MIT is a world leader in science and technology, as well as in many other fields, including management, economics, linguistics, political science, and philosophy. Among its most famous departments and schools are the Lincoln Laboratory, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Media Lab and the Sloan School of Management.
MIT was founded in 1861 by William Barton Rogers, a distinguished natural scientist, who wished to create a new kind of independent educational institution relevant to an increasingly industrialized America. The Institute's opening was delayed by the Civil War, and it admitted its first students in 1865. In the following years, it established a sterling reputation in the sciences and in engineering, but it also fell on hard financial times. These two factors made it a perfect fit in many peoples' eyes to merge with nearby Harvard University, which was flush with cash but much weaker in the sciences than it was in the liberal arts. Around 1900, a merger was proposed with Harvard University, but was cancelled after protests from MIT's alumni. In 1916, MIT moved across the river to its present location in Cambridge.
MIT's prominence increased as a result of World War II (see radar) and the United States government's investment in science and technology in response to Sputnik. MIT's contributions to the twentieth century advancement of science and technology include project Whirlwind, the pioneering computer built under the direction of Jay W. Forrester between 1947 and 1952, and notable for its technological achievement (including the invention of magnetic core memory), as well as for its cultural contribution to the development of personal computing.In 2001, MIT announced that it planned to put all of its course materials online as part of its OpenCourseWare project. The same year, president Charles Vest made history by being the first university official in the world to admit that his institution had severely restricted the career of women faculty members and researchers through sexist discrimination, and to make steps to redress the issue. In August 2004 Susan Hockfield, a molecular neurobiologist, was appointed as MIT's first female president. She took office as the Institute's 16th president on December 6, 2004.
Admission to MIT is extremely competitive, and it has been ranked by The Atlantic Monthly and other publications as the most selective university in the United States. It also consistently ranks among the highest in nationwide reports on quality of faculty and effectiveness of teaching. Entrepreneurship is a core value at MIT; an illustrative 1997 report showed that the aggregated revenues produced by companies founded by MIT and its graduates would make it the twenty-fourth largest economy in the world.
Well-known MIT faculty and alumni include linguist Noam Chomsky, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former CIA director John M. Deutch, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Nobel laureate John Nash.
The motion pictures Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind have story lines which include MIT settings. (However, MIT does not grant permission for location shooting on its campus, and most of the scenes set at MIT were actually filmed at substitute locations.)
Undergraduate academics Edit
There is a large amount of pressure in the classes, which have been characterized as "drinking from a fire hose" or "academic boot camp." Although the perceived pressure is high, the failure rate both from classes and the Institute as a whole, is low. There is a refreshing lack of so-called "weed out" classes. The anti-authoritarian nature of the school—combined with its emphasis on technical excellence and information sharing—results in a situation where faculty, upperclassmen, and fellow students are remarkably helpful even to newly arrived freshmen. This culture of helpfulness offsets the academic stress to a certain degree. Furthermore, students are not assigned letter grades in their first semester; instead, they are graded Pass/No Record. To allow the students to gradually adjust to regular grading, second semester is ABC/No Record. For both semesters, classes that a student fails are noted on the internal transcript but erased from all external records.
Majors are numbered, and students will typically refer to their major by the course number rather than the name. For example, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is Course 6, while Physics is Course 8. Classes within each course also have numeric identifications, which most students use more frequently than the written names. All students are required to take basic physics (8.01 and 8.02), a semester of biology, a term of chemistry, as well as calculus (18.01 and 18.02).
Most of the science and engineering classes follow a standard pattern. Typically, a professor gives a lecture that explains a concept. Then, teaching assistants lead recitations to explore fuller details, or often to provide students help on homework problems. Problem sets, given roughly weekly, are designed to enable the student to master the concept. Students often gather in informal groups to solve the problem sets, and it is within these groups that much of the actual learning takes place. Over time, students compile "bibles," collections of problem set and examination questions and answers. They may be created over several years and are often handed down "from generation to generation"—bearing in mind that "generations" of student time may be short-lived.
