Learning to make things happen

Coming to MIT, I was the classic quiet guy in the back of the room.  I could do schoolwork. . .and didn’t think too much past that.  I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t really know what else I wanted.

The East Side fixed that.  And not only from exposure to all sorts of people; the exposure to the idea that I really could make my life interesting, in ways I never would have dreamed of anywhere else.

Do I want to learn how to cook?  Then go for it.  Make mistakes.  Ask for help.  Work at it.

How about a mural?  Make the dorm something other than institutional white?  Get an idea, make a proposal, and try it.  So what if you’ve never painted before?  Worst thing that happens is you cover it in white paint and someone else gives it a try.  Who wants to live in a sterile hallway, anyway?  Humans decorate anything they can get their hands on.

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Mens et manus, motherf***ers.

Many of these posts share a common theme of a sense of home and family. This is true for me as well. MIT, East Campus, my hall, is the first place that has ever felt like home. My classmates, dormmates, hallmates, are the truest family I have known. But it’s more than that. East Campus is my home. But it is also my classroom. My workshop. My laboratory. The place where I’ve learned to bring an idea from conception to design to completion, to manage a team, and to be an effective minion. Where my friends and I have tried to defeat the safety features on a laptop battery to power a robot, build a remote triggering system out of a wireless doorbell, convert our wall into a electronics prototyping board, and experience Minecraft in real life. The place where the freedom to modify our space, paint our walls, build our furniture, wire our lights and our music players and our soda machines leads to more practical experience than any lab class. A safe environment in which to push our limits and grow, both personally and technically.

My hallmates are my family and best friends. But they are also my colleagues. My teachers and advisors. My co-conspirators. The people with whom I make, hack, dream, innovate, learn. The people who, my freshman Rush, before I formally lived in EC, taught me how to solder surface-mount parts, helped me extract my long, un-tied-back hair from a power drill (oops), and showed me what it’s like to feel comfortable in a community. The people who showed me what “saute” means, how to email a professor for help, how to prepare for an interview, and how to best respond to a blackout (rock climbing with headlamps), uncountably many skills and pieces of knowledge. The people with whom I invent and build, and the people who will form my professional network in the future when I’m looking for a job, or starting a company.

The summer after my junior year of high school, I visited the Media Lab as part of a class trip. Upon return, we were asked to write a reflection on our experience. I wrote about how cool it was to see a place where people with all kinds of backgrounds, fields of specialty, and interests work side by side on projects of immensely varying scope. How I could see how the flow of ideas between people and disciplines created a uniquely creative space. Biologists work next to computer scientists work next to artists, and the product is much greater than anything possible when disciplines are siloed. I was cautioned that the Media Lab was unique, that I would be unlikely to find such an environment anywhere else, that I shouldn’t let it set my expectations for what my life as a student and engineer would be.

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East Campus

MIT’s motto is mens et manus. Nowhere else is this more visible than on the East side. You know this because you use the videos of the murals, kitchens, wood-working, electronics projects, and hacks to advertise the undergraduate program; you blog and tweet about it. This is inspiring to kids because it shows that you can dare to take a dream and build it. An amazing, inspiring, organic marketing campaign that costs nothing (in fact it makes money, considering that the students pay to be there).

Online education is changing the nature of higher education, and you will have to think very carefully about what students are getting out of the in-person MIT experience. The reason any one of us supports MIT (with our money, good words, or children) is not because of the course catalog but because of the environment that encouraged and amplified our creativity and confidence. If you don’t foster this in Cambridge MA, it will happen somewhere else and attract the hearts and minds and hands of kids who want to build their dreams. I know of initiatives at other top tech schools that are desperately trying to recreate the East side experience. Are we going backwards?

The past and proposed changes that we have heard about will erode our culture. The dorms are a little less hands-on, a little less exciting. You should be alarmed that there has only been one roller coaster in the past four years. How can MIT maintain its reputation and continue to attract creative students? These long term consequences are very much connected to silly issues about security cameras and murals. It’s your job to understand why.

Lessons outside the classroom

When I tell people about what going to MIT was like, I never focus on how hard the classes were, even though that is the first thing people ask about.  I focus on the crazy things we built at East Campus — fish tanks in the walls, disco dance floors, überlofts that the house manager always kindly ignored during fire inspection due to our mutual respect, speakers in the showers hooked up to an mp3 server (and I still shower to music to this day because of this), movie mode buttons that triggered the lights and closed the doors in the lounge to provide instant darkness, other robots that might still be installed to do not-exactly-within-the-rules stuff that I probably shouldn’t mention, and the emergency pizza button.  These are the stories that make people say to me, “Man, I wish I went to a college like that.”

