I always felt that what set MIT apart from other institutions was respect. MIT’s admissions office does its job well, and admits the curious, the driven, and the talented. It is the only place I’ve been where I could have absolute faith that the people around me had something really interesting that I could learn from them, and that they felt the same way about me. This is strikingly rare in this world, as I’m sure you know well. The Institute respected us in the way that only an institution can: by providing the resources to fuel our creativity, incredible people to look up to, and getting out of the way to let the reagents mix.
The remarkable feature of East Campus was that everyone was making stuff all the time. Someone would put an LCD display in his fridge, which would inspire someone else to rig a two-axis webcam tilt-zoom out of a disk drive, which would inspire another person to make a keyless door entry system from scratch, which would inspire someone to make a plant-watering system, which would inspire someone to bolt a whiteboard onto his door and populate it with CS koans like “atomicity or idempotency?”. We’d experiment with our living spaces, building really big lofts, putting trap doors in them, making murphy beds, building pistons to make hydraulically-lifted beds, making vaulted lofts that counterbalanced a bed with a couch on cables controlled by an enormous electric motor, or steam-bending a single block of wood into the exact shape of the owner’s back. We shaved magnesium off of computer cases to ignite it in dry ice, we played with discarded superconductors, we built motor vehicles, we made dot matrix displays of water, we created the trend of liquid nitrogren ice cream parties. Some of those things were wastes of time, some of them made a mess, some of them broke something else, some of them were expensive, some of them were loud, and I’m pretty sure all of them would have been stopped in their tracks by surveillance cameras and having to be vetted by a security apparatus on every entry to the building.
East Campus-style activities, in retrospect, have proven to be the most valuable part of my MIT education. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I and my peers were taking the lessons from our classes and applying it in a playful, self-directed way. There’s no better way to learn. And the breadth of knowledge far exceeded the course material. I never would have learned how to wire 120 volt AC, or write I2C compatible devices, or load evaluate a structure, or how to mix paint, or how to assemble Unistrut, or what a metal chop saw was, or how to weld, or how to maintain a two-stroke engine, or how to make an elevator door, without an ability to play. I use a lot of that knowledge to this day, in my work, and in my daily life.
One could argue that the modern “maker” movement stems from East Campus culture — as an example, Adafruit Industries, one of the most prominent companies producing DIY electronics, was founded by an East Campus alum, turning her on-campus interests into a successful, long-running, genre-defining business.
East Campus culture seems to me to be an inexhaustible engine of interesting ideas, collaboration, and skills development. I think this is an incredibly valuable resource for MIT and it worries me whenever I hear about administrative changes that would make East Campus less of a safe place for ideas.