Chris Colombo, Dean for Student Life

There’s a saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. If that’s true, there’s a poem going on at MIT right now.

W1 First Floor Plan

W1 First Floor Plan

The first line happened nearly a century ago when MIT planned its shift across the river from Boston to Cambridge. In 1912, George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, made the move possible with a $2.5 million donation to fund the construction of the main academic complex.

It was a marvelous, historic gift—but Eastman declined to take public credit for it. Instead, because Eastman insisted on anonymity, MIT President Richard Maclaurin identified the donor only as “Smith” or “Mr. Smith.”

Not even the members of the Corporation knew the source of the millions. For years, no one was in on the secret except President Maclaurin, his wife, and his secretary.

Indeed, Mr. Smith was the subject of national speculation. According to a 1932 article in The Tech, two other New York millionaires, each of whom suspected the other, had a dinner in which they cagily danced around the issue, “but separated without having discovered any secrets and with enlarged respect for the bluffing power of each other.”

And the need for secrecy created awkward moments for President Maclaurin. In 1916, an ambassador from MIT boarded a train to upstate New York to ask Eastman for money to support the Department of Chemistry. An embarrassed Maclaurin sent a hasty note. “I have just heard by accident that Mr. A. D. Little, a member of the Corporation of the Institute, is going to Rochester today … I could not dissuade him from his project without revealing your identity as a benefactor,” he wrote to Eastman.

Eastman did meet with Little and agreed to donate $300,000 although, perhaps to obscure his role as Mr. Smith, he made the gift public. Ultimately, Eastman gave substantial sums of his fortune to higher education, with the University of Rochester as the largest benefactor. MIT received nearly $20 million—most of it anonymously as Mr. Smith.

So why is history rhyming at MIT? Because similarly modest donors continue to shape our campus today.

The grande dame of the dormitory system, Old Ashdown House, presides over the gateway to MIT at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Memorial Drive. We have a new Ashdown House now: NW35, which houses graduate students in the northwest corner of campus.

W1, as we now call the majestic residence, has been gutted and is in the midst of a complete renovation. When the financial crisis threatened to bring work to a halt two years ago, anonymous gifts ensured that the project moved forward. To date, unnamed benefactors have given $20 million—crucial funding at a critical moment.

Eastman’s generosity laid the foundation for MIT’s academic buildings at the start of the last century. We may not know the identities of the current set of “Smiths,” but we can be certain that they are helping to set the cornerstone for residential life for the next century.

Whoever they are, every Mr. or Ms. Smith has our thanks.

MIT has a photogenic campus, what with Stata, the Dome, and the Charles. Today, however, Slice wants to feature an image from campus that is unique, not just in subject matter but also in technique. Several years ago photographer Greg Peverill-Conti captured this shot of an administrative building at MIT that was being torn down. He recently went back and reprocessed it, using a tilt-shift effect.

Peverill-Conti says he’s hoping to produce a series of tilt-shifted MIT photos. You can try out the technique yourself, using either Photoshop, an iPhone app, or a good old (expensive) tilt-shift lens.

If you want to try the Photoshop route, check out this tutorial on tilt-shift photography.

A university’s Web page is an institution’s new front door since many prospective students virtually visit colleges these days and alumni are scattered worldwide. Good thing MIT is on top of that. In fact, MIT’s Web site has just been named the top university Web site by 4 International Colleges and Universities, which bills itself as an online directory of accredited, four-year institutions around the world.

A New York Times article wrote: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was deemed No. 1 in Web popularity, followed by Stanford University, Harvard, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Inquiring minds at MIT wanted to know just what was the criteria? 4ICU’s response: “The algorythm is based on three web metrics. Page rank of the home page (i.e., Alexa Traffic Rank of the entire site, and number of inbound links (Yahoo!) pointing to the entire site pages.”

In fact, OpenCourseWare Executive Director Cecilia d’Oliveira says MIT has been ranked #1 for several years by a Spanish research group’s Webometrics Ranking of World Universities. That ranking is based on global performance and visibility of the universities with points given for criteria ranging from Nobel prizes to highly cited researchers to size of the site.  The MIT Web site has well over one million pages!

Perhaps it was the Mystery Hunt-like resourcefulness required or researchers applying their social media savvy or how they worked the money, but when the federal agency that founded the Internet launched the red balloon challenge last weekend, MIT won the prize—and fast.

Balloon locations courtesy DARPA.

