Student-Driven Activities at MIT
The superb quality of our students, both graduate and undergraduate, is the number one reason given by our colleagues for choosing to teach or conduct research at MIT. Not only are MIT students in a class by themselves as scholars, they are also very energetic, ambitious, and enterprising beyond the classroom. The surprisingly large number of student-initiated and student-driven activities and teams on campus prove this. Click here for a Table of Student-Driven Activities. Not primarily initiated by the administration or faculty, nor part of the regular curriculum, these activities are generated and sustained by the students themselves.
Many of these student projects operate without significant support from the Institute. The students’ level of commitment is remarkable, but MIT can do much better in supporting them.
In this editorial, we review the range of student activities at MIT and point out where institutional support is inadequate. We then suggest four main areas of improvement that MIT should consider.
Students enter into extra-curricular activities for many reasons, but most do so primarily because they are interested in changing the world and in applying their theoretical knowledge to challenging real-world situations. In general, we can distinguish the following activities:
A number of professional societies organize yearly competitions, in order to attract young talent to their field and also to give individual schools and groups an opportunity to measure themselves against their peers. Examples of such competitions are the yearly Formula-SAE competition and the AIAA design-build-fly competition. Another example is the autonomous underwater vehicle competition. Typically in these competitions, a rule set is established and teams compete by designing, building, and operating a machine that tries either to maximize a score or to compete directly against other machines.
Challenges are more open-ended than competitions. They aim to push the technological boundaries and state-of-the-art in a certain field. Examples are DARPA’s Grand Challenge, designed to develop new autonomous vehicle navigation technology, and the NASA Centennial Challenges for the development of new exploration technologies. Challenges also involve intricate rules, but often require the development of new technologies and techniques in order to meet a more or less utopian goal. Click here for selected links to externally sponsored competitions.
These projects are designed to respond to some urgent and important societal need such as rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the teaching of school children in underserved rural areas in the developing world, among other activities. These activities are fundamentally different from competitions and challenges in that they emphasize altruistic human and social interactions rather than technology.
How Are We Doing?
An informal survey (see table) shows how active and engaged MIT’s students are in many of these areas. The table shows a (probably incomplete) list of student-driven activities at MIT.
Student teams have moved surprisingly quickly to take up President Hockfield's energy challenge, in some cases outpacing the Institute’s official initiatives. Emerging student groups focused on energy research include:
We should be proud of our students for devoting their time and energy to these important activities. But after reviewing the results of past competitions and drawing as well on our own experience as faculty advisors to such projects, we feel there is a discrepancy between MIT’s standing as the leading university for science and technology in the U.S. and our sometimes disappointing performance in some – but not all – of these events.
The Stanford Racing Team won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge in 6 hours, 53 minutes. MIT was eliminated before the final round. It is important to note, though, that the MIT student team raised about $100,000 for the competition, while the winning teams operated on multi-million dollar budgets.
The MIT Formula SAE team was formed in 2001 and competed for the first time in 2003, achieving the following rankings: 97th in 2003, 41st in 2004, 34th in 2005, and 63rd in 2006. On the design side, the students have been quite successful, creating many inventive engine designs; however, they have not yet been able to crack the top 25. This year, for example, extensive testing would have revealed a developing failure in a secondary system which eventually knocked them out of competition.
Our Solar Electric Vehicle Team finished third in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge and sixth in the 2005 World Solar Challenge.
Still more impressive, the ORCA team has a fantastic record since its first competition in 1998, including five first-place victories.
Current Level of Support
Student-driven projects offer an opportunity for our students to learn and practice skills that would be difficult, if not impossible, to acquire in the classroom. Currently the Edgerton Center is the centerpiece of MIT’s support of student initiatives. The Center is currently the home for 23 clubs and teams, all of which receive administrative and advisor support through part-time efforts of three staff members. The total effort is about 1.5 full-time equivalents. The Edgerton Center, with help from the Offices of the Provost and the President, provides roughly $100,000 in financial support, along with some limited laboratory space at two locations on campus. The teams also do some external fundraising on the order of $300k to $500k per year, which is an important part of their learning experience.
Steve Banzaert of the Edgerton Center insists that victory is secondary; what’s important is that our students are learning. That is certainly a valid viewpoint. But there is another perspective, too. We set the highest standards for ourselves when it comes to university rankings. Shouldn’t we aspire to the same level of achievement in our support of student-driven activities? The reality is that many of our student teams are operating with minimal support, in ramshackle facilities, and on shoestring budgets. The students’ commitment is remarkable, but we must ask:
Can we do better?
How can MIT live up to its name, not just in terms of research and academics but also in terms of these intellectually challenging and very visible student activities?
We suggest four main areas of improvement to be considered:
To be sure some spaces, such as the Edgerton Center, are well organized and helpful to student teams. However, we think the Institute can and should do much better.
MIT should have a large facility dedicated entirely to student projects, with built-in design studios, professional quality machine shops and test facilities.
If we can afford one of the most expensive dorms ever built in per-square-foot costs, we can afford a facility such as this, which would contribute vastly more to our students. The NW quadrant of campus in particular offers potential opportunities for building such a facility or converting an idle space for such use. What would be most helpful is a flexible 24-hour facility with some common areas, but also some modular “bays” with easy access doors that would be assigned to teams for the duration of their projects. There, efficient design and building activity could take place, occupational safety standards could be monitored and enforced, and building materials and tools would be safe. The students have been trying to organize a “Do It Zone” (see: diz.mit.edu), and MIT is starting to take notice. But we need to do much more.
4. Academic Credit and Faculty Support
The recently released report on the undergraduate commons places heavy emphasis on project activities; there could be a natural tie-in with the student-driven projects we’ve described here. Of course there is a danger: “institutionalizing” student activities might undermine their grass roots nature. A balance between spontaneity and professionalism has to be found.
On the other hand, we faculty must take care to offer advice, but not commandeer these projects or threaten the value to students in having ownership and responsibility for their activities.
Clearly, many student teams are desperately seeking faculty advice and support. So, when asked to mentor a student team, we urge you to step up to the plate and support our exceptional students in their independent projects. As an institute of technology, we should look at the great names engraved in Killian Court and recognize that many were inventors and engineers as well as scientists. How many faculty members today shy away from doing hands-on things with students because they are either too busy or believe it’s not useful for the tenure path? We need to foster a more diverse idea of what an MIT education involves and how we as faculty can contribute to it.
The Faculty Newsletter solicits your comments and suggestions on student-driven activities. We would like to thank Prof. Alex Slocum, a number of student teams, as well as Sandra Lipnoski and Stephen Banzaert, for their extensive comments and suggestions for this editorial.
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Special Edition Faculty Newsletter