course is difficult in any setting — M.I.T. sophomores often pull all-nighters — and the Mongolian students were taking it in a second language. Battushig, however, thrived. “I can’t compare it to a regular class,” he said. “I had never done that kind of thing before. It was really a watershed moment for me.” To help his classmates, he made videos in Mongolian that offered pointers and explanations of difficult concepts and posted them on YouTube. Kim, who had taught similar classes at M.I.T., told me, “If Battushig, at the age of 15, were a student at M.I.T., he would be one of the top students — if not the top.

I don’t think this kind of exposure for anyone would have been possible before the advent of the MOOCs. Or at the very least, incredibly difficult. Quite an impressive accomplishment for Battushig. The story highlights that the MOOCs democratize education, but they also can serve as a way for universities to attract top talent from all over the globe.

The Pirate Certificate at MIT

This is the most amusing news I’ve read all day. Apparently, MIT awards Pirate certificates (and has been doing so for a number of years).

Any student who passes courses in pistol, archery, sailing and fencing are considered a pirate, according to the MIT Department of Athletics, Physical Education & Recreation, who began issuing official certificates last fall.

So far, six students have reached elite pirate status, receiving pieces of faux parchment authorized by the “swashbucklin’” MIT, certifying that the named “salty dog” is entitled to a Pirate Certificate “with all its privileges and obligations thereof.”

Read more at The Boston Globe.

On Intelligence vs. Motivation

One user on Reddit writes:

I’m a senior in high school this year, and will be graduating come June. I have had all A’s throughout high school except for last year when I got my first B. If it weren’t for that B, I would have been valedictorian.

I like to think that I deserved to be valedictorian; that I am truly the smartest in my class. However, this past year has shown me that I’m really not that intelligent, and that there are many others who are much smarter than I.

Also, I’m kind of an asshole about how smart I am, at least to myself. I’m always telling myself that I was cheated out of an A, but deep down I know I deserved that B. Not only that, but I should have gotten B’s in several other classes as well, but I somehow managed not to get them.

Recently I took the SATs as well, which I got a 1900 on. I figured I was just being lazy, and could have gotten a much better score if I tried. So after taking them a second time, I thought I did much better, but I only got roughly 40 more points than last time.

When I was younger I always believed I could get into MIT, but it has become painfully clear that I stand next to no chance of getting in. I now realize that I am probably going to go a lame local college and stick with my family.

Many people offered their thoughts, but perhaps this response from user Inri147 that was accepted and enrolled to MIT is particularly enlightening:

Term rolled in and I was getting crushed. I wasn’t the greatest student in high school, and whenever I got poor grades I would explain them away by saying I just didn’t care or I was too busy or too unmotivated or (more often than not) just cared about something else. It didn’t help that I had good test performance which fed my ego and let me think I was smarter than everyone else, just relatively unmotivated. I had grossly underestimated MIT, and was left feeling so dumb.

I had the fortune of living next to a bright guy, R. R. was an advanced student, to say the least. He was a sophomore, but was already taking the most advanced graduate math classes. He came into MIT and tested out of calculus, multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, real analysis (notoriously the most difficult math class at MIT), and a slew of other math courses. And to top it all off, he was attractive, engaging, sociable, and generally had no faults that would make him mortal.

I suffered through half a semester of differential equations before my pride let me go to R. for help. And sure enough, he took my textbook for a night to review the material (he couldn’t remember it all from third grade), and then he walked me through my difficulties and coached me. I ended up pulling a B+ at the end of a semester and avoiding that train wreck. The thing is, nothing he taught me involved raw brainpower. The more I learned the more I realized that the bulk of his intelligence and his performance just came from study and practice, and that the had amassed a large artillery of intellectual and mathematical tools that he had learned and trained to call upon. He showed me some of those tools, but what I really ended up learning was how to go about finding, building, and refining my own set of cognitive tools. I admired R., and I looked up to him, and while I doubt I will ever compete with his genius, I recognize that it’s because of a relative lack of my conviction and an excess of his, not some accident of genetics…

From my personal experience studying at Georgia Tech and Caltech, I think one of the most important lessons I had to learn was how to ask for help. And that it was okay to do so. There is nothing humiliating about asking for help if you are truly trying to make an effort to understand the material.

