Skip to content

What would you teach if you could teach absolutely anything?

September 28, 2015

Suppose someone told you the following:

You are invited to teach a class to a group of highly-motivated high school students.  It can be about absolutely any topic, and can last for as little as 5 minutes or as long as 9 hours.

What topic would you choose for your class?


As it happens, this is not just a hypothetical question for me at the moment.  In November MIT is hosting its annual MIT Splash event, and the call for volunteer teachers is almost exactly what is written in the quote above.  Students, staff, and faculty from all over MIT are invited to teach short courses on a topic of their choosing, and the results are pretty wild.

A few of my favorite courses from last year:

  • The History of Video Game Music
  • How to Create a Language
  • Cryptography for People Without a Computer
  • Build a Mini Aeroponic Farm
  • Calculating Pi With a Coconut
  • Advanced Topics in Murder


So now I would like to turn to you, dear blog readers, for help.

What should I teach about?  Please let me know, in the comments, what you think about either of these two questions:

  1. If you were a high school student, what kind of class would you want to go to?
  2. If you were in my position, what kind of class would you want to teach?


The two ideas that come to mind immediately are:

  • Quantum Mechanics with middle school math

Use Algebra 1 – level math to figure out answers to questions like: What is wave/particle duality? How big is an atom? How do magnets work?  What is quantum entanglement?

  • The Math Behind Basketball Strategy

Learn about some of the difficult strategic decisions that basketball teams are faced with, and see how they can be described with math.  Then solve a few of them yourself!

Imagining yourself as a high school student, which of those two sounds better to you?  Any suggestions for alternative ideas or refinements?


UPDATE:  You can find my courses listed on the MIT Splash catalog here.  Thanks for all your helpful comments, everyone!  This should be a lot of fun.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2015 2:17 pm

    Fun thing to think about!
    Together with two colleagues, we had a high school class visiting our philosophy department and we decided to teach about paradoxes: some paradoxes of knowledge (“the surprise exam”), paradoxes of time travel (a big hit), and my topic was Newcomb’s paradox (which also worked nicely). It was great that the students were so engaged: they started reasoning – and even disagreeing with us – right away. It gave me a boost of confidence in the future. 🙂
    In physics, I would probably go with “why is everything coloured”: not just absorption and rainbows, but structural colours, diffraction and interference (iris of the eye, soap bubbles aka your banner image ;-), butterfly wings, …).
    There is a nice way of combining this last idea with your QM idea: go for quantum optics. E.g. diffraction by seeing light through fabric, taking a flash picture of an LCD screen, … Things they can actually see/do makes it all a lot let abstract. (You can use the website for inspiration.)

    • Brian permalink*
      September 28, 2015 3:05 pm

      Wow, your paradox class sounds awesome! I wish I could have gone to it myself.

      I’m not sure I’m qualified to teach about quantum optics, but I definitely think you’re right that the class needs a hands-on component to it. Just being lectured at for a couple of hours is unlikely to register much of an impact.

  2. repton permalink
    September 28, 2015 4:49 pm

    I have greatly enjoyed your blog posts on basketball. But when I was a teenager I had zero interest in sport, and I would have chosen the quantum mechanics talk in a heartbeat.

    • Brian permalink*
      September 28, 2015 4:54 pm

      Thanks. It’s nice to hear that some teenagers would be interested in QM; I had sort of been operating under the assumption that very few would be.

      Any suggestions as to how one could introduce an active or hands-on aspect to a QM lecture?

  3. September 28, 2015 5:03 pm

    A second helping of SexEd focusing on the physiology of sexuality, after Bill Masters, rather than on the moral/infectious/reproductive aspects of sex. Honestly, this wasn’t even taught at my medical school, other than the “point and shoot” mnemonic for the parasympathetic and sympathetic contributions to the sexual response. Your high schoolers will be ahead of the curve and, if you do it right, they may discover a more passionate mode of scientific inquiry. Obviously, in proposing this topic, I am ignoring the politics of education in the United States.

    • Brian permalink*
      September 28, 2015 5:15 pm

      I actually think that such a class would be pretty welcome at MIT Splash (and it looks like they’ve had sort of similar things in the past). I only wish I felt qualified to lead such a class.

      • September 29, 2015 3:20 am

        Either way, that sounds like a pretty awesome opportunity. You are right, though; now that I think about it, it might actually be quite difficult, even just to gather the appropriate content. You would probably have to look at changes in a number of different organ systems. And I am not sure what sort of sources there are available. I know that the classic textbook on medical physiology sticks to one organ system, and even then it is more about the cellular and molecular biology of reproduction than anything on Masters of Sex.

