Make a Splash: ESP Encourages Students To Dive and Explore

Hundreds of middle and high school students arrived at MIT last weekend to participate in the Educational Studies Program’s annual Splash weekend event.

These participants had the opportunity to take a series of short classes taught by college students, most of who currently study at MIT. Organizers estimate that over 250 volunteers helped make the weekend a success for the nearly 2,000 young students who attended Splash.

Helen LaPlant, a parent from Milford, Conn., brought three of her children and two other teenagers from her neighborhood to Cambridge for this year’s event.

LaPlant was pleased with how the program ran. “I like how the courses are either meaty or crazy,” LaPlant said.

Her 13-year-old daughter Mandy was unable to choose her favorite class of the weekend (she liked them all), but she said that she looks forward to coming to Splash again next year. On the other hand, LaPlant’s 16-year-old son Jake seemed to favor “The Delivery and Use of Pick-up Lines,” which was taught by Kevin Hwang ’10. Jake had one complaint, though: “I tried using them, but they didn’t work.”

All but LaPlant’s youngest daughter participated in Splash; she was too young to take a course this year. LaPlant hopes to enroll her in the weekend program in the future.

ESP, the organizers of Splash, has been in operation for 50 years now, according to Daniel Zaharopol ’04, who served as an adviser and teacher during the two-day Splash event. Zaharopol said that Splash was created in 1988 to revitalize interest in ESP.

Unlike many of ESP’s other programs, Splash gives interested students and volunteers the opportunity to participate without making a huge time commitment. Indeed, the event is billed as a chance for students to “get their feet wet” in a variety of subjects.

This year’s course offerings were as diverse as the student teachers that designed the classes. Splash students had the opportunity to learn about the ins and outs of “Duct Tape Design,” as well as the art of “Pulling an All-Nighter.” They could also go for something more rigorous, such as “Goal-Oriented Machine Learning” or “The Riemann Hypothesis.” Volunteer teachers are permitted to teach almost anything they want and are rarely turned away.

Splash courses tend to be between one and five hours long, although some last longer than that. Zaharopol recalled a course taught a few years ago on database design that spanned 12 hours over two days. Most students, he said, spent about 20 hours in class throughout the weekend, although many opted to take Saturday evening off.

The majority of classes this year were held in the Maclaurin Buildings around Killian Court in order to ease navigation for visitors. Lobby 10 and the adjacent Vannevar Bush Room served as the command centers of the event, where visitors could receive information and purchase souvenirs of this year’s Splash.

Jonathan Sailor, a freshman at Brown University, was one of the people who volunteered to work at the help desk in Lobby 10. He took his first Splash class in 2001 and has continued to take them ever since.

“I liked Splash so much, I couldn’t help but come back,” Sailor said. In addition to helping at the information desk, he was one of the members of the security staff, which also consists of college student volunteers. This was the first year ESP enlisted the help of a security staff for Splash, according to Sailor.

“The duties of the security staff are not officially spelled out, but they are basically there to make sure everyone’s okay,” Sailor said. The staff patrols the hallways, assisting those who have questions or need directions.

David N. Farhi ’10, who served as co-director of this year’s event along with Yalu Wu ’09, said that one of the duties of the security staff is to ensure teachers are in their classrooms on time. In a few cases, when teachers did not arrive, classes had to be cancelled. When that occurred, students in the cancelled class were given the option of selecting an alternative class.

Nevertheless, Farhi is happy with how Splash ran. “Everything went smoothly,” Farhi said. “There were no major complaints.”

Since ESP’s inception in 1957, it has organized and run the High School Studies Program, which brings high school students to MIT for classes held over 10 consecutive Saturdays during the semester. Aside from Splash, ESP also organizes programs for SAT preparation and Advanced Placement courses.