MIT has an almost 97% graduation rate. That means that most of the people who get in, get through. Do you know what separates the 3% that didn’t from the rest that do? I do. I’ve seen it so many times, and it almost happened to me. Very few people get through four years of MIT with such piss-poor performance that they don’t graduate. In fact, I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head. People fail to graduate from MIT because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out. The students that are successful look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation. 

Very worthwhile advice.

Ten Lessons from Gian-Carlo Rota

I’d never heard of Gian-Carlo Rota before today, but I stumbled upon his “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught,” and it is fantastic.

From Wikipedia:

Rota was one of the teachers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He taught a difficult but very popular course in probability, 18.313, which MIT has not offered again. He also taught 18.001 (Applications of Calculus), 18.03 (Differential Equations), and 18.315 (Combinatorial Theory). His philosophy course inphenomenology was offered on Friday nights to keep the enrollment manageable. Among his many eccentricities, he would not teach without a can of Coca-Cola, and handed out prizes ranging from Hershey bars to pocket knives to students who asked questions in class or did well on tests.

Excellent advice on what it takes to give a good lecture:

The following four requirements of a good lecture do not seem to be altogether obvious, judging from the mathematics lectures I have been listening to for the past forty-six years.

a. Every lecture should make only one main point The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel wrote that any philosopher who uses the word “and” too often cannot be a good philosopher. I think he was right, at least insofar as lecturing goes. Every lecture should state one main point and repeat it over and over, like a theme with variations. An audience is like a herd of cows, moving slowly in the direction they are being driven towards. If we make one point, we have a good chance that the audience will take the right direction; if we make several points, then the cows will scatter all over the field. The audience will lose interest and everyone will go back to the thoughts they interrupted in order to come to our lecture.

b. Never run overtime Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say) everybody’s attention will turn elsewhere even if we are trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. One minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures.

c. Relate to your audience As you enter the lecture hall, try to spot someone in the audience with whose work you have some familiarity. Quickly rearrange your presentation so as to manage to mention some of that person’s work. In this way, you will guarantee that at least one person will follow with rapt attention, and you will make a friend to boot.

Everyone in the audience has come to listen to your lecture with the secret hope of hearing their work mentioned.

d. Give them something to take home It is not easy to follow Professor Struik’s advice. It is easier to state what features of a lecture the audience will always remember, and the answer is not pretty. I often meet, in airports, in the street and occasionally in embarrassing situations, MIT alumni who have taken one or more courses from me. Most of the time they admit that they have forgotten the subject of the course, and all the mathematics I thought I had taught them. However, they will gladly recall some joke, some anecdote, some quirk, some side remark, or some mistake I made.

On proper blackboard technique (I wish more professors did this when I was in school):

a. Make sure the blackboard is spotless It is particularly important to erase those distracting whirls that are left when we run the eraser over the blackboard in a non uniform fashion.

By starting with a spotless blackboard, you will subtly convey the impression that the lecture they are about to hear is equally spotless.

b. Start writing on the top left hand corner What we write on the blackboard should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in his notebook. It is preferable to write slowly and in a large handwriting, with no abbreviations. Those members of the audience who are taking notes are doing us a favor, and it is up to us to help them with their copying. When slides are used instead of the blackboard, the speaker should spend some time explaining each slide, preferably by adding sentences that are inessential, repetitive or superfluous, so as to allow any member of the audience time to copy our slide. We all fall prey to the illusion that a listener will find the time to read the copy of the slides we hand them after the lecture. This is wishful thinking.

On using the Feynman method (my favourite scientist):

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

On the importance of giving lavish acknowledgements:

I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else. One day, I tried an experiment. After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment, I decided to cite a few papers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper, to see what might happen.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field.

Do read the entire thing. It’s excellent.