Chris Colombo, Dean of Student Life

I just learned something really important about MIT students, and I had to leave the campus to find it out. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I left Cambridge—I was at a Salvation Army conference center in Sharon, Massachusetts—as it was that I turned off my Blackberry, gathered together with students, administrators, faculty, and alumni, and I listened. For six days.

Leadershape students begin a yearlong experience.

Leadershape students begin a yearlong experience.

I was at a program called LeaderShape with 61 undergraduates. The goal of the program is for students to develop leadership skills and competencies. We want them to focus on the task at hand, so the Division of Student Life covers all their expenses, including transportation, food, and rooms. And the students are joined each year a dozen staff and faculty; this year the group included Institute Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander; Tracy Purinton of the MIT Leadership Center; and Alan Siegel, the chief of Mental Health Services from MIT Medical.

It may sound a little retreat-ish, if you know what I mean, but this was different than I expected—and much more intense.

We broke into five clusters, each led by two facilitators. Then, each group was asked to develop a community, creating visions for the future, constructing a blueprint for each of the student’s visions, understanding ideas like the value of one and the power of all and leading with integrity. The official schedule called for 15-hour days, starting at 7:30 a.m. with formal exercises until 10 p.m., but in true MIT fashion many of the students continued the conversation until the early morning.

I was amazed at how hard the students worked, their creativity and their passion. We know this about MIT students, but I was also astonished to hear them open up, to see how much pressure they put on themselves to succeed, and to take in how important it is for them to make a difference. It was powerfully moving—and I realized how much it matters that they feel connected to each other, to alumni, and to those of us who help shape their time at MIT.

Over six days and hours and hours of talking and listening and sharing, we bonded. When I got back to campus, I was exhausted—not by the time, but by the depth of the experience. Someone has created a listserve and email messages have been going back and forth. And I can’t step into the Infinite Corridor now without hearing a student call my name to say hello.

I’ll go again. It will be just as intense and just as exhausting and just as important that I learn these things all over again.

Academic Earth is one of the top 50 Web sites, according to Time magazine. In fact, they tagged the online learning site as #9 and noted MIT’s pioneering involvement in sharing knowledge with the public for free:

Academic Earth web site“The latest campus revolutionaries are the so-called edupunks—and their mission is to break up the ivory tower so everyone can pile into the classroom. MIT was the first university to heed the edupunk call: it started posting syllabi, course notes, and videotaped lectures on back in 2001. Harvard, Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford soon followed suit.…Now Academic Earth aggregates all this material so you can audit classes from the comfort of your computer. “

Of course, MIT is all over the place. The cluster of videos on Media, Education, and the Marketplace includes the an introduction by MIT Linguistics Professor Shigeru Miyagawa and talks such as the Next Big Thing: Video Internet by Robert Metcalfe ’68; Educational Uses of Technology by Steven Lerman ’72, SM ’73, PhD ’75; OCW Executive Director Anne Margulies on using  interactive media in education; and MIT Professor John Belcher on teaching physics using multimedia.

So, in the spirit of IAP, you might want to check out Academic Earth. Anyone for the Morality of Murder by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, the New Testament as History by Yale Professor Dale B. Martin, or the Blue Planet Oceanography series by UCLA Professor Edwin Schauble? Enjoy!

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.

Quizlet inventor Andrew Sutherland '13

Quizlet inventor Andrew Sutherland '12

When 15-year-old Andrew Sutherland was preparing for a French vocabulary test, it took hours of his time and his dad’s, who was testing and retesting him on more than 100 words. There had to be a better way thought Sutherland, now an  MIT sophomore from Albany, California. And he came up with it—a software program that lets you enter words and definitions, test yourself, and then it retests you on any weak spots. An article in the summer issue of Spectrum calls Sutherland’s discovery a “lightning fast way to memorize vocabulary words.”

Sutherland launched the Web site to share his innovation. Now you can set up your own customized flashcard sets or tap into quizzes created by others on the Web site for free. Existing quizzes focus on languages, math and science, history, literature, medicine, and many other fields. You will also find links to standardized tests for SAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.