In many classes, the problem sets make up a relatively small fraction of the grade. The rest of the evaluation consists of performance on tests, which typically contain grueling problems that measure the students' ability to apply their knowledge, often to something not specifically covered in class. Problem sets and tests, even for the large introductory freshmen classes, are usually free response, hand graded, with much partial credit given to people who almost get the answer right. This is highly labor intensive, and after a test for a large class one can see a room full of teaching assistants and professors hand-grading the examinations.
The lack of machine grading and multiple-choice stems from the belief that understanding the concept is almost as important as getting the right answer. For example, students are seldom strongly penalized for making arithmetic mistakes. Test problems are intentionally extremely difficult and often clever, and are designed so that few students can obtain a perfect score. However, the awarding of partial credit can mitigate the difficulty, and moreover, many professors "curve" the scores to reflect how the class as a whole fared on the test. Most classes end with a grade distribution centered around B or C.
MIT notes that it has never awarded an honorary degree, and that the only way to receive an MIT diploma is to earn it. In addition, it does not award athletic scholarships, ad eundem degrees, nor Latin honors upon graduation — the philosophy is that the honor is in being an MIT graduate.
MIT faculty and students pride themselves on pure intellectual ability and achievement, and while grade inflation has run rampant at other elite colleges, MIT professors often say that they grade with "all the letters of the alphabet". Due to these academic pressures, MIT culture is characterized by a love-hate relationship . The informal motto of the school is IHTFP ("I hate this fucking place," although some jocularly render it as "I have truly found paradise"). The wide acceptance of this motto is shown by its (inconspicuous) incorporation in the design of the class ring of some graduating classes.
The school has a powerful anti-authoritarian ethos in which it is believed that one's social status should be determined by raw intellectual prowess rather than by social class or organizational position. Other beliefs that are strongly held by people within the school are that information should be widely disseminated and not held secret, and that truth is a matter of empirical reality rather than the result of popular belief or management directive. Many of the values of the Institute have influenced the hacker ethic. The term "hacker" and much of hacker culture originated at MIT, starting with the TMRC and MIT AI Lab in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Resident hackers have included Richard Stallman and professors Gerald Jay Sussman and Tom Knight. At MIT, however, the term "hack" has multiple meanings. "To hack" can mean to physically explore areas (often on-campus, but also off) that are generally off-limits such as rooftops and steam tunnels. "Hack" as a noun also means an elaborate practical joke (see the MIT Hack Gallery), and not just a clever technical feat. The best hacks are humorous technical feats. The most famous hacks have been the balloon at the Harvard / Yale Football Game and The Great Dome Police Car Hack.
The dormitories tend to be extremely close-knit, and the Institute provides live-in graduate student tutors and faculty housemasters who have the dual role of both helping students and monitoring them for medical or health problems. There is a distinct difference in culture between the dormitories on the east side of campus, where people tend to be more "hippie-ish" and the dormitories on the west side of campus, where people tend to be more "preppie-ish." Random Hall, living up to its name, is on the north side of campus, and Bexley Hall, in ironic juxtaposition to its "far-out" culture, is located centrally. Within each housing unit, there are often distinctive subcultures on each floor or entry. A great many MIT students live in fraternities and independent living groups; however, after an alcohol-related death in the late 1990s, MIT decided that all freshmen must live in Institute housing.
Despite the disdain that many MIT graduates profess for academic tradition, a very large number of them proudly wear an MIT class ring—which is large, heavy, distinctive, and easily recognized from a considerable distance. Originally created in 1929, the design varies slightly from year to year to reflect the unique character of the MIT experience for that class but always features a three-piece design, with the MIT seal and the class year each appearing on a separate shank, flanking a massive bezel bearing an image of a beaver. Its official name is the "Standard Technology Ring", but its colloquial name is far more well known—the "Brass Rat". Traditionally, the ring is worn with the beaver facing inwards until graduation, then turned the other way; or, as the unofficial folklore puts it, "While you're an undergrad, the beaver shits on you; after you graduate, the beaver shits on the world".