Balloon locations courtesy DARPA.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, set up a contest challenging some 4,300 teams to locate 10 red weather balloons scattered across the U.S. on Dec. 5. DARPA, which wanted a better understanding of how information is disseminated through social networks, asked the teams to establish viral networks of spotters.

Late Saturday, DARPA announced an MIT team was the first to locate all the balloons and won the $40,000 first prize—in just eight hours and 56 minutes.

The MIT group, a small team at the MIT Media Laboratory Human Dynamics Group led by physicist Riley Crane, a post doc, won by enlisting the help of more than 4,000  spotters reporting via Facebook and Twitter. Their invitation to participate offered to share the money with accurate spotters and the charities of their choice—as well as people in their social networks.

“We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on…,” MIT noted on its Red Balloon Challenge Recruitment web page.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform an experiment at a massive scale,” he told the New York Times.

Chris Colombo, Dean for Student Life

I am MIT’s Dean for Student Life, not a writer. But when the Alumni Association asked me to be a regular contributor to this blog—today is my first post—I had an atypical type of writer’s block.

I wasn’t worried about being unable to write. Rather, there was too much to write about. How could I choose a subject from all the astonishing, inspiring, and unique things that happen every day in the Division of Student Life ?

After just over a year here, I realize it’s a problem that’s not likely to go away. So my goal is to share with you, over time, as many great stories as I can from the MIT community. First up: the Hobby Shop.

When I arrived at the Institute, I was tickled to learn that my division was home to an Omax Jet Machining Center, an Oscillating Drum Sander, and two Bridgeport Vertical Milling Machines, among other equipment. They’re just not the sorts of things most university deans have under their purview. The Hobby Shop is certainly an unusual resource in higher education—and by any standard it is having an unusually remarkable year:

Hobby Shop Engagement. Photo courtesy Kate McElwee

Hobby Shop Engagement. Photo courtesy Kate McElwee

The Hobby Shop is a special place, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Theis Clarke SM ’04, PhD ’08 and Catherine Lee, who works in the MIT investment management office. Theis and Catherine were in the basement of W31 last week with a photographer to take their engagement photos because the Hobby Shop is where they met. At a chisel mortiser.

They’ll be married next summer right around the time of the furniture conference. We wish them well, even though we know we don’t have to: things made in the Hobby Shop are built to last.

The MIT Museum is holding a virtual town meeting to get help selecting the 150 objects that will be featured in an exhibit celebrating MIT’s 150th anniversary in January 2011.  Some 350 objects have been nominated but it’s not too late to slip in your own best idea about what represents MIT ingenuity, wit, and talent – or add a story about one of the objects.

The class of 2011’s Brass Rat ring will be exhibited.

The Class of 2011’s Brass Rat ring will be exhibited.

As of Nov. 9, the Baker House Piano Drop was leading the early vote. [Nov. 10  update: Hacking has broken into the early morning lead–but Museum staff realized it was because the poll was hacked!; by noon Baker had retaken the lead.]  Of course that does not exactly spell doom for the rest of the objects since 150 items actually will go on view in the MIT 150 Exhibition.

See the real-time voting results.

You can review and vote for up to 10 items, which range from stalwarts like Great Dome photos to an amazing waterfall hack from last year.

MIT Museum staff will make the final curatorial decisions, but this popular vote will weigh heavily in their choices, says Deborah Douglas, MIT Museum curator of science and technology.

Voting for the MIT 150 is open to all. The online voting closes January 1, although stories may be added continually on the website. By doing so, “the MIT Museum hopes to build an open repository of artifacts and stories that is as rich and deep as any other library or archive here on campus,” says Douglas.

Conducting research with faculty may be a given for current MIT undergraduates, but it was  revolutionary  when it was introduced at MIT 40 years ago. Today 85 percent of graduating seniors have participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The concept permeates MIT life and has been widely adopted throughout the U.S.

Folkers Rojas ′08 has participated in seven UROP projects. Photo: Len Rubenstein, Spectrum

Folkers Rojas ’08 has participated in seven UROP projects. Photo: Len Rubenstein, Spectrum

A symposium and a UROP 40th Anniversary Website honors the event. Birthday tributes included a Technology Review story, “The Soul of MIT,” that notes that 45 MIT faculty members, former UROP students themselves, are now mentoring today’s undergraduates. “UROP is not just an experience,” says Edward Boyden ’99, MEng ’99, an assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences. “It’s a way to have immediate impact on the lives of millions of people. I see UROP as the soul of MIT.”

Watch a short video about the late MIT Professor Margaret MacVicar ’64, ScD ’67, a legendary educator who founded UROP.

