Beyond the Infinite
Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2012
Volume 7, Issue 2
Popping the bubble
Among the MIT lexicon, which includes acronyms such as CSAIL and CPW and slang such as punt and tool, is the popular (albeit satirical) phrase, "the MIT bubble." There often is a misperception that MIT is its own world, where laser-focused individuals churn out groundbreaking research and inventions without ever looking farther than the radii of their desks.
MIT's outreach programs burst the theory of the MIT bubble. Members of the MIT community have established powerful outreach programs — programs crafted for external audiences — to address critical problems facing this nation. Here, we take a closer look at three of the over 70 outreach programs listed in the MIT Outreach Directory, developed and maintained by the PKG Center on behalf of the Institute.
Many news outlets have reported that the United States is falling behind its peers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. While there are many theories as to the cause of this, there are comparatively few concrete suggestions for how to fix it. This is the environment in which Dr. Natalie Kuldell of the Department of Biological Engineering and Jim Dixon of Sharon High School in Sharon, Mass., conceived BioBuilder.org, a website that provides free, open-access educational materials to engage middle and high school students in biological engineering and synthetic biology. On the site, graphic novel-style cartoons and animations (starring lab scientist Systems Sally and her excited pupil Device Dude) bring concepts to life (literally) as they guide students in the creation of their own biologically-engineered cultures. The website also includes an online community to connect enthused teachers and nascent biological engineers across the country.
To bring these powerful tools into the classroom, BioBuilder and the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) collaborate to host professional development workshops for teachers. Through these summer workshops, teachers from the middle school to university level meet to carry out classroom-ready experiments in a biology laboratory. This hands-on material stretched the comfort range of attendee Mike Hansen, a sixth-grade science teacher from Linden STEAM Academy in Malden, Mass., a sensation he appreciated.
"To work in a bio lab gives me a perspective I can share with my students," says Hansen.
The STEM crisis affects students all across America, but nowhere does it hit harder than among minority youth. Eighty percent of the nation's scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists are still white, according to the National Center for Technological Literacy. The Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), a program of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs, was founded in 1974 to combat this achievement gap by immersing minority students in college academics the summer after their junior year of high school. Since then, the residential program has evolved from a two-week career orientation into a six-week multifaceted community experience that has served about 2,000 students. With tuition and living expenses fully-funded by donations and grants, MITES can transcend socioeconomic boundaries and focus on instilling in each of its 80 annual participants the skills of analytical problem solving and academic metacognition. Additionally, students are encouraged to celebrate their unique identity and life experiences.
A large percentage of MITES alumni matriculate and succeed at MIT or other highly selective institutions. MITES makes such an impact on its participants' lives that they visit the program decades later to pass on the wisdom of their successes to later generations. This community of support elevates the confidence of bright students, leveling the playing field and promoting equality in the scientific world.
It is not only MIT faculty and staff but also students who dedicate their time and energy to public service through outreach. The MIT Camp Kesem chapter provides a welcoming, accepting community for children of New England cancer patients in the form of a weeklong summer camp. The national Camp Kesem organization was founded to address the need evidenced by the almost two million cases of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year. MIT's student-run chapter, founded by Caroline Huang '10 in 2007, has grown from 13 campers to 87 in five years, with a projected 100 campers to participate in August 2013. Camp Kesem is packed with swimming, arts and crafts and other traditional wilderness activities for campers along with a teen program for older campers to teach teambuilding, leadership and advanced survival techniques. One parent of a camper says it is her daughter's "favorite week of the year" because of the opportunity to spend time with other children who have shared similar experiences. By keeping children of cancer victims from missing out on some of the joys of childhood, Camp Kesem lays a foundation of emotional health and well-being.
While these outreach programs do confirm the laser focus of MIT, this focus is turned outward, honing in on national issues that would be invisible if the MIT bubble were insular. Though the MIT campus sometimes feels like its own world within a world, the community that occupies it is ready to solve any problem thrown its way.
For more information about MIT outreach programs, visit the MIT Outreach Directory at http://web.mit.edu/outreach/.