Lifelong Learners: Insights from an intergenerational initiative


Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Joseph Xu

By Cauê Borlina and Anastasia Ostrowski

The first time we went to Lasell Village, an older adult learning living community at Lasell University, we were invited to give a talk so that Anastasia could recruit participants for her upcoming robot codesign study with older adults. Lasell Village supports lifelong learners, offering courses at the Village or Lasell University on a range of topics including, but not limited to, Arabic, the ethics of genome editing, and US politics. During and after her talk, she received challenging and exciting questions from people from all sorts of different backgrounds, including an engineer, a behavioral psychologist, and an immunologist. We realized that there was a natural fit for a lecture series that could combine young researchers in graduate programs at MIT with curious older adults from the Lasell Village community. This was definitely a special place. We felt that we had found an opportunity to benefit both young researchers at MIT and the residents of Lasell Village. 


Cauê Borlina & Anastasia K. Ostrowski

Motivated by this, we started the Minds Across Generations initiative: bringing MIT students and postdocs to Lasell Village in Newton, MA, to give a 40-minute talk about their work. Researchers have a chance to practice scientific communication with an audience that is extremely engaged in the topics, and the audience has a chance to learn about topics that they may have not known existed. The first trial of the initiative this past fall had speakers from the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and the MIT Media Lab presenting five talks across varying topics, including the search for exoplanets (far far away!), hydrogels (think jello!), when Earth’s magnetic field started (many billions of years ago!), the phylogenetic record (this has major implications for humans eating seaweed!), and how we can include artificial intelligence (AI) in the classroom (we even learned how to create AI!). 


Cauê Borlina & Anastasia K. Ostrowski

There are two stakeholders in Minds Across Generations: the students and the residents. We have become attached to the community, surprised at the regular attendance, robust and thoughtful questions, and encouraged by the comments shared by both researchers and residents. Students have described the experience to us as “meaningful,” “invigorating,” “encouraging,” and “eye-opening.” Residents have described the experience as “stimulating” and “delightful.” John, the Director of Education at Lasell Village, reflected on the program that it “helps curious and thoughtful people of different generations meet and share the joy of truly lifelong learning.”

Sarah Schwartz, a PhD student in the MIT Microbiology program who spoke about phylogenetic trees, commented on the experience and its positive benefits:

I really enjoyed designing a talk for experienced thinkers with little experience/exposure in my specific field. It gave me a chance to think constructively about the best way to communicate my science and the freedom to design a talk that was both informative and interesting to people with diverse intellectual backgrounds.

The students consistently highlighted the engagement of the audience as a pleasant surprise. Randi Williams, a PhD student in the Personal Robots group at the Media Lab who spoke about teaching artificial intelligence to children, said that “the audience was extremely engaged and several people approached me afterwards to talk about how my work related to or could be useful in their own lives.” Randi also commented on how the audience had “razor-sharp focus” and wasn’t “afraid to ask the hard questions.” Margery Silver and William (Bill) Hamilton, both residents at Lasell Village, expressed delight at the program and exposure to new topics. Margery enjoyed “learning about things I never knew existed” and Bill enjoyed “seeing what these young minds were doing and where all this might lead. I didn’t have these kinds of experiences while I was at MIT and would have enjoyed opening my mind this way.” Both residents and students learned from one another and learned new perspectives on research, including their own.


Cauê Borlina & Anastasia K. Ostrowski

Beyond making connections between young researchers and older curious minds, Minds Across Generations is a form of outreach that has prompted people to consider why outreach is important in today’s world. As Prajwal Niraula, a PhD student in EAPS who spoke about exoplanets, highlights: “Outreach in general is important to bridge the gap between the esoterism of sciences and the general public.” For Shannon Johnson, a PhD student in the Synthetic Neurobiology group at the Media Lab who spoke about hydrogels, outreach “improves the spread of information about exciting new technology and helps spark a conversation that wouldn't start if someone does not have access to peer-reviewed journals or the ability to go to expensive conferences,” citing the benefit of getting “to learn from those with different insight than those I normally brainstorm with.” Outreach works as a way to extend knowledge to those who may not have access to universities or researchers. 


Cauê Borlina & Anastasia K. Ostrowski

Randi’s thoughts around outreach emphasize the need to create deep engagement with diverse communities to do the best work possible:

Every opportunity to share my work with a new group of people is an opportunity to gain insight. However, certain communities are systematically excluded from conversations about advanced computer science; including communities like Lasell Village. Therefore, it's important to make extra effort to reach out to those groups.

We are looking forward to having more people from EAPS, the Media Lab, and Mechanical Engineering participate this spring. If you are interested in joining the initiative, please reach out to us!  

We plan to expand this program to welcome more departments across MIT and to include more older adult communities. We believe that knowledge belongs to everyone; our experiences this past semester have shown us that Lasell owns a little bit of it now, and maybe our researchers have picked up some new knowledge, too.


Cauê Borlina:

Anastasia Ostrowski:

Randi Williams:

Shannon Johnson: 

Prajwal Niraula:

Sarah Schwartz:

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