Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
A group of MIT students traded problems sets for international politics to attend the 1994 Harvard World Model United Nations Conference in Luxembourg late last month.
The three-day conference was a simulation of real UN gatherings, complete with committee meetings, debate and resolutions on issues of global concern. MIT's delegates were graduate students John de Souza, Frank Honore and Rajeev Surati of electrical engineering and computer science, James Ellison of political science and vice president of the International Relations Club, Andrew Green of chemical engineering and Ulrich Knirsch of ocean engineering, plus freshman Wai Kit Lau, sophomore Maria-Elena Mayorga of brain and cognitive science, and senior Dario Lerer of mathematics.
Financial support for the trip came from the Offices of the Associate Provost and Provost, the Dean of Humanities, the Dean of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, the International Relations Council, the Center for International Studies and the Sloan School. Mr. Ellison, Mr. Knirsch and Mr. Green, who are in the Technology and Policy Program, last week were awarded TPP's annual Excellence and Leadership Award for their work in raising money for the trip.
Each of the approximately 130 students who traveled to Luxembourg from all over the world served on one or more committees and represented a country, though not necessarily his or her own. The MIT students themselves were an international group, having come from or lived in several different countries. The only other major US delegations were from Harvard and Carleton College, reported Mr. Green, who is from Ontario.
The MIT students' scientific training served them well during discussions of issues such as the greenhouse effect and toxic waste (Mr. de Souza, who is president of the International Relations Club, and Mr. Honore won Outstanding Delegate awards), but they came away with knowledge and a desire for knowledge as well. Mr. Surati, whose family is from India, resolved to learn more European languages, while Mr. Honore, who was raised in Texas but spent three years in the Dominican Republic, said the conference increased his interest in the uses of technology to aid Third World development.
Several of those who attended from MIT commented that the Model UN provided a bridge between science and policy, since most of the others at the conference were students of law or international relations rather than science. "This would serve to enhance any scientist or engineer's education at MIT by giving a sense of the political atmosphere in which decisions using scientific or engineering information (and uncertainty) are made," Mr. Green said.
"Conferences like these help foster more concern and interest among scientists and engineers for global issues," said Mr. Honore, who was making his first trip overseas. "Beyond exposing MIT students to other cultures and ideas, it was also a very good opportunity for engineers and scientists to work together with political scientists, economists and others."
The students also picked up some know-how on the fine arts of politics and negotiation. By participating in this and other Model UN programs, Mr. Ellison said, "I've learned to make speeches and to make them extemporaneously and I've learned to answer tough questions under pressure. I have observed the dynamics of negotiation, and I'm much more likely now than before to draft resolutions that a majority of people will accept."
"I've learned some tactical positioning from some other more experienced participants," said Mr. Lau, a native of Malaysia. "Some showed skilled eloquence in their speeches and others a fiery enthusiasm towards the interests of their countries."
The students also discovered the frustrating process of getting a large number of people from diverse backgrounds to agree on something. In addition, UN-type discussions are sometimes directed by factors other than logic or necessity, they found. For example, even though international action has recently been taken to curb shipments of toxic waste, thus making it a less-than-urgent issue for the Model UN, delegates still wanted to give the topic first priority-primarily because they had prepared for it ahead of time. "Lesson number one: politics cannot be separated from human nature," Mr. Ellison remarked.
On a broader scale, the Model UN showed the MIT participants the global applications of their work and the need for scientists to take an active part in policy discussions. "The conference has truly shown me that sometimes it is just as important that we as engineers and scientists are able to have the ability to raise our voice and be heard, as it is that we can manipulate the numbers in the computer screen," Mr. Lau said. "The conference has served, I think, to remind the participants that most of today's unresolved issues are deeply entrenched in science."
"I found this to be one of the most valuable and enlightening experiences that I have had at MIT in the last six years," Mr. Surati said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 30).