Chapter Thirteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Eli and I are sitting in a big lecture hall at MIT, waiting for the official information session. We’ve been reading through the orange brochure they hand out: “The Exploration Equation,” and have gleaned all kinds of fun facts about MIT. There’s a glass blowing studio here (something Eli’s wanted to do forever if only he had the time), a world-class nanotechnology lab, one long hallway that connects many of the campus buildings—called the Infinite Corridor. There’s a science fiction library with 90% of the science fiction titles ever published in English. And a corridor in Building 56 spotlights the greatest hacks—or pranks—engineered by MIT students—including disassembling and reassembling a police car on top of a very high dome at the top of a campus building—all in one night.

There are more than 300 clubs on campus, including of course, the origami club, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Club, the Lindy Hop society and the juggling club. Clearly the people at MIT work hard and like to have fun. The words in the brochure stress things like, “irrepressible creativity,” “quirkiness,” “off-beat” and “ingenious.”

The info session is about to start. Eli is sitting beside me folding a piece of silver foil paper. There are a few hundred parents and kids in this room—parents with high hopes, kids with top test scores and a legacy of achievement. I can feel the stress and tension in the room—racheted up more here than at any other place we’ve visited. Its palpable. I can feel it. I’m sure many of the kids in this room have had their whole lives orchestrated to get them into this school. That’s scary.

Andy drove us over this morning and dropped us off, and on the way, he told us that there are no class rankings at MIT—just graduating from MIT is enough.

Our admissions talk is being given by a sophomore undergrad, majoring in political science and economics, whose name, like the names of all the other admissions officers giving these talks, has faded from my memory. He looked like a classic nerd, but had extremely good social skills.

He began by asking kids to raise their hands about the part of the country or the world they were from. Of course, we were from everywhere. Then he asked people to raise their hands about what they were planning to study.

Then he began, “Welcome to MIT. What I’m going to try to do is give you a sense of what MIT is like.” And then he started right in, talking about hacks. “A hack is an elaborate prank played at MIT by its students. A hack is a fire truck on the great dome. A hack is a 50-foot statue of the goddess of Athena. My personal favorite hack is one that took place at the Harvard Yale football game.” He went on to describe the rivalry between Harvard and Yale. “At the game that was the equivalent of their Superbowl, some MIT students dug up part of the field and buried a weather balloon that could be inflated remotely. Then in the middle of the game, an MIT student in the stands pushed the button that inflated the balloon and it emerged from out of the field into the air, with a huge MIT logo on the side. In the paper the next day, the headline read Harvard 0, Yale 0, MIT 1.”

He continued, “Hacks have humor. Hacks are offbeat. They demonstrate the spirit of MIT. As far as hacks go, the greater the wit and difficulty, the more cachet the prank gets. We are fairly ambitious. We want our hacks to be awesome. Hacks demonstrate that we are far superior to Harvard.”

Changing gears, he asked the audience, “How many of you are here because you want to do something academic at MIT?” Many hands went up.

He explained the five schools that make up MIT: Science, Engineering, Architecture and Planning, Management, and Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences. He explained that what you study at MIT can be very fluid. “At most places, you’re stuck in one school. You can take classes in another school, but it’s a pain. When we accept you to MIT, we accept you into MIT and all its components. You have total freedom to take whatever you want. You can be a biology major and double major in theatre. You can change your mind, repeatedly, about what you study.

“For most MIT students, the primary thing they do is in the math and sciences. But they usually have something else they’re also very interested in .At MIT, we recognize that and support it. You can learn anything here. You can have a tremendous range of interests here. If we were just a science and engineering school, things would get really boring around here, and they don’t.”

He went on to talk about the workload. He asked the audience, “What have you heard about the workload?”

Eli raised his hand, “Hellish.”

Someone else said, “Almost impossible.”

Then from the stage, “The best adjective I’d use is challenging. Yes, we work hard. But I’m getting a lot out of the work I do. Our problem sets are difficult, yes, but they are forcing me to understand different things. The work here is all directed to help you learn the material and to stretch your boundaries. I didn’t figure out what real learning was until I came here. Once I discovered what it was, I was addicted.”

Then he gave some general advice to the assembled, “When you come to college, the game changes. Your classes are irregular. Your weekends are your own. You have to decide what to do with your evenings. The game totally changes whether you come to MIT or anywhere else. It takes a while to get up to speed.”

Like other schools we’ve visited, MIT responds to this challenge by having a Pass/No Record policy the first semester of freshman year, with something similar in the spring. “If you fail, the class doesn’t show on your record. It’s an adjustment period. We don’t want you screwed over by the fact that you took on more clubs than you could handle. We put this little buffer in and it tends to work.”

