Andrea Henshall, a retired Air Force major and currently a PhD student at MIT, has completed seven combat tours, two years of aerial circus performances, and three college degrees (so far). But at every step of his journey, all paths seemed to point to MIT.
Currently working on her doctorate with an MIT master’s degree already in her toolbox, she is quick to credit her academic success to MIT’s open educational resources. “I kept coming back to the open source learning produced by MIT,” she says. “MIT leads educational philanthropy when it comes to high-quality, free sources of learning.” To date, Henshall recommends MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and MITx courses to students and fellow veterans leaving the service.
A love of flying and a drive to excel
Henshall first discovered OCW while pursuing her master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Transitioning from an applied engineering program at the United States Air Force Academy to a more theoretical program proved a challenge for Henshall, and her first-semester grades put her on academic probation. During the freelance period, she took Professor Gilbert Strang’s Linear Algebra lessons on OCW, which included both videos and assignments. Henshall found Strang very engaging and easy to learn and found it useful to work on homework when they had the solutions available. She was able to improve her grades the following semester, and by the end of her program she was getting all the A’s. Henshall says, “OpenCourseWare really saved me. I was afraid that I would not be able to complete my master’s degree.
Ever since Henshall learned the term “astronautical engineer” in fourth grade, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. This early love of outer space and building things led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering and the air force. There, she served as her squadron’s research and development officer, instructor pilot, and financial manager. But a non-combat injury forced her to medically retire from her flying career. “I was not doing well physically and it was impossible for me to be hired as a pilot outside the Air Force.” After a brief detour as a part-time aerial circus artist, she decided to go back to school.
Learn to learn
Working outside of academia for eight years proved to be a difficult transition. Henshall says, “I had to translate the work I had done in the military into something relevant for a college application, and the language they were looking for was very different from what I was used to. She thought acquiring more recent academic work might help improve her candidacy. She attended Auburn University for her second master’s degree (this time in computer science and software engineering) and started a Ph.D. Again, she turned to MIT OCW to complete her education.
Henshall says: “I remembered very well how much it helped me in 2005, so of course that’s where I was going to start. Then I noticed that OCW was related to MITx, which offered more interactive quizzes. The OCW platform had also become more robust since she first used it. “At the time, it was new, there wasn’t necessarily a standard,” she says. More than 10 years later, she found that most courses had more material, videos, and notes that were closer to an MIT course experience. These additional open educational resources gave Henshall an extra edge in completing a 21-month program in 12 months with a 4.0 GPA. Her supervisor told her she had the best thesis defense he had seen in 25 years.
In 2019, Henshall’s success helped her gain acceptance into MIT’s PhD program in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Autonomy and Embedded Robotics Accelerated (AERA) lab in the Information Systems and Decision (LIDS), with a Lester Durand Gardner Fellowship. . She focuses on control systems with a minor in quantum information. She says, “I am literally living my dream. I’m in my dream school with my dream counselor. Working with Professor Sertac Karaman at LIDS, Henshall plans to write his thesis on agent-based reinforcement learning. But its relationship with online learning is far from over; again she turned to OCW and MITx resources for the foundation to succeed in topics such as controls, machine learning, quantum mechanics, and quantum computing.
When the pandemic hit the East Coast, Henshall was only nine months into her doctoral program at MIT. The pivot to online learning has made it difficult to continue building relationships with classmates. But what was a new lesson experience for many learners during the pandemic felt very familiar to Henshall. “I had a head start because I already knew how to learn through pre-recorded videos on a computer instead of a three-dimensional human standing in front of a blackboard. I had already learned how to learn.
A Lifetime Service Commitment
Henshall plans to return to the Department of Defense or related industries. Currently, she is working collaboratively on two major projects related to her doctoral thesis and her career path after completing the program. The first project is an AI acceleration program through the Air Force. His work with unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) uses a small quadcopter to autonomously and quickly search for a building using reinforcement learning. The primary intended use is search and rescue. The second project involves research on multi-agent reinforcement learning and orientation. Although they are also intended for search and rescue, they could also be used for various non-emergency inspection purposes.
Henshall is eager to share open educational resources. At Auburn, she shared OCW materials with her classmates, and now she uses them with the students she teaches. She is also committed to sharing her knowledge and resources with her military colleagues and is an active member of several veterans organizations. With the Warrior-Scholar Project, she answers questions from enlisted people entering undergraduate programs, ranging from “What’s the parking lot like?” to “How did you prepare for school?” As the school’s service ambassador, she’s responsible for mentoring veterans leaving the military who want to apply for graduate school, typically hopefuls at MIT or other competitive schools. She is able to leverage her own app experience to help others identify the main message their app should communicate and refine the language to sound less like a military dissertation and more like the “academic language” that it is. they will meet in the future.
Henshall says, “My trajectory would be so different if MITx and OCW didn’t exist, and I think that’s true for thousands of other students. So many other institutions have copied the model, but MIT was the first and is still the best.