MIT has a very broad student athletics program, having 42 varsity-level sports to boast of. MIT's sports teams are called the Engineers; their mascot since 1914 being a beaver, "nature's engineer". (Or sometimes: "The beaver is the engineer among animals—MIT students are the animals among engineers.") They participate in the NCAA's Division III, the New England Women and Men's Athletic Conference, and the New England Football Conference.
MIT is organized into five schools which contain 27 academic departments:
- School of Architecture and Planning: Architecture, Media Arts and Sciences, Urban Studies and Planning
- School of Engineering: Aeronautics and Astronautics, Biological Engineering Division, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Engineering Systems Division, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Ocean Engineering
- School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences: Anthropology, Comparative Media Studies, Economics, Foreign Languages and Literatures, History, Humanities, Linguistics and Philosophy, Literature, Music and Theatre Arts, Political Science, Science, Technology, and Society, Writing and Humanistic Studies
- Alfred P. Sloan School of Management
- School of Science: Biology, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Chemistry, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Mathematics, Physics
Other MIT labs and groupsEdit
MIT also has many laboratories, centers and programs which cut across disparate disciplines. These include:
- Media Lab
- Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
- Radiation Lab
- Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
- Lincoln Laboratory
- McGovern Institute for Brain Research
- Entrepreneurship Center at the Sloan School
- Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation
- Experimental Study Group
MIT has close ties to a number of institutions. The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, now an independent defense contractor, was founded as the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, and still shares some facilities and faculty with MIT. (The Draper Lab, which designed missile guidance systems, was spun off during the Vietnam War to assuage antiwar feeling on campus and in the city of Cambridge, while holding on to the more lucrative defense contracts at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.) The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution runs its graduate program jointly with MIT.
MIT has a friendly rivalry with Harvard University which dates back to the earliest days of the Institute, and the aforementioned merger talks between the two schools. Today, they cooperate as much as they compete, with many joint conferences and programs, including the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and the Harvard-MIT Data Center. In addition, students at the two schools can cross-register (i.e., MIT students can register for courses offered at Harvard, and vice versa) without any additional fees, for credits toward their own school's degrees. The city of Cambridge is notable for the presence of two major research universities within two miles of each other. A third major research university, Boston University, is located between MIT and Harvard on the Boston side of the Charles River. These three schools jointly run the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology.
MIT maintains an alliance with the University of Cambridge known as the Cambridge-MIT Institute, which was established with the British government to bring the entrepreneurial spirit of MIT to England and to increase knowledge exchange between universities and industry. The World Wide Web Consortium is also based at MIT. MIT also has close but informal ties with Britain's top engineering university, the University of Southampton, which has its own thriving collection of spin-off businesses.
MIT has also set up relationships with universities in Singapore known as the Singapore-MIT alliance. This has enabled it to take quality engineering education to a higher number of students. In 2004, MIT setup the MIT-Zaragoza Logistics Program modelled on its own masters degree in logistics. The MIT-Zaragoza program was set up with the local government of Aragon, University of Zaragoza and MIT and hopes to bring quality education in logistics and supply chain management to Europe.
MIT buildings all have a number and most have a name as well. Typically, academic and office buildings are referred to only by number while residence halls are referred to by name. A network of underground tunnels connects many of the buildings, providing protection from the Cambridge weather. Students agree that this maze is a welcome feature, enabling them to get from class to class without getting cold or wet. The bridge closest to MIT is the Harvard Bridge. It is the longest bridge crossing the Charles River. The bridge is marked off in the fanciful unit called the Smoot: 364.4 Smoots and One Ear. The Kendall MBTA Red Line station is located on the far northeastern edge of the campus. The neighborhood of MIT is a mixture of high tech companies seeded by MIT alumni combined with working class neighborhoods of Cambridge (see Kendall Square).