The other thing he stressed is that MIT is all about collaboration. The first question on any problem set you work on at MIT is, ‘Who did you work with on this?’ What’s hard for one person is easier with two or three. You get together with a few friends, you order a pizza, and you do the work together.”

There are a wealth of activities at MIT. “There are the undergraduate major societies, literary magazines, a cappella groups with names that are bad math/science puns, four theatre groups. Most people balance classes with 1-2 clubs they’re deeply involved in. Students like to do things at MIT. Most aren’t sitting around and talking about things. There’s a huge range of clubs and the main focus is on doing stuff.”

Sports at MIT—not such a big deal, though there are 33 varsity sports on campus. “People are really involved and really committed. But the coaches recognize that you are an MIT student first, and an athlete second.”

At this point, Eli got up and slipped out to meet his shadow. The admissions speaker changed gears. “I’m going to talk about the application to MIT. I’ve got it down to 7 minutes and 54 seconds. Any one want to time me?”

A woman volunteered and set the timer on her watch.

“There’s a wide variety of cultures on campus. There’s a wide range of people here. We’re not afraid of mixing our academic and social lives. We have an off-beat humor. We look for students who will be happy here, who can handle the academic workload. We want students to have done well, but they don’t have to be perfect.”

MIT is not a Common application school. Part of their application involves a series of short essays. “The first question is, ‘What do you do for fun?’ We want to know the real answer. Don’t impress us with, ‘I like to study particle physics in my spare time.’ Give us the real answer to this question. Show us who you are. If you play video games, if you play with a Frisbee, it will not be held against you. Don’t stress out about it.”

He talked about the needed recommendations and the role of an interview. Then he continued, “We are completely need blind. We lock your financial aid application in a drawer in the basement and we don’t look at it until we’ve accepted you. If we accept you, we go back, open that drawer and say, ‘Do whatever your need to get this student to MIT.”

Then he stopped and looked at the woman who was timing him, “How did I do?”



Before wrapping things up and sending us off for a tour, our speaker answered a few more random questions from the audience. Different departments at MIT handle AP credits differently. Math is the most common double major. It’s fine to apply undecided. “Whatever you say you’re interested in studying will not be held against you.”

After the talk, the auditorium emptied out and we split into a dozen or more tour groups. My tour guide looked more like someone out of central casting for Grease than a math nerd. Zack was quite personable as well. As he walked us around, he shared some more basic facts about MIT:

·      There are 10,000 students at MIT—6000 grad students and 4000 undergrads. 12-20% are international students. Most of the freshmen in his particular class-200-were from California.

·      Freshman classes are huge—300 to 500 in a lecture hall with two small recitation sessions a week. As you move up into your major, classes get a lot smaller—10-30 kids.

·      99% of students come back after freshman year. And MIT allows you to leave for a year or two during your undergraduate years and then come back and continue.

·      There are currently 7 Nobel Laureates on the faculty; there have been 75 in the history of the school.

·      MIT has the top rated economics program in the world—and the second most highly rated business program.

·      There are 11 large libraries and a number of smaller ones. The resources are astounding.

·      If you can’t find the class you want at MIT, you can take classes at Harvard or Wellesley.

·      You can study Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese and Hindi at MIT. And any other language you want to learn, you can cross-register at another school.

·      Study abroad is easy and recommended. There’s an exchange program where you can take a year at Cambridge and your financial aid travels with you. Another program in Singapore.

·      We learned about UROPs—ways to get paid to help with research projects throughout the University. “They pay $9.25 hour and they’re a great way to make connections and to get specialized training.”

·      Every January, there is an IAP—an independent study period where you can do anything you want for a month—sleep, do nothing, participate in weird competitions, take a whole array of classes, backpack in Europe. You get to stay in the dorms and eat—and everything is free. Zack says its his favorite part of MIT.

·      12% of applicants used to get in, but last year the admission rate for incoming freshmen went down to 6.7%. The peak of the children of the boomers are applying to school and application numbers have shot up everywhere. It’s a long shot to be sure.

·      There’s a long-time rivalry between MIT and CalTech. One year, Zach told us, the Cal Tech students came to MIT’s campus preview weekend and sold teeshirts that said “MIT” on the front and “because I couldn’t get into Cal Tech” on the back. But then the MIT students got revenge the next year—and so on.

·      Everything at MIT is open 24/7. It never closes down.

What else did we learn? That Kresge hall is in the shape of 1/8 sphere. Baker Hall, one of the dorms is in the shape of a sin function so that more rooms could have a view of the Charles River.

The newest dorm, Simmons, which looks like a giant abstract sponge has a ball pit, like the ones the kids played in as children, inside. “Each dorm has it’s own culture. They’re very close-knit.” MIT we learned has a lottery system for dorms, but if you’re not happy the first week of school with your dorm, you get to choose another one. The dining hall situation seemed a bit iffy and in flux.