I mention the emergency pizza button last, not because it was the crowning achievement or our EC exploits, but because its existence came in handy later in life when I was a TA at the University of Michigan and I needed to teach Huffman encoding to a class of undergrads.  A Huffman code had been used to encode the various pizza toppings you might order when you pressed the big pizza shaped button on the wall, and it was the perfect example for teaching, which kept my students engaged.  (“Cheese is the most popular, so that’s 0, followed by pepperoni, which is 10, etc etc.”)

But the kicker was the end of the lecture when I popped up a photo of the actual pizza button at work back at MIT.

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Why is my room dirty?

I have sawdust still lying in the corners from when I constructed a cantilevered loft in my room, had two people hang off a corner, watched one person swing on a beam, and simulated placing 2000 lbs. on it to determine yield strength.

I’m not done with my 2.001 homework. We’re learning about stress-strain.

I’m fixing a broken monitor I found last week and it’s resting on the floor.

I took apart a drill I found to see why the motor smokes when I press the trigger. It’s in pieces. At least I put them in a box.

I’m not done with my 6.007 homework.

I live next to EC’s tool closet. I help maintain EC’s tool closet. I put together a hacksaw last night and its replacement blades are on my floor.

I have hacksaw blades because I’m going to make my own motorized ripstik this semester, and stacked hacksaw blades make a great torsion rod.

If I have time this semester.

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The difference between MIT and UT-Austin

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad at MIT, living on Burton One and having the time of my life. We did some serious stuff, we did some fun stuff, and we did some seriously fun stuff. (Putting a giant nipple on the Great Dome tops the list). Whether it was jumping out of windows into snowbanks or arguing about the existence of God, life was intense. Others have already explained how most of their learning at MIT happened at odd hours with fellow students from their dorms.  Hallelujah.

The MIT administration liked to say (and still likes to say) that getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink from a fire hose. Burton One in the late 70s was like that, and it worked because the administration didn’t mind our getting the carpet soaked. Sure, they slapped our wrists from time to time, but mostly they gave us plenty to drink from 9 to 5, and let us keep drinking, in our own way, into the evening and through the night.

They looked the other way when we had our parties, did our hacks, and acted on our curious impulses.  The priorities of the Campus Patrol were always (1) protect us from outsiders, (2) protect us from ourselves, and (3) enforce the rules just enough to keep the Cambridge Police off campus (see (1)).  The cops were often our adversaries, but never our enemies.

These days, I’m a math professor at the University of Texas, watching my students NOT have the time of their lives, and watching the UT administration ignore the most important part of student life. I recently attended a long faculty/student workshop about the advantages of residential education, and for over an hour NOT ONE WORD was said about life in the residences!  Finally I spoke up, and asked why nobody was talking about this, until the students on the panel explained that almost all of the dorms at UT are just long collections of rooms where students sleep and study.  Only at the honors dorm is there any semblance of a social life or a dorm culture, and even there it’s a pale shadow of what dorms are like at MIT.

From my son  (class of ’17) I hear talk that the administration is clamping down on the extremes of dorm culture and trying to create more of a “normal” life in the dorms. If true, that’s monumentally sad.

I credit East Campus with half of my MIT education

“You can’t do that!”

“You’re not allowed to do that.”

“That’s not safe.”

I hate these phrases with a passion.

I’ve learned to ignore people when they say these things. Even so, when you hear them often, it becomes disheartening.

Why can’t I do it? Do the laws of nature prohibit it? Certainly not. Does my own technical expertise not suffice? Well that can be fixed. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Who is disallowing me from doing it? Are there rules or regulations that prohibit it? Let’s analyze the motivation for these rules, and decide why they exist. If they are well-grounded and applicable, we should revisit the design. If they are indeed arbitrary, let’s continue. Sometimes keeping things secret from the rule-makers just adds to the challenge.

What do you mean by “safe?” Would you like me to to reference some relevant published literature on its safety? And justify our deviations from it and their ramifications? What makes you, whose understanding of this consists of a cursory glance, qualified to judge the safety of our meticulously researched setup?

If I listened every time I was told not to do something, it would have halved MIT’s contribution to my education.

That’s right, easily half of my knowledge gained at MIT was due to studying, researching, experimenting, and executing activities that were unnecessary, uncalled for, disallowed, or illegal.

You will probably think this is absurd and blatantly false, or that I should have spent more time on my schoolwork. Well, I graduated in four years with a degree in Course 6-2 and a minor in Course 2. I consider this to be an acceptable course load. But as I work at my job now, I find that about half of the knowledge that I call upon comes from my formal education, and half of it from hacks, personal projects, and the results of spontaneous 3AM experiments performed while at home in East Campus.

“How will we do that?”

“Can we make this safer?”

“Can I help?”

These are the kind of phrases you hear at East Campus. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re surrounded by open-minded people.