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.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

Hacks, clever student stunts that enliven campus life and do no harm, are an MIT tradition. Now the MIT Press and the MIT Museum are revising Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT in time for the pending 150th Institute anniversary in 2011. They need new material—and they are hoping that alumni will come forward to share stories and information.

The deadline looms! In fact, writer Eric Bender needs to hear from you by Friday, March 26. See ways to contact him below—and you can remain anonymous.

“In particular, I’m writing an essay about hacks from 2001 to today,” Bender says. “I’d love to hear from alums who have special knowledge of hacks in that period.”

Bender is particularly interested in these hacks:

  • Caltech cannon abduction
  • Apollo lunar module on the Dome
  • Solar-powered subway on the Dome
  • “In case of zombie attack, break glass”
  • Board games hack
  • Fire truck on the Dome (5th anniversary of 9/11)
  • Marriage proposal banner drop
  • Yellow cranks
  • Wright Flyer on the Dome
  • One Ring to Rule the Dome

Ready to share a tale or two?  You can email Bender with a comment or set up a time to chat at ebender@mit.edu. Or leave voicemail at his day job, 617-732-2418.

Meanwhile feel free to visit Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People: the MIT Gallery of Hacks.

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The PBS Frontline series, “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier,” is using MIT students as a starting point to understand how omnipresent digital media is influencing daily life—perhaps detrimentally—in the 21st century.

The producers call MIT students “some of the most technologically savvy students in the world…digital natives.” And then they ask questions about whether this 24/7 online culture as down sides, such as limited attention spans. The professor who heads the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self thinks that might be the case:

“I teach the most brilliant students in the world,” says MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, who describes the challenges of teaching students who are surfing the Internet and texting during class. “But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things.”

Watch a 90-minute segment of Digital Nation to learn why Turkle believes that effective multitasking—even digitally facilitated— is mostly myth. What do you think?

Camp Kesem founder Carol Huang enjoys arts and crafts with a camper.

MIT Camp Kesem founder Caroline Huang enjoys arts and crafts with a camper.

Caroline Huang ’10, a brain and cognitive sciences major, is heading to Oxford next year as a Rhodes Scholar, based not only on her academic achievements but also on her work establishing an MIT branch of a summer camp for kids affected by cancer and cofounding a quirky club called Imperfect@MIT.

Camp Kesem provides a free, week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have or have had cancer. Kesem is the Hebrew word for magic; our goal at Camp Kesem is to provide these children with a magical week that allows them to escape the harsh realities of cancer,” Huang said in a GoCollege blog post. Huang, whose paternal grandparents died of cancer in close succession, wanted to provide an experience that involved fun, leadership skills, and emotional support.

The idea for imperfect@MIT came from a study that found undergraduates felt pressure to be effortlessly smart, accomplished, attractive, athletic, and popular—a phenomenon called the myth of effortless perfection. An imperfect@MIT brochure, written by students, describes how to recover from setbacks.

“This myth manifests a little differently at MIT, in that some students brag about taking the most classes and having the most work, and consider sleep deprivation a badge of honor. This lifestyle puts students at risk of burnout, especially when they are accustomed to standing out the same way they did in high school: succeeding on intelligence alone, putting minimal work into classes, concentrating on a smorgasbord of activities, and somehow achieving enviable results. I have definitely had days when I felt that the work I was doing was not getting me anywhere, but the imperfect@MIT message reminds me that it is perfectly natural to struggle sometimes—and that sometimes struggles sweeten the subsequent rewards.”

Huang is interested in careers involving health policy or psychology and plans to focus her doctoral work at Oxford will examine the ethical and policy implications of the genetic testing. Learn more about the Rhodes application process, Camp Kesem, and Imperfect@ MIT inthe GoCollege post.

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.

Guest Blogger Shan Wu, graduate student in biological engineering

I am in Beijing for five months interning with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) through the MIT-China Program. UNIDO works with various developing countries to develop more sustainable industrial practices while maintaining economic growth. My project in China will study carbon emissions standards for consumer products.

Shan Wu visiting China's Great Wall.

Shan Wu visiting China's Great Wall.

As global climate change awareness increases, consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious. From eating organic foods to recycling to purchasing responsible and green products, many of us are making deliberate life-style decisions and changes to reduce our personal carbon footprint. These changes in global spending patterns are also starting to take hold in developing countries like China. A bigger and more immediate impact, however, lies in how changing consumer sentiments in the West will affect China’s massive import and export industries, worth $1,133 and $1,428 billion dollars respectively in 2008.

Toward answering this question, one big challenge is the lack of global measurement standards for determining a product’s carbon footprint. This makes comparisons between Chinese products, Western products, and potential import and export restrictions based on environmental impacts difficult. My internship with UNIDO will be to develop recommendations for measuring product carbon emissions in China and how to apply them within the trade industry.

China, in collaboration with several frontrunner organizations in Asia and Europe, has already developed voluntary environmental certification standards for a variety of products ranging from household appliances to writing instruments. Thus, the first goal of my project is to evaluate how these standards compare to international ones as well as to determine how the standards can be expanded to include carbon emissions footprints in the certification process. The second goal of this project is to establish recommendations for what roles the environmental and carbon impacts of a product should play in China’s trade agreements with the rest of the world.

My long-term career interests are in science policy and particularly energy policy. I am extremely grateful to have this tremendous opportunity through MISTI and the MIT-China Program to be in Beijing and to work in an area immediately relevant to my career development.

Archive photo of the Baker House piano drop.

Archive photo of the annual Baker House Piano Drop.

As campus-wide preparations step up for the 150-day celebration of MIT’s 150th birthday, set for spring semester 2011, the MIT Museum is reporting the results of the popular vote for items to be displayed in the MIT 150 Exhibit, a collection of items that depict Institute life and culture.

Some of you were definitely watching and voting because when we reported it in Slice on Nov. 10, the count surged. “Hacking” had just edged past the “Baker House Piano Drop” as number one. However, a boost by Baker backers returned the piano to top ranking. And that helped secure the lead for good.

Although museum staff will make the final decision on what’s to go on view, you can view the results of the popular vote now. Here are the top five with the vote count:

  1. Baker House Piano Drop, 721
  2. Hacking, 647
  3. Glass Lab, 572
  4. Brass Rat, 487
  5. IHTFP, 437