Half the men pledge fraternities. There are 33 frats and 5 sororities. “But Greek life is very different here than it is at other colleges. It’s very communal, very philanthropic and very much involved in education on campus. And you have to keep your GPA up to stay involved.”

We toured the sports facility, learned that MIT, too, requires a swim test, “so if you fell in the middle of the Charles River, you could swim to the other side.” We walked through the arts building and our guide stressed how big Arts are at MIT. There are lots of martial arts.

Most students get around on bikes or walking through underground tunnels. (“You could never go outside if you didn’t want to and that’s a good thing in the winter.”) There’s an MIT shuttle available and safe rides everywhere in the city every 15 minutes at night.

Toward the end of the tour, Zack took us to the Stata Center, a huge ugly multicolored building (which Eli thought was awesome) that had a large wall celebrating the history of hacking at MIT. Up on a high wall is the famous police car that was placed on top of the Great Dome, along with a dummy police office, some coffee and donuts and a logo that read: IHTFP, which can stand for either, “I have truly found paradise,” or “I hate this fucking place.”

At the beginning of the hacking display, there’s a huge orange sign that proclaims:

Hacking Ethics

1.     Be safe. Your safety, the safety of your fellow hackers and the safety of anyone you hack should never be compromised.

2.     Be subtle. Leave no evidence that you were ever there.

3.     Leave things as you found them (or better).

4.     If you find something broken, call F-IXIT (the local number to call for problems with the buildings or grounds). Hackers often go places that Institute workers to not frequent regularly and may see problems before anyone else.

5.     Leave no damage.

6.     Do not steal anything.

7.     Brute force is the last resort of the incompetent. (“One who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason.” –Keshlam the Seer, Knight of the Random Order)

8.     Do not hack while under the influence of alcohol/drugs/etc.

9.     Do not drop things (off a building) without ground crew.

10.Do not hack alone (just like swimming).

11.Above all, exercise common sense.

After the tour, I went over to the student union building and had some very, very good Indian food. Eggplant potato subji. Saag panir. A spicy samosa. I sat down to wait for Eli, gave Lizzy a call. Eli walked in an hour later. “So,” I asked, “How was it?”

“I sat in on a computer class. Aside from the fact that I missed most of the year’s work, I could follow it pretty well.” He didn’t say much else.

“So what do you think Eli?” I was dying to know. I found the place intimidating and impressive. It was after all, MIT.

“It’s so urban. Eww! The urbanity really bugs me.” Then he paused, “I think coming here would give me the best opportunities and also the greatest headaches.”

“Are you less inclined to go here than you were before you visited?”

“Yes.” Then he paused and said, “But I have to take you over to the MIT museum. It’s awesome. You have to see it.” So I packed up my laptop and we headed down the street.

And the museum was remarkable. There were samples of glassblowing from MIT students. The results of a toy design competition where teams of students developed toys, taking them from concept sketches to working prototypes. There was a huge holography exhibit. But the most incredible exhibit, Eli and I agreed, was work by a man named Arthur Ganson, called “Gestural Engineering.” He created dozens of motorized machines with incredible moving parts—like a tiny chair that is repeatedly pulled apart and put back together again by moving arms connected to motors and gears. I wish I could describe these creations and their moving parts more effectively, but I can’t. I was so impressed by them, I bought the DVD. Eli said, “If I came here to go to school, I might have to study mechanical engineering just so I could learn to make these.”

Then we walked through the display called, “Robots and Beyond: Exploring Artificial Intelligence at MIT”. I was particularly taken with the work of Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT researcher with a vision of a time when sociable robots and people will interact fluidly and intuitively. She and her team designed an anthropomorphic robotic head named Kismet who can send and receive social cues and imitate human style interactions. Kismet can mimic human emotion and facial expressions, including expressing fear, anger, sadness, surprise, disgust and happiness. Kismet communicates its needs and wants using human-like facial expressions, body posture, gaze direction and voice. Fifteen different computers make Kismet function and he/she/it was very convincing!

It was at about this point that Eli turned to me and burst out with,  “I don’t care if it’s urban. It’s still my first choice.”

After walking down Massachusetts avenue in search of the subway, we stopped in a coffeehouse and had some chai and split a piece of apple pie. Then we took the T back to Newton. It was good to be back on the subway again. On the way home, Eli folded and refolded the same piece of silver foil paper, working on his 9-tailed fox. It seemed to me to just be a messy wad. I’ve been used to Eli’s folding leading to something beautiful. This overly folded wad of silver paper looked like a waste of time. And so I asked, “Does it really do any good to keep folding and refolding that piece of paper?”

Eli looked up. “Thomas Edison said, ‘I haven’t failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’” Then he went back to folding.

I guess he put me in my place.

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