Q&A with Admir Masic, Associate Professor and Faculty Founder of the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT)

MITili Staff

Professor Masic’s research focuses on the science-enabled engineering of sustainable construction materials for large-scale infrastructure innovation. His research group combines principles of bioinspired and archeological materials science with multi-scale chemical and physical characterization approaches to inform the design of sustainable materials for construction, energy, and the environment.

Professor Masic is also the faculty founder of the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), an institute-wide effort to develop global education programs that target the needs of underserved communities, including refugees, migrants and economically disadvantaged populations. ReACT is a recent recipient of a MITili education effectiveness grant for their research on comparative studies between students choosing internships versus self-guided experiential projects within their program. You can learn more about their research here

What initially drew you to working to expand education programs to underserved communities? 

When it comes to underserved communities, a big challenge is the mismatch between the type of jobs that are requested and the educational pathways that are available. Even in very well-served communities, we find a mismatch between traditional education and jobs that are out there and employers’ needs. The problem gets extremely emphasized for people from underserved communities that are not even able to access the traditional way of education. Even in admissions for universities and programs, there are barriers. And the question is, how can we bring talented individuals from underserved communities to be competitive in a modern job market?

Our goal with ReACT is to try to get the best of MIT’s digital learning and unconventional education pathways into a program that serves refugees, who represent probably the most extreme case of underserved communities.

How much of an impact does building a network of like-minded learners have on the success of a learning program? 

I made a drawing sometime ago, where I pictured a boy with a book in a burned village looking at a picture of a window. And in this window, you can see a big moon—but if you look carefully at that object, it's not a moon, it's Earth. And so, this is how I felt when I was a refugee. I was learning in a world that was not the same world that others were in. You're living in completely parallel worlds as a refugee. With ReACT we thought about how to bridge this immense gap.

Our idea was to have a local structure that supports our ReACT students where they live—where they can come together, connect, organize events, have in person peer-to-peer interactions, and so on. It’s important for learners to have this network of support to feel like they are not learning in a completely separate world. 

What do underserved learners need most? Is it technology, is it access to well-trained educators? What have you seen in your work that has had an impact at a scalable level?  

ReACT combines four components. One is, of course, open courses. But on top of that, we add three additional aspects of unconventional pathways. One is skills workshops like MIT Bootcamps where students learn about entrepreneurship and develop entrepreneurial skills. When we initially launched, this was in person in Jordan, but during COVID, it turned into an online eleven weeks program. As a result, we can now deliver it everywhere and students go from an idea to a pitch at the end of the bootcamp. 

And another important component is experiential learning through paid internships and projects. So internships are, we believe, an important kind of test—it's an opportunity to bridge that gap between education and employment. We facilitate the bridging of that gap by introducing refugees into the workforce, where they can understand what are the demands, what is their skill level and also what is required for them to then be competitive in the job market.

The last is networks - who you know in this world matters so connecting learners to MIT networks where they live and virtually, through our mentorship program and events is critical.

An important effect is the fact that eventually these learners are indeed seen as an extremely talented workforce—potential workforce—and they get the jobs. The recent statistics are quite incredible—77% of students get jobs after completing the program. Imagine the impact if we can maintain this percentage and go from 150 to 500,000 learners.

We combined these four components into a one-year computer and data science certificate program. And that model turned out to be extremely successful—not only successful in terms of students having opportunities to take courses like 6.0001 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python, but also in boosting their confidence. ReACT learners are scoring A’s in courses that are offered at MIT, which is not an easy task. 

Because of that, next year, emerging from ReACT’s proven model, MIT Open Learning is launching a more expansive program with MIT Nurturing Emerging Talent (NET), a broader initiative with scaleable educational programs designed to meet the needs of learners from historically marginalized and underrepresented communities. The Certificate in Computer Data Science Program, as part of MIT NET, will integrate the MIT ReACT cohort into a larger community of learners in a global online program. Leveraging its partnership with MIT NET, MIT ReACT will continue its work in developing, researching, and sharing best practice in refugee education and workforce development to support outcomes for these refugee and displaced communities. 

Tell us a little about your research comparing internships and self-guided experiential projects as education vehicles.

We realized that many students are maybe not interested in getting a coding job. Maybe they are interested in developing a company or maybe they're interested in academia. So, the point here is, what is this experiential learning component of these unconventional educational pathways? What should the last component look like? That is an interesting avenue of research. Is it a capstone project? Is it working for a company? Is it writing a business plan?

The key question is, whether to keep pursuing internships with companies, or are there other opportunities and solutions that might work better? We're working to improve the ReACT model with this research.

What is your favorite thing about MIT?

There are many things that I love about MIT. One is definitely students, including ReACT learners. We are privileged to attract beautiful minds. And being surrounded by beautiful minds is the best thing that can happen to you. That's something I experience everyday.