Wednesday, September 24, 2008

MIT Alumni Conference

I spent Friday and Saturday attending the MIT Alumni Leadership Conference and here's what it was all about:

Friday, September 19, 2008
K-12 Initiatives
This series of speakers and panels was about K-12 Initiatives at MIT - things MIT is doing as an institution, things MIT Alumni have done as individuals, and ideas on how to get involved.

The keynote speaker talked about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education and noted that the portion of STEM graduates in the U.S. is declining. They're hoping to create an MIT Alumni volunteer program that trains thousands of volunteers to work in high school classrooms by 2011. Through this, they hope to make an impact on children's education.

Q. You know that a tree starts out as just a seed. As a tree is growing from a seed into a tree, where is most of the material coming from? (i.e. when you look at a tree, where did all the 'stuff' that makes up the tree come from?)

Q. When you burn something, there are only ashes left, and the ashes take up much less space than the object did before you burnt it. Where did all that stuff go?

The second speaker was Jo Ellen Rosemen, who works with the AAAS 2061 Program. The program started in 1985, and is named for the 2061 return of Halley's Comet. The program investigates what is necessary to be science literate. They found through their research that there is a very low proportion of the public, and even more surprisingly, of recent college graduates, that are science literate. The two questions above were used as examples of things that are considered necessary to be science literate, but which many college grads struggle to answer correctly. The program helps to develop standards and work with teachers on how to better teach the concepts.

The third speaker talked about MIT Open Courseware (OCW), which is a really cool program. MIT basically decided to digitize the course materials for as many courses as possible and put them online for free. You can access lecture notes, problem sets, tests, sometimes even video lectures, for hundreds of classes. These can be used by teachers for AP classes, or by students in other places for studying or just learning for fun.

The last panel was a group of alums who were very involved in volunteering for the K-12 group, and talked about their experiences. It was interesting to hear their unique perspective on how much time is required and what tactics to use to help students learn.

Saturday, September 20, 2008
Innovation @ MIT
The first talk was about innovation at MIT. The Dean of Engineering talked about the importance of innovation in general, coupled with the decline of federal funding for basic research. At MIT they are encouraging multi-disciplinary research. They have the advantage that almost all the schools, even the business school and school of humanities, are Science and Technology savvy. This helps facilitate interaction between those students and engineering students.

Synthetic Biology - iGEM
Another speaker talked about the new field of Biological Engineering (now course 20 at MIT). The field looks at building biological parts just like you build computer parts. This also means being able to manipulate biological systems. They hold a yearly contest (called iGEM) for high school and college students, the rules for which are basically to "do something cool" in biological engineering. And teams have stepped up to the plate. Students created an easy test to find out how much arsenic is in the water in wells in Bangladesh. Other students developed a way to make e. coli bacteria smell like bananas (less useful, but still pretty cool).

There was a talk on leadership, and how to get others to take the lead. It gave four main steps. Sensemaking was about collecting data, and using this as well as trial and error to understand the situation. Relating was understanding other people's positiongs and clearly explaining your own views and reasoning. Visioning included coming up with a purpose for everything you're doing and having specific goals. Inventing was turning the vision into action and engaging others in the planning stages.

Behind the Scences of Admissions @ MIT
The last talk we went to was about how MIT runs admissions - how they choose the incoming undergraduate class. Though this isn't really something Jeff and I need to know for practical reasons, its always interesting to hear. One of the first things they tell you when you come to campus is that "It wasn't a mistake."

They gave some statistics, including that the number of highschool graduates is increasing, and that more women are now attending college than men and that this divide is growing. Then they went inot a bit more detail about how they choose. As you might expect, it isn't based solely on scores or on impressive resumes, but on accomplishments mapped to opportunities. They look for initiative, energy, and engagement, particularly in S&T. They like to see evidence of personal skills - being a good citizen, and extracurricular interests. They try to find the kids whose personalities seem best-matched to the MIT community. Despite popular lore at MIT, they denied any purposeful alternating between a "well-rounded" class and a "nerdy" class each year.

Overall the conference was a lot of fun - there didn't seem to be that many other young alums, but Jeff and I were glad to have gone, and would probably go again in the future!

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