What happens when MIT faculty and students relax over tea? Renowned biotech researcher Bob Langer ScD ’74 divulges that he probably has ADHD and had a hard time concentrating at MIT. CEE faculty Admir Masic speaks about his experience as a Bosnian refugee. Associate head of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang ’00 admits that she failed her first physics exam. A new video series, called Tea with Teachers, gets candid with prestigious MIT faculty. [See students prepare for filming above.]
Sina Booeshaghi ’17 founded the program his senior year with the help of students Nicholas Curtis and Tchelet Segev. Sitting down for tea and deep discussion is part of his Iranian heritage, and he had already casually instituted the practice with his classmates. When he began to request faculty recommendations for internships and grad school, he says, he began to wish that he could replicate the tradition to make it easier to get to know his professors in a low-key, low-pressure setting.
“The process of asking teachers for help can be incredibly intimidating and nerve-wracking,” he says. “With Tea with Teachers, the goal was to make students aware of professors’ lives and be more comfortable engaging them on a human to human level.”
With funding from MindHandHeart and the Undergraduate Association, Booeshaghi and a small team began making videos. The conversations are designed to cover silly topics—socks and sandals, magic tricks, and toilet paper feature among the discussions—but always end on more serious note, asking the faculty to give their most useful advice to current students.
MechE faculty Alex Slocum ’82, SM ’83, PhD ’85 highlighted the power of preparation and engagement. “MIT is really hard—and it should be,” he explains.
“We are perhaps the last bastion of true deep geekness and must not dial back or benchmark to meet the norm of other places. When students come here, I try to help them learn how to best thrive here.”
John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, told students that even though they should strive and do their best, they should keep things in perspective: tests are just tests and what they learn at MIT is more important than some quiz score.
“As undergrad officer for our department for many years, I would see some students focusing intensely to master their required subjects and others taking six classes per semester to get lots of exposure or participating in extra-curricular learning experiences beyond the required program. All kinds of learning happens here at MIT—mastering a class is one way to learn, but there are many other ways that are also valid and useful.”
Thus far, the videos have been viewed 18,000 times. Students loved seeing a different side to faculty they admire and, in at least one case, chose their advisor based on what they learned.
Lienhard says faculty can get something out of Tea with Teachers too. “Oftentimes our faculty, especially those in big lecture subjects, don’t have as much of an opportunity to interact with students. A rich ecosystem exists here, and engaging outside the classroom can be eye-opening.”
Tea with Teachers continues to video their candid conversations and hopes to expand. A more casual version, called Soylent with Students, started as a joke but is now a viable project.
After graduation, Booeshaghi turned over management of Tea with Teachers to current students and stays on as a mentor and audience member. A PhD student at CalTech, he still believes firmly in the power of open communication, whether in his work on open-source biology instrumentation or in his extra-curricular life developing a summer program through Engineers Without Borders.
He even has a challenge for alumni: “Have tea with someone whom you respect and don’t yet have a relationship with. It’s our collective duty to learn about others and connect with people.” Nearby alumni in California, he says, are welcome to have tea with him anytime.