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MIT Better World

Leeban Morgan

By Mark Sullivan

“Definitely the students. It was just such a great experience connecting with them,” says the electrical engineering and computer science major from Acton, Massachusetts. Morgan participated in a Global Teaching Lab in the city of Mossoró through the MIT-Brazil Program in January 2023.

Morgan and other MIT students formed a teaching team that guided 34 Brazilian high schoolers through designing and building a remote-controlled vehicle to explore the semiarid landscape of northeastern Brazil. “I barely knew any Portuguese,” says Morgan. “But despite the language barrier, we were still laughing, making jokes with each other, and sharing our common interests. It was mad fun talking with them and teaching them.”

The MIT-Brazil Program matches MIT students with projects in South America’s largest country through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). MISTI Brazil provides opportunities for students to participate in MIT Global Teaching Labs and internships in industry and university research labs.

Recently, Brazilian industrialist Henri Slezynger ’57, SM ’58, an advocate of strengthened ties between his alma mater and his homeland, pledged to endow the MIT-Brazil Program, which will be renamed in his honor. Slezynger cited the impact of the Global Teaching Labs as a motivating factor behind his gift.

Gaining hands-on experience building a Mars-style rover

Sixteen MIT undergraduate and graduate students visited Brazil for three weeks in January 2023 to take part in a pair of Global Teaching Labs. Morgan was one of eight from MIT who participated in the Semiarid Rover Build-a-thon, a collaboration between MISTI Brazil and Brazil’s Federal Rural University of the Semi-Arid Region, with funding from the US Embassy in Brazil and the US Consul General in Recife.

The project gave public high school students hands-on experience building a robotic vehicle to explore the shrubland and thorn forest of the Caatinga region of northeastern Brazil. “The rover vehicle was similar to the one NASA sent out to Mars,” Morgan says. “It had six wheels, and our version had a screen that could display battery life and traits of the area it’s in, such as the temperature and moisture level.”

Morgan was part of the project’s computer science team, helping the students learn how to code.

“The original software sent from NASA didn’t really work with the motors we were using for the rover, so we had to make a lot of changes,” he says. “We worked with the students on coding software to make the rover go forwards, backwards, and to the side. That was a lot of fun.”

Students assigned to a pair of mechanical teams had the most-labor intensive jobs, Morgan notes, since they had to 3-D-print a lot of the parts. “To assemble the rover, we had to get the right motors. In northern Brazil, it was hard to get a lot of the parts we needed, and that was definitely a challenge,” Morgan says. “The mechanical teams were spending 12 hours a day working it out, trial and error, trying to get it done.

One experience stands out to him the most. “There was a final stretch to finish the rover because we didn’t have a lot of time. One of the students independently made last-minute changes to the code that controlled the robot’s movement so it would be compatible with the new motors we had. I was really impressed by the students’ progress and speed,” he says.

Laying the groundwork for a teaching career

A son of Somali immigrants whose father, James Morgan PhD ’00, also studied electrical engineering at MIT, Morgan aspires to a career as a college professor.

“The Global Teaching Lab really pushed me to my limits,” he says. “I’ve taught people from Somalia before, which wasn’t as hard because I know a bit of the language, but the Portuguese language barrier was much harder—and also something that made it really cool.”

The experience made Morgan realize how much he loves teaching. “It gave me more motivation for being a professor later on in my life,” he says. “For the students in Brazil, this was a life-changing opportunity. That my team and I were able to provide it to them meant a lot.”