In a recent essay, I shared my thoughts ten years after completing the MIT Challenge. This project was an attempt to learn MIT’s entire undergraduate computer science curriculum using their copious, free online materials. In that essay, I admitted my surprise that more people hadn’t taken up similar efforts.
Today, however, I’m happy to share a story of one of the exceptions. A few years ago, Diego Vera decided to take on a similar challenge, but he studied math and physics instead of computer science.
I corresponded with Diego via email to share his story. My questions are bolded, Diego’s responses are in plain text.
Interview with Diego Vera
Scott: Could you briefly introduce your project?
Diego: The basic idea behind the project was quite similar to yours.
Using mostly the MIT degree charts catalog as well as some other online resources, I tried to piece together what one would learn in a Math and Physics undergrad, excluding general education classes—purely math and physics classes.
For this project, almost all of the courses were from MIT Open Courseware. The original time constraints I gave myself were 1 year and 6 months. Still, for several reasons, such as getting in more practice, gathering more evidence, and reviewing the courses once more, I ended up finishing it in a little over 2 years 4 months.
Tell me a bit about your life situation at the time. Were you working on the project full-time? What did you do for funds?
The year COVID hit was the most transformative year of my life. I was 15 at the time. A combination of both personal circumstances along with isolation gave me so much clarity—I transformed 180 degrees. During this time, I really got into self-improvement and started working out, meditating, reading, taking cold showers etc.
I also found your MIT challenge on YouTube—which was a true game changer for me. I watched all of your videos listed in the MIT challenge. I started doing some online courses while still managing school online. I even began doing other projects, such as writing a book.
Then roughly around July 1st, 2020, I decided to piece together my own kind of challenge—this time geared towards math and physics.
I originally planned the challenge over a longer time horizon since I meant to do it alongside school. However, as I got further ahead, things took quite a turn. The school I was attending at the time dropped down a lot in terms of quality—even more than before. And given the fact there was also a big hit to my mom’s business (a business surrounding Airbnb rentals), she could no longer afford the school I was attending. Combining this with the fact that I really didn’t like the traditional path and that school would be too much of a financial burden, an international school I was going to while living Cuba, I managed to convince my mom to support me in this challenge. She, fortunately, agreed as she saw me working really hard at it.
How did you evaluate yourself and get practice? I know a lot of the upper-level classes don’t always have full materials.
Many of the beginner-level courses had an abundance of problem sets. However, it definitely was the case that several of the higher-level classes were quite difficult to do, both because of how abstract they were and also because of their lack of materials—especially problems. For these courses, I mostly tried to search through the internet and scrape together as many things as I could. Still, often times this wasn’t good enough, so unfortunately, I had to resort to other methods such as getting a collective firm grasp of the principles and proof techniques as well as an intuitive feel for the different mathematical and physical objects.
What do you feel like you can do now that you couldn’t before the project? Do you think it will be useful for you in your life/career?
There is definitely a much stronger feeling of mastery (of which there was none). More recently, towards the end of the challenge, the principles you learn from physics and math seem to apply naturally to real-life scenarios, which is quite fun. Furthermore, one of the big upsides is that learning new pieces of math and physics is now significantly easier than it was when I was starting out.
How did you study? Walk us through a typical day in the life of the project.
One of the things I found quite useful was to gather resources that spoon-fed me insight in the shortest/most compressed time possible. Although this seems obvious in hindsight, one of the things I found over and over again with the challenge was how I could spend several hours trying to learn something based off of one resource, then turn to a different resource and understand it within minutes. Spending time collecting compressed yet insightful resources, I think, can have a huge impact.
One of the things I found useful here was to get immediate practice once I knew just enough. I think this is one of the reasons project-based learning can be so powerful: you have a problem and research your way into it versus researching your way into it and then seeing what to apply. In this way, the relevance of the necessary ideas or techniques becomes apparent.
[As for the schedule] I’m not so sure how interesting this would be to people, but the schedule I’ve been following for the last 2-3 years since I made the transformation is the one below (although it has slightly changed over time the essence is the same):
- 3:50-3:55 Wake Up, Wash Face, Go to the Bathroom
- 3:55-4:00 Make Bed
- 4:00-4:20 Meditate
- 4:20-5:50 Study
- 5:50-6:00 Make Breakfast and Listen to podcast
- 6:00-7:05 Study
- 7:05-7:10 Prepare for Workout (Place Mat and put on Audiobook)
- 7:10-8:10 Workout
- 8:10-8:17 Shower and Active Recall
- 8:17-8:23 Put on Clothes and Freshen Up
- 8:23-9:50 Study
- 9:50-10:05 Nap
- 10:05-12:00 Study
- 12:00-12:25 Lunch and Listen to Podcast/Audiobook/Lectures
- 12:25-3:30 Study
- 3:30 – 3:40 Snack and Listen to Podcast/Audiobook
- 3:40-6:50 Study
- 6:50-7:00 Plan the next day
- 7:00 – 7:25 Dinner
- 7:25-8:30/8:50 Study
- 8:30/8:50 – 3:50 Sleep
How close do you think you got to the full education? Are there gaps from your project? Which topics do you feel most/least confident with?
I think that there were enough resources online (with the exception of assignments for the upper-level classes) for math and physics. I feel I got quite close to what I wanted to accomplish, learning what you typically would learn in math and physics undergrad. The exception to this would have been to incorporate more practical experiments into some of the physics courses since I think it would help you get a better grasp on the concepts.
Now, not to say that the other courses were easy by any stretch of the imagination, but these are the courses I felt I struggled with the most by a landslide. As might not be a surprise, they are specific upper-level classes. Here were the hardest ones, I felt:
- Functional Analysis
- Atomic and Optical Physics I
- Real Analysis
- Introduction to computing and programming in Python
Both Analysis courses were insanely difficult, largely due to their abstraction and especially the severe originality and thinking ahead one needs to do to solve the problems. I would often think to myself, “How the hell did someone know that was the way to go with the proof?”
Atomic physics was challenging for two reasons, I entered it thinking that the prerequisite knowledge from 8.05 and 8.06 Quantum mechanics wouldn’t be that much, and I hoped to learn them concurrently. It turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong about this as they assume knowledge from 8.05 and 8.06, as much as higher-level physics or engineering courses assume some kind of fluency in calculus and linear algebra. It was only the third time going through a large part of the lecture series that things started to sink in. Another reason why I found it difficult was the fact that the professor, although super insightful, would often take things for granted and label them trivial—this caused me to spend a lot of time trying to piece together what he was saying.
Finally the computer programming course I largely found to be difficult as I had a hard time understanding this particular professor (and switched to other resources only towards the end) along with getting used to python syntax.
What are your plans for the future?
- Self-Study projects in Math, Physics, Computer Science and Philosophy
- Start doing actual research in those fields and trying to do so via a non-traditional path
- Entrepreneurship (specifically aligned with the previous two goals)
I want to thank Diego Vera for sharing his story. If you’re interested in learning more about him or his project, you can visit his website.