Recently Sutherland founded Brainflare, a company designed to turn a great idea into a profitable business. The five employees include Sutherland’s father, who is CFO and secretary. A member of the Albany High School Science Bowl, which won fourth place in the national championships, attests, “Quizlet cut my studying time in half.” Hmmm…this might be useful to Sutherland’s classmates.

Spectrum articles also report on Magnificent Desolation, a new book by astronaut Buzz Aldrin PhD ’63; efforts to save coral reefs by Assistant Professor Janelle Thompson PhD ’05; why real estate investor Ed Linde ’62 is giving $25 million to MIT for undergraduate financial aid; and more.


Documenting a baby's journey to language.

When Deb Roy SM ’95, PhD ’99 became a dad in 2006, he did more than vow to document his son’s life. The Media Lab associate professor started an academic project to record his baby’s waking hours and use this data to illuminate the mystery of how humans naturally acquire language. This effort, the Human Speechome Project (speech + home), was designed to yield some 400,000 hours of audio and video data over three years.

The logistics were impressive. He installed 11 overhead, omni-directional fisheye video cameras and 14 ceiling-mounted microphones that could record all activity in his home—and the cameras rolled. They recorded an average of 12-14 hours a day, generating about 300 gigabytes per day, with some provisions for privacy.

Fast forward three years. The BBC recently reported Roy’s progress, including audio and video samples. You can hear the baby learn to say “water” and see a software visualization of parent-child interactions. Although he is still assessing data, he has some initial results including identifying what he calls “word births,” when a baby first begins to use a word.

Roy, who directs the Media Lab’s Cognitive Machines group and Center for Future Banking, is exploring new uses for hardware and software tools—such as a video-analysis algorithm—developed to record, view, and assess the data. A Speechome Recorder, which looks like a floor lamp and contains an overhead microphone and camera, will soon be deployed in pilot studies of children with autism.

Did you know that the 25% of India’s population with the highest IQs…is GREATER than the total population of the United States.

Wondering what else you don’t know? Watch this video and see if the new information changes how you view the world.

This video blew up on Digg last week and has been appearing on blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds ever since. It was created by Karl Fisch, Scott McLood, and Jeff Bronman.

In January 2009 a group of MIT alums launched a nationwide SAT vocab video contest on where they asked people to create short videos that would help students learn SAT words. In a few short months they received over 700 submissions!

Take a look at some of the entries and vote for the one you like best.  BrainyFlix is  offering $600 in prize money to the video that receives the most number of votes. $200 of the payout will go to the maker(s) of the video and $400 to the class or school club of his/her choice. Voting closes April 12.

Need to double check the meaning of clandestine? Watch the video.

Read the BrainyFlix blog.

I got turned on to the TED Conferences a few years ago, and ever since then I’ve been mildly addicted to watching TED videos online. (Confession: I’ve whirled away hours on ellipticals at the gym while watching Maira Kalman on my iPod. Gulp.)

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that one of the most popular presentations at this year’s annual conference was done by David Merrill SM ’04, a grad student at MIT’s Media Lab, who works on Siftables—little cookie-sized computers that can sense each other, sense their motion, and they have a screen and a wireless radio.

In the presentation, Merrill showed the audience how Siftables containing paint buckets could pour “paint” into another Siftable—turning it all different colors. He made them into single numbers, placed them in a line with addition and equal sign Siftables, and aptly demonstrated that they could do math. These little computers that look like blocks are smart. Really smart.

Don’t believe me? Watch this video:

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Contemporary illustrations of Darwin's commentary.

Contemporary illustration of Darwin's commentary.

That’s a question to ponder as naturalist Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday draws near on Feb. 12. And it was raised at a January MIT Darwin Bicentennial Symposium that took a multi-disciplinary sniff at Darwin’s theories on natural selection. The goal? A better understanding of how the Earth will be shaped in the future by the organisms of today.

Another juicy question: “If humans evolved from primates, why aren’t we continuing to evolve?” (We aren’t???) One researcher stuck up for the collective us, however, citing the ability to digest cow’s milk, developed in a speedy 10,000 years with the domestication of cattle. Consuming a ready protein source and weaning babies earlier did confer an evolutionary advantage.

So have a sip of milk and digest other observations about Darwin’s impact on the bicentennial site and in a cluster of New York Times articles.