History Highlights

  • 1987: Jennifer Wiseman ’87 discovers the Comet Wiseman-Skiff as a UROP student working with EAPS Professor Jim Elliot ’65, SM ’65, an active UROP mentor.
  • 2000: In April, John M. Grunsfeld ’80, a former UROP student turned NASA astronaut, returns to discuss his space shuttle mission and presents UROP memorabilia he took into space.
  • 2008: The PBS series Design Squad wins the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. MIT community members, including several UROP students, helped develop this series.

For more, read profiles of six UROP students in the summer 2009 issue of Spectrum.

See video profiles on the Inventing Our Future Web site.

See video profiles on the diversity Web site.

Compare MIT’s entering class in 1868 and 2009. The 19th century class was all male, Caucasian, and U.S. born. The 21st century class was 55 percent male, 36 percent Causasian, and 8 percent international. Those snapshots, offered on a new diversity Web site called Inventing Our Future, illustrate MIT’s commitment to the core value of meritocracy.

Inventing Our Future is a repository of valuable data ranging from reports on diversity, gender equity, and faculty composition to diversity statistics of students, faculty, and staff and a growing blog.

Video profiles introduce campus leaders describing challenges and opportunities of living in a diverse community. “This is a place that values you for what you do, not who you are,” says Professor Tom Kochan, faculty chair. In another profile, Alex Hamilton Chan, president of the Graduate Student Council, which has established a task force on diversity, says he hopes this group can “give the community a better concept of how we can harness the value of diversity.”

You can also watch the Web cast of the Diversity Leadership Congress, convened by President Susan Hockfield in November 2008. She introduced the congress with this aspiration: “And while there are a myriad of ways in which we differ, we come together today to engage in a deep conversation about what we share, about what we value, and about how we create a community that reaches out to and welcomes and rewards the very best talent wherever that talent may come from. We are here to explore how we can cultivate a culture where everyone feels valued, included, and at ease; a culture that brings out the best in each of us.”

In President Barack Obama’s address on American leadership in clean energy Oct. 23 at MIT, he challenged the nation to lead the world in developing and capitalizing on renewable energy. You can watch it and add your comments here on Slice.

“Energy supplies are growing scarcer and energy demands are grown larger and rising energy use imperils  the planet,” Obama told the MIT audience. “The world is engaged in peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century….The nation that wins this competition will lead the global economy—and I want America to be that nation.”

President Barack Obama; flickr, via creative commons

President Barack Obama; flickr, via creative commons

Naturally the campus was in a flurry—with secret service and parking chaos and a tremendous excitement about the presidential visit. However, this not the first time Obama has recognized MIT’s energy leadership. President Susan Hockfield stood alongside the President at a March press conference in DC where he announced stimulus bill funding for new energy technology and energy efficiency of $39 billion overall, including $6.5 billion for R&D.

MIT, of course, is a hotbed of energy research these days. Research and education focused through the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) is revolutionizing the generation, storage, and use of energy, from technologies that turn windows into highly efficient, cost-effective solar cells to quantum dot light bulbs with five times the efficiency of incandescent ones. MIT is also framing the national energy debate with seminal reports to Congress on the future of coal, geothermal, and nuclear power, as well as cap-and-trade policy. And the MIT Energy Conference – launched and run by the 1,700 members of our student-led Energy Club – ranks as one of the nation’s premier energy events.

View a slideshow of images shot on campus during the morning of Obama’s talk:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Obama speaks at MIT 10/23/09“, posted with vodpod

Lots of MIT fingers are tweeting news from campus these days. In fact, there is a growing list of more than 50 Twitter pages hailing from MIT, thanks to the compilation efforts of Sloan online guru Sean Brown. Here is a sample:

MIT150 Exhbit—see rolling comments on the objects under consideration for the 150th celebration show in 2011.

Aero/Astro—get flight, space, and humans-in-orbit news.

Alumni Association—daily bits of alumni and Institute news.mitaa twitter page

Comparative Media Studies – glimpses of cutting-edge media.

Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation—read about inventions and innovators.

Engineering Systems Division—faculty news about big-picture engineering.

Gambit Game Lab—updates on online game work from the Singapore-MIT project.

Media Lab—tips from new media medicine to Patti Maes interviews.

News Office—the latest from the official Institute source.

Sloan Alumni—updates on research and alumni news.

Sloan Executive Education—management tips, faculty news, webcasts

Sloan Management Review—management tips from across the media.

MIT TechTV—what’s new on the campus tube.

Technology Review—multiple daily tweets about the future of technology.