MIT Stem Pals
October 2012

In Teaching, No Man Is an Island; No Woman Is an Island
From Richard C. Larson

Dick LarsonNo man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” John Donne, Meditation XVII, English clergyman & poet (1572 - 1631).

As a teacher myself, I reflect on this and realize that I can bring into the classroom great ideas first assembled and articulated by others. And I’ve tried to do this in teaching applied probability at MIT, especially in doing ‘live probability experiments’ in front of classrooms full of students. Usually these experiments were first posited and analyzed by others, and I have happily applied their methods and given them credit. And the students have seemed to appreciate the efforts.

Teachers in high school STEM classes can do the same. As a university professor, my course load is one or two courses per semester. But a high school STEM teacher may teach four, five or even six classes at a time. It’s hard for me to imagine how that is done, and without teaching assistants to grade homework. The most difficult thing to imagine is lesson planning. Where is the time for the harried STEM teacher to design and carry out truly innovative and inspiring class lessons? Yet, some manage to do it, probably by forgoing sleep and needed family time.

But here’s where John Donne’s quote comes in. With the Internet today and with the increasing prevalence of OER (Open Educational Resources) materials, each STEM teacher can benefit from the toiling of others. We now have a proliferation of open educational materials, some with complete shared lesson plans. Why should a teacher in “School X” be constrained to the island of School X, when there is a continent of schools whose STEM teachers are trying to accomplish the same things: educate and motivate their students in science, math and engineering, bringing them to deep competence in the subject matter as well as exciting them towards STEM careers?

When I discuss this possibility of lesson sharing with teachers, they say, “Yes, we should do this but there is so much material out there, we do not have the time to vet it, to find out what’s good and what’s not.” Well, there are vetted web sites for STEM teaching materials. One of our favorites is Florida’s CPALMS program, where educators are invited to submit materials they wish to share. Each submitted item is then sent out to a panel of content experts within Florida. Only the best survive and are given the CPALMS version of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” and then posted on the web site of the Florida Department of Education, along with a listing of the state educational standards that are covered by the approved materials. Knowing the high standards of this vetting process, a STEM teacher, not necessarily in Florida, can confidently use these materials in their own lesson planning. Our own MIT BLOSSOMS project ( has submitted BLOSSOMS STEM video lessons to CPALMS. Some have been rejected. Many have been accepted and certified for Florida’s teachers. And that implies for teachers elsewhere as well.

The Internet has other shared teaching resources as well. Perhaps the biggest is sharemylesson, “by teachers, for teachers.” Have a look. Use a lesson. Share your own best lessons. No teacher should be an island. We’re all in this together, a joined continent of educators trying to educate and motivate our country’s next generation of STEM-ready young men and women. Your job is vital to our nation. Sharing each other’s best practices, best lessons, builds bridges from your school to all others. Let the islands be joined!

Richard Larson is the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. He is also the Director of MIT LINC and the Principal Investigator of MIT BLOSSOMS.

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