The most striking part of the campus is Killian Court (where commencement occurs in front of the Great Dome), but most of the campus contains a jumble of different architectural styles, which many accuse of lacking elegance. A few other buildings are architecturally significant, including Baker House (the dormitory designed by Alvar Aalto) and Eero Saarinen's Kresge Auditorium. The first buildings constructed on the Cambridge campus are known officially as the Maclaurin buildings, completed in 1916, after Institute president Richard Maclaurin who oversaw their construction; they surround Killian Court on three sides. On one side of Killian Court is the Infinite Corridor, which serves as something of a main artery for the campus, connecting east campus with west campus. The Infinite Corridor runs through two domes: the Great Dome, which is featured in most publicity shots, and the lesser dome (surmounting what is known as "Lobby 7" after its building number), which opens into Massachusetts Avenue, and which is the entrance most often used as well as the official address of the Institute as a whole.
The Maclaurin buildings, in many ways the public "entrance" of MIT, were designed by Welles Bosworth based on plans developed by wealthy alumnus and hydraulic engineer John Ripley Freeman. Bosworth's design was drawn so as to admit large amounts of light through exceptionally large windows on the first and second floors, many internal windows—not only on office doors but above door-level, and skylights over huge stairwells. The interior decor of the Maclaurin buildings is stylistically consistent throughout. Its major architectural features are the Infinite Corridor, an impressive central dome, and the expansive domed lobby at the main 77 Massachusetts Ave. entrance. The friezes of these buildings are carved in large Roman letters with the names of Aristotle, Newton, Franklin, Pasteur, Lavoisier, Faraday, Archimedes, da Vinci, Darwin, and Copernicus; each of these names is surmounted by a cluster of appropriately related names in smaller letters. Lavoisier, for example, is placed in the company of Boyle, Cavendish, Priestley, Dalton, Gay Lussac, Berzelius, Woehler, Liebig, Bunsen, Mendelejeff [sic], Perkin, and van't Hoff.
I. M. Pei '40 designed a number of MIT buildings constructed in this period, including the Green Building (Building 54), headquarters of the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science Department and the tallest building on campus; Building 66, the Chemical Engineering Department; and the Weisner Building (Building E15), the Media Laboratory, whose tiled exterior was designed by Kenneth Noland.
Recent building effortsEdit
A major building effort has been underway for several years (as of 2004), including the Simmons Hall dormitory (designed by Steven Holl), the Zesiger sports and fitness center, and a new home for the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research (designed by Charles Correa).
The Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center opened in March, 2004. Boston Globe architecture columnist Robert Campbell wrote a glowing appraisal of the building on April 25th. According to Campbell, "the Stata is always going to look unfinished. It also looks as if it's about to collapse. Columns tilt at scary angles. Walls teeter, swerve, and collide in random curves and angles. Materials change wherever you look: brick, mirror-surface steel, brushed aluminum, brightly colored paint, corrugated metal. Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment. That's the point. The Stata's appearance is a metaphor for the freedom, daring, and creativity of the research that's supposed to occur inside it." Campbell stated that the cost overruns and delays in completion of the Stata center are of no more importance than similar problems associated with the building of St. Paul's Cathedral. The 2005 Kaplan/Newsweek guide "How to Get into College", which lists twenty-five universities its editors consider notable in some respect, recognizes MIT as having the "hottest architecture", placing most of its emphasis on the Stata Center.
The building of the Stata Center necessitated the removal of the much-beloved Building 20 in 1998. Building 20 was erected hastily during World War II as a temporary building. Over the course of fifty-five years, its "temporary" nature allowed research groups to have more space, and to make more creative use of that space, than was possible in more respectable buildings. Simson Garfinkel quoted Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin as saying "You might regard it as the womb of the Institute. It is kind of messy, but by God it is procreative!"
- MIT (official web site)
- MIT Alumni Association
- MIT Tech (student newspaper)
- MIT OpenCourseWare
- MIT Press
- Technology Review
- 'Everything I learned at MIT'
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