PUBLIC SERVICE @ MIT In and out of the water
Athletics and academics converge in Amphibious Achievement
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article about Amphibious Achievement incorrectly names one of the Public Service Center’s staff. The staff member is named Jennifer Currie, not Jennifer Higgins-Spiers.
“Success in and out of the water.” That is the motto of Amphibious Achievement, an MIT service group established last January that aims to promote success for area high-schoolers through athletic training, specifically in crew and swimming, and academic instruction, with a focus on college prep in a way that is fun and innovative. The program runs on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. during the school year on campus.
MIT juniors Noam Angrist ’13 and Ron Rosenberg ’13 founded the program based on their own experiences that the tools necessary to succeed in athletics — hard work, dedication, perseverance, and resilience — are the same tools needed to succeed in academics.
For Angrist, inspiration came from his experience coaching at Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge — a position he’s held since his senior year of high school. “Parents came to me at the end of the season and say, ‘It’s great we won gold and have this shiny medal, that’s terrific. What’s really exciting is that my kid has actually gotten more successful at home and at school since joining crew, and the same is true for swimming.’ They are harder workers, they multitask, they’re disciplined, and they learned time commitment,” Angrist said. “These skills that are incredibly relevant in all aspects of life are things that we want to touch on. Ron and I wanted to get involved in a program that does this and we couldn’t find one, so we decided to start one.”
This year, there are 25 MIT students involved in coaching and tutoring the 35 high school students.
TT: How do you hope to make your program sustainable, in terms of funding and people?
Noam Angrist: Like all college organizations, there’s massive turnover of people. And what is unique about Amphibious Achievements is if we have turnover on the MIT end that affects our achievers. We’re combating this by documenting everything. We have a 60-page academic curriculum, and any time someone wants to launch an initiative they have to write a curriculum.
Ron Rosenberg: We also have a 50-page athletic curriculum, documenting all of the practices and drills, and additional documentation on the program’s progression.
NA: We also try and stratify our exec through the [class] years. We really like accepting freshmen and sophomores so that, when we graduate, there are people to take over.
Another thing that we’re happy about are our institutional connections, and that’s very important for sustainability. For example, the PSC is very invested in Amphibious Achievement. And that means Sally Susnowitz, Kristi Kebinger, and Jen Higgins-Spiers (PSC staff) who’ve all been very helpful and will be around, know everything about Amphibious Achievement and how it runs.
And the last thing on sustainability is that our community support is really massive and impressive. We have sponsors such as the manager of Au Bon Pain, the CEO of the COOP, the CEO of CopyTech, K and B Sportswear, Panera Bread, Flour, Berryline. And for the next cohort that comes in, these organizations will likely still be there and that’s a connection that is maintained.
TT: What are some of your biggest challenges?
NA: The unique MIT environment is the biggest challenge and learning how to deal with it. There is a really unique atmosphere here, where every individual is hypertalented and hyperpassionate. It’s about getting people to commit, and that’s something we’ve been working on. We’ve been trying to design features within our system such as appointments to exec board and rewarding people who work hard. We’re doing a pass-the-gavel type thing, where we have a [clay] turtle that we pass on to the person who performed the best that week and they get to decide who should get it next week, as a way to reward individuals who work hard.
Another thing is funding, we are expensive; it costs us $10,000 a year to run. That being said, per week per kid it’s $28 as of the new budget. We provide the kids with one-on-one tutoring, goggles, swimsuits, food, transportation, academic supplies, and equipment, so we’re cost-effective, but overall we need funding.
RR: We’ve been really focused this semester on fundraising. When we came into this semester we were straight up broke. And it dawned on us for sustainability that we might not even be able to do this semester. So we made sure we are a year ahead in our account. And we learned that from the PSC, that we should always be one year ahead in funds.
TT: How do you measure your program’s impact?
RR: This semester we contacted guidance counselors in the school and they’ve given us all of the data on the kids’ grades, attendance, detention, etc. We also have data from 30 kids on the waitlist. And since we did a random lottery this year, we can actually measure, in a very scientific way, if our program, through all of these measurements, is helping versus the kids on the waitlist.
NA: We realized quantifying our outcome is very important, and looked into programs like us, and very few of them quantify. They use mostly anecdotes and testimonials, and that’s enough to get funding in the real world. But that wasn’t enough for us, and so we’re getting this data, and we have all these files, which is something you envision 10 years out. But because the teachers in the schools are so excited to get their kids in our program, this semester we had 65 applications so there was more demand then we had capacity. We’re uniquely positioned now to get all of this data and track all of it, because it’s so much harder to get it 5 years out and go back and find the kids and ask if we had an impact.
Also, this way, we can track if the kids are performing well in our program and they are not performing well in school. And that happened when we came to present to the schools. One of the kids [that] had a terrible GPA and was very destructive got in front of everyone and was articulate and the guidance counselor said, “How is this possible, it’s not the same person.” And that’s where a lot of the motivation to collect data came from.
RR: In our internal diagnostic, we saw improvements across the board. What’s interesting is athletics is something that you need practice every single day, and these kids come in 1.5 hours every week. So this means that they’re really gaining something in the technical aspect.
NA: We are also seeing healthier habits from the kids, who say “I didn’t know healthy food could taste good.” We have a 10 percent average improvement both in swimming and in crew from last year, which is massive given that they only had seven sessions of 1.5 hours — it had to be purely technical.
RR: Also, an anecdote on nutrition, the first two weeks, we had kids coming with Coolattas and Doritos, and one girl actually puked the first day, and it was a very easy workout, so I told the kids ‘you guys need to eat healthier,’ and they actually are starting to do that.
TT: What has been most surprising to you from the idea of your program to its implementation or what has changed the most in that process?
NA: One thing is that the program took a life of its own. We started with ideas, and this was how our curriculum will look and these are the students we’ll have and this is the demographic and this is how we’ll transport them and we thought everything through — this is how we’ll collect data and this is how we’ll evaluate it. And then the program just sort of came to life from little things. We went into the schools to present thinking kids will be there — kids weren’t there. Then we brought pizza, and kids came. And then we had kids in the program, then we started having exec meetings, and tutors started getting interested, and then we started having an application process, and then we selected people, and the transportation came, and more funding came. It just exploded in an awesome way.
RR: One of the things that really struck me was how perfect of a realization it was. I had this idea in my head, and Noam as well, and we brainstormed, and molded our ideas practically and logistically. And everything that I saw in that first brainstorm is there. This program is probably better than how I imagined it.
What I wasn’t really prepared for was how practical we needed to be in the sense that, every time you have an idea, you need to think about the smallest of details.