MISTI shifts to fully remote global internships and cultural experiences amid pandemic

The 10.5-hour time difference between the eastern United States and India may seem like it would pose a challenge to collaborative teamwork. However, MIT junior Robert Koirala and sophomore Grace Smith quickly got used to scheduling team meetings as late as 11 p.m. as remote interns for India-based Ek Kadam Aur Foundation for Education and Health. Koirala was working from Dayton, Ohio, and Smith from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The time change was easy to overcome considering their commitment to the organization’s mission.

Smith, a double major in math and computer science and engineering, and Koirala, a double major in math and physics, were both connected to Ek Kadam Aur through the MIT International Service and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-India program. MISTI offers MIT students internship, research, and teaching opportunities in 26 countries abroad. The office has remained dedicated to matching students with meaningful global learning opportunities even amid a pandemic that has essentially brought international travel to a halt.

Connections abroad

While searching for a meaningful summer internship opportunity, Smith was captivated by Ek Kadam Aur’s mission. She accepted a role as an intern in June, knowing that she would be working remotely, rather than in India. “I could very clearly see the impact of this organization was having on students, and a lot of them,” she said. “It was just a very direct and impactful way for me to spend my time.”

The Hindi phrase “ek kadam aur” translates to “one step more” in English. Ek Kadam Aur is a non-profit organization founded in 2015 by Satish Tripathi, a former MIT postdoc in chemical engineering. In 2016, Tripathi brought the program from the United States to India to help improve the lives of vulnerable children.

The foundation provides virtual classes for Indian schoolchildren in remote areas, offers facilities to specifically help visually impaired children learn and develop, inspires grassroots health information sharing at the community level, and provides medical and educational technologies.  

Koirala was interested in starting an educational program in Nepal, his native country, which borders India. After he shared his idea with the MISTI office, they connected him with Tripathi.

“I think my ideas resonated with his,” Koirala says. “The main goal of Ek Kadam Aur is to educate kids and improve the education system, the quality of education in India, and, hopefully, all over the world.”

Doing the math

Both Smith and Koirala are pursuing Course 18 (mathematics), equipping them with strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

This summer, Koirala evaluated data about the efficacy of Ek Kadam Aur’s Train the Trainers program. The initiative equips local adults to provide academic mentorship to children in their communities. Koirala crafted surveys and interview questions for teachers, students, parents, and trainers to compile new qualitative data about the training program’s success.

While Koirala wasn’t deploying what he calls “pure math” skills, he found that his math coursework prepared him to solve complex problems in any domain. “In math, when you write a proof, a sentence has to follow from the preceding sentence,” Koirala says. “And that’s similar to when you’re trying to solve a real-life problem. I started off trying to define a problem, like you would do while doing math. Then after defining the problem, I started to think, what are the properties of this problem?”

This summer, Smith spent much of her time assembling a technology selection guide for the new classrooms, another program Ek Kadam Aur plans to implement after the pandemic. She evaluated various technologies, like projector screens, that would most improve the classroom experience for students. “What this involved was talking to the people who have experiences working in the classrooms, and understanding what challenges they face with the tech that they have,” Smith says.

Smith says the work was particularly relevant to her personal interests. “It was a very valuable experience, to see how to make things accessible to people,” she says. Smith hopes to eventually develop a virtual reality math visualization tool to help high school students understand complex concepts, such as calculus.

One of the foundation’s top priorities is to offer synchronous virtual courses on topics like “The Scientific Method,” “Entrepreneurship,” “Human Nutrition,” and “Lines and Angles” to Indian students in remote areas. Another highlight of the summer: Smith and Koirala were each invited to teach a group of Ek Kadam Aur students a full one-hour remote lesson. Koirala instructed ninth and 10th graders about how to think like a mathematician. “I had a lot of fun teaching. I discussed things like: What is pi, and how do you think about pi?”

Smith chose to present an introduction to the programming language Python. “I had about 60 students, and they were all very excited about learning Python. They had never had someone with expertise in programming,” Smith says. “It was very fast, but I’m glad I was there to make them at least excited about the possibility of learning more.”

Experiencing the culture from afar

In the absence of international travel, MIT-India organized numerous opportunities to help interns learn about their host country’s culture at home. While Koirala was fairly familiar with Indian culture from his time living in Nepal, much of the information was new to Smith. She took twice-weekly Hindi language courses taught by Ek Kadam Aur’s Program Manager Sneha Harsh. The course began midsummer and lasted through October.

Both Koirala and Smith enjoyed MIT-India’s remote day-long orientation programming, which provided an overview of Indian art, food, and media. In previous years, the orientation was conducted in person. “These are things that I wouldn’t have experienced directly through this internship while it was remote, but I think are useful to know for context,” Smith said. Smith said she now hopes to visit India once it is safe to do so, potentially through a future MISTI opportunity.

Nureen Das, MIT-India program manager, said that all of the MIT India students met every few weeks for virtual check-ins with program staff. In these sessions, staff discussed with students how to prepare a quiet remote workspace, and how to excel in cross-cultural, virtual communication.

Before the pandemic, the MIT-India office didn’t schedule regular group check-ins. However, these meetings proved successful enough that the office hopes to continue them even once international travel has resumed.

“During those sessions, we asked people to just reflect a little bit on what they were learning,” Das says. “We weren’t sure if students would want to meet as often as we did. But from our experience, it turns out that they did really enjoy these meetings.”

MISTI is continuing to offer remote internships across the world during January’s Independent Activities Period, and the spring and summer semesters. Pending changes to MIT’s travel policy, some programs could potentially occur in person.

“The value of engaging with somebody globally, even in a remote setting, still remains very high,” Das says. “We all work in global teams more often than not now.”