Research, education, and connection in the face of war

Author: Katherine Ouellette | MIT Open Learning

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Tetiana Herasymova had several decisions to make: What should she do, where should she live, and should she take her MITx MicroMasters capstone exams? She had registered for the Statistics and Data Science Program’s final exams just days prior to moving out of her apartment and into a bomb shelter. Although it was difficult to focus on studying and preparations with air horns sounding overhead and uncertainty lingering around her, she was determined to try. “I wouldn’t let the aggressor in the war squash my dreams,” she says.

A love of research and the desire to improve teaching 

An early love of solving puzzles and problems for fun piqued Herasymova’s initial interest in mathematics. When she later pursued her PhD in mathematics at Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University, Herasymova’s love of math evolved into a love of research. Throughout Herasymova’s career, she’s worked to close the gap between scientific researchers and educators. Starting as a math tutor at MBA Strategy, a company that prepares Ukrainian leaders for qualifying standardized tests for MBA programs, she was later promoted as the head of their test preparation department. Afterward, she moved on to an equivalent position at ZNOUA, a new project that prepared high school students for Ukraine’s standardized test, and she eventually became ZNOUA’s CEO.

In 2018, she founded Prosteer, a “self-learning community” of educators who share research, pedagogy, and experience to learn from one another. “It’s really interesting to have a community of teachers from different domains,” she says, speaking of educators and researchers whose specialties range across language, mathematics, physics, music, and more.

Implementing new pedagogical research in the classroom is often up to educators who seek out studies on an individual basis, Herasymova has found. “Lots of scientists are not practitioners,” she says, and the reverse is also true. She only became more determined to build these connections once she was promoted to head of test preparation at MBA Strategy because she wanted to share more effective pedagogy with the tutors she was mentoring.

First, Herasymova knew she needed a way to measure the teachers’ effectiveness. She was able to determine whether students who received the company’s tutoring services improved their scores. Moreover, Ukraine keeps an open-access database of national standardized test scores, so anyone could analyze the data in hopes of improving the level of education in the country. She says, “I could do some analytics because I am a mathematician, but I knew I could do much more with this data if I knew data science and machine learning knowledge.”

That’s why Herasymova sought out the MITx MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science offered by the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “I wanted to learn the fundamentals so I could join the Learning Analytics domain,” she says. She was looking for a comprehensive program that covered the foundations without being overly basic. “I had some knowledge from the ground, so I could see the deepness of that course,” she says. Because of her background as an instructional designer, she thought the MicroMasters curriculum was well-constructed, calling the variety of videos, practice problems, and homework assignments that encouraged learners to approach the course material in different ways, “a perfect experience.”

Another benefit of the MicroMasters program was its online format. “I had my usual work, so it was impossible to study in a stationary way,” she says. She found the structure to be more flexible than other programs. “It’s really great that you can construct your course schedule your own way, especially with your own adult life,” she says.

Determination and support in the midst of war

When the war first forced Herasymova to flee her apartment, she had already registered to take the exams for her four courses. “It was quite hard to prepare for exams when you could hear explosions outside of the bomb shelter,” she says. She and other Ukranians were invited to postpone their exams until the following session, but the next available testing period wouldn’t be held until October. “It was a hard decision, but I had to allow myself to try,” she says. “For all people in Ukraine, when you don’t know if you’re going to live or die, you try to live in the now. You have to appreciate every moment and what life brings to you. You don’t say, ‘Someday’ — you do it today or tomorrow.”

In addition to emotional support from her boyfriend, Herasymova had a group of friends who had also enrolled in the program, and they supported each other through study sessions and an ongoing chat. Herasymova’s personal support network helped her accomplish what she set out to do with her MicroMasters program, and in turn, she was able to support her professional network. While Prosteer halted its regular work during the early stages of the war, Herasymova was determined to support the community of educators and scientists that she had built. They continued meeting weekly to exchange ideas as usual. “It’s intrinsic motivation,” she says. They managed to restore all of their activities by October.

Despite the factors stacked against her, Herasymova’s determination paid off — she passed all of her exams in May, the final step to earning her MicroMasters certificate in statistics and data science. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It was definitely a bifurcation point. The moment when you realize that you have something to rely on, and that life is just beginning to show all its diversity despite the fact that you live in war.” With her newly minted certificate in hand, Herasymova has continued her research on the effectiveness of educational models — analyzing the data herself — with a summer research program at New York University

The student becomes the master

After moving seven times between February and October, heading west from Kyiv until most recently settling near the border of Poland, Herasymova hopes she’s moved for the last time. Ukrainian Catholic University offered her a position teaching both mathematics and programming. Before enrolling in the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science, she had some prior knowledge of programming languages and mathematical algorithms, but she didn’t know Python. She took MITx’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python to prepare. “It gave me a huge step forward,” she says. “I learned a lot. Now, not only can I work with Python machine learning models in programming language R, I also have knowledge of the big picture of the purpose and the point to do so.”

In addition to the skills the MicroMasters Program trained her in, she gained firsthand experience in learning new subjects and exploring topics more deeply. She will be sharing that practice with the community of students and teachers she’s built, plus, she plans on guiding them through this course during the next year. As a continuation of her own educational growth, says she’s looking forward to her next MITx course this year, Data Analysis.

Herasymova advises that the best way to keep progressing is investing a lot of time. “Adults don’t want to hear this, but you need one or two years,” she says. “Allow yourself to be stupid. If you’re an expert in one domain and want to switch to another, or if you want to understand something new, a lot of people don’t ask questions or don’t ask for help. But from this point, if I don’t know something, I know I should ask for help because that’s the start of learning. With a fixed mindset, you won’t grow.”

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