        • Brian permalink*
          September 29, 2015 10:15 am

          Someone should do a class that just summarizes the Kinsey reports.

  4. September 28, 2015 5:16 pm

    “why to doubt” is a class I wish I had.

  5. Brian permalink*
    September 28, 2015 5:19 pm

    These are great suggestions, guys! Keep them coming.

  6. Will permalink
    September 28, 2015 7:57 pm

    I would need to study up to teach it myself, but I think some sort of lecture on the Doomsday paradox and self-locating uncertainty would go over great. Pretty mind-expanding stuff, with a nice flair for the dramatic that folks that age tend to like 😉

  7. Anshul Kogar permalink
    September 29, 2015 8:42 am

    How about “Optical Illusions: Why your Senses can be Deceiving and how Science Reveals the Truth”?

    • Brian permalink*
      September 29, 2015 9:01 am

      Can you elaborate at all? What kind of optical illusions does science “reveal the truth” about?

      • Anshul Kogar permalink
        September 29, 2015 10:37 am

        I had in mind using illustrations like using something like:


        to introduce how our senses can fool us, and how they possess inherent biases due to the processes of evolution.

        So the question then arises — how do we know what we know, objectively?

        How do we know that special relativity and quantum mechanics are true? How do we know that the universe is filled with all-permeating fields?

        Basically, I had in mind a lesson where one views our senses as sort of an in-built bias and how we must overcome this handicap and look at things differently. Science has naturally extended our senses to light we cannot see, sounds we cannot hear, and notions one can hardly grasp based on just our senses.

        …sort of a philosophy of science class with the central premise being the limitations of our senses.

        • Brian permalink*
          September 29, 2015 10:44 am

          Sounds like you should write a blog post about it!

  8. September 29, 2015 9:17 am

    Quantum Mechanics with middle school math!!! (I don’t normally use so many exclamation marks, but I think this idea deserves that sort of enthusiasm.)
    Also, a selfish doubt, are these available only on campus, or accessible worldwide?

    • Brian permalink*
      September 29, 2015 10:14 am

      As far as I know, this particular program is only available in person to high school students who register and are accepted to the program. But don’t worry, if you read this blog you’ll probably already know most of what I have to say. 🙂

  9. September 29, 2015 12:26 pm

    Generally, I’m a mechanic, John Deere was sometimes (rarely) an exercise in inventing a problem, then creating a solution. Nearly all cars, tractors and farm implements have this recorded in past models. “Psychology of Engineering class would be humorous if presented by the right person. That’s one.
    Previous was mentioned SexEd. “Girls, Boys, Pheromones” This subject has been studied for centuries but just the surface scratched- meaning – if youth actually knew why they felt as if they are going nuts, easily influenced, make poor decisions, etc.

  10. September 29, 2015 3:18 pm

    If you wanted to combine math and sports, baseball is probably the ideal sport, especially in the modern era with all the sabermetrics. Baseball is the most stat-heavy sport, and some of the more advanced stats get seriously into statistical analysis. And there’s also things like the arc of a hit ball, the difference between ball-throwing speed and running speed and lots of others.

    Besides, anything we can do to increase interest in baseball among the young is a Good Thing. It is, after all, the best sport ever, plus it’s a metaphor for life.

    • Brian permalink*
      September 29, 2015 3:47 pm

      I’m sorry to admit this, but I have never in my life had the patience to watch an entire baseball game. Maybe that’s an important metaphor for my life.

      • September 29, 2015 3:54 pm

        Baseball is, admittedly, sedate. But it’s like the surface of the ocean, which also doesn’t seem to offer much to see. But in both cases, the more you know about what’s going on under the surface, the more interesting it is.

        In baseball, every pitch involves a considerable number of variables: what the count is (a 2-1 count is a world of difference from a 1-2 count), what the score is, how many runners are on what bases, and how fast those runners are, who’s pitching, what his pitch count is (i.e. is he fresh or tired), how well he’s pitching that day, what pitches he can throw (there are dozens, but any given pitcher can only throw a few) , who’s at the plate, what kind of batter he is and what kind of day he’s having…

        Another way to put it is that “worst” teams beat “best” teams all the time. There are so many variables in baseball that game outcomes have a definite element of randomness. More so, perhaps, than any other sport.

  11. Giordano Cristoforo permalink
    June 4, 2018 6:21 am

    Hi, I would choose the physics and philosophy of co-operation. After all, in order for me to exist at all, there is a body which requires an unbelievable array of cooperative functions between the various cells, etc that compose us. Now add to that why it is we we as biological entities are very bad at it, and potentially exploring what might happen if we could create a new level of cooperation between minds, consciousness, etc, then perhaps science could find ways of helping this as an evolutionary advantage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: