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.

“Wait a minute,” my students said, “This thing is real?!  We could never do that at our dorms; we’d get in trouble.”

I was incredibly sad for the undergraduates at the University of Michigan at that moment, because I realized that they didn’t have the creative freedom we had a MIT to muck around and create stuff outside of the university sanctioned labs and classrooms.  So many projects started from us just sitting around in the lounge saying “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…” and then following through with whatever the idea was.  We never worried about getting in trouble — we knew it was far more likely that our crazy shenanigans would wind up in the New York Times.

My students at Michigan didn’t really experiment and learn from their dorm mates in other majors — they had good friends to be sure.  Almost every 18 year old off to college is primed to consider the people around them the greatest people they’ll ever meet, as that’s just part of living away from home for the first time.  But every engineering project they created was in the classroom and focused on getting the grade in order to eventually get the good job.  (I talked to some of them about this in office hours after the pizza button lecture — they came to talk to me specifically about how and why we had made the button.)  Whereas I learned a ton from all the recent alums who would randomly drop by EC and were still a part of the culture (“Oh, well if you want to do X, I know how you can do it with the foo bar baz in the basement”), the dorms at Michigan were just a place to live for four years (or less in most cases) and there was no culture to speak of, no history to pass on, no exciting adventures that I ever heard about other than how to drink and smoke weed without getting caught by an RA.

I’m sure I also missed out in not having, say, a Division I football team to rally around with my fellow students and root for and sing songs about, the way my students at Michigan did — and this seems to be the expected enduring memory, given the alumni information I get from the U of M.  But given the choice between “Hail to the Victors” and the Emergency Pizza Button, I’d pick the Emergency Pizza Button every time — not because having a button to automatically order pizza was amazing (it was), but because the experience of building it was worth far more than any fight song.

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