Nancy DuVergne Smith

Gizmo Garden student works on powering a disco ball.

Students work on powering a disco ball and Hawaiian windstorm. Photo courtesy Gizmo Garden.

When a middle school girl from rural Maine updated her Facebook page with photo of herself soldering on a circuit board, the creators of Gizmo Garden© knew the project was working—participating students were developing new images of themselves.

Bill Silver ’75, SM ’80 and his wife, Judy, held the winter-break workshop in February for 10 students to bolster the opportunity for technical education in a place they loved—coastal Maine—but a location with limited resources.

The couple, living fulltime in Nobleboro, Maine, for the past five years, wanted to find a way to contribute to their community in a meaningful way. Bill Silver, a co-founder of the machine vision systems maker Cognex, and Judy Silver, who worked at Cognex in marketing and sales, drew on their technical and outreach skills. Working from MIT Edgerton Center curriculum models, they developed a week-long workshop that brought middle school students together in a local library and invited them to create their own projects using their newly acquired skills of breadboarding and soldering electronics onto circuit boards.

Bill Silver lead the Gizmo Garden workshop.

Bill Silver, who led the workshop along with a local educator and a librarian, works with students.

The Silvers, at their former home near Cognex’s headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, routinely visited Boston’s Museum of Science and the MIT Museum, says Bill Silver, who continues to work remotely from Maine as a Cognex senior vice president. “Technology was in the air there,’ he says, “it’s not in the air up here.”

Feeling empowered to work with electronics could transform the five girls and five boys selected for the program, says Judy Silver. “As wonderful as this community is, kids growing up here don’t see engineering and technical careers as even in their universe. And now the kids see they can do this. And they have seen what young professionals can do from the videos we showed them.”

The Silvers plan to continue the Gizmo Garden project in 2016, again working from an established curriculum and adding their own opportunities for creativity and cooperation. This year they based the project on the Edgerton K-12 electronics curriculum course created initially for i2 Camp. Local TV produced a short video that shares student projects from a spinning a disco ball to recreating an Hawaii wind storm.

Want to know more? Visit the Gizmo Garden Facebook page or email the Silvers: gizmo@tidewater.net. Alumni interested in working on similar projects can join the K-12 Education Volunteer Network and tap the MIT Edgerton Center for ideas as well.

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Do cognitive skills always peak early and then decline? Not according to a new study by MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers. By catapulting the research project into the universe of online games, they were able to get information from a vastly larger pool of people than previous studies. And their findings shook up conventional views.

Crowdsourcing reseeach through online games.

Crowdsourcing research through online games produces more diverse data. Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Fluid intelligence, the ability to think quickly and recall information, was thought to peak around age 20, says coauthor Joshua Hartshorne, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. However, being able to tap some three million test subjects online led Hartshorne and coauthor Laura Germine, a MGH postdoc, to make several surprising discoveries—including that fluid intelligence may peak as late as the 40s. The data also showed that crystallized intelligence, the accumulation of facts and knowledge, may peak in the 60s or the early 70s.

Having a larger pool of subjects produced better data.

Josh Hartshorne

Josh Hartshorne is a post-doc in MIT’s  computational cognitive science group.

“Most of what we know about the human mind comes from studying children under five years old, college students, and retirees … because those are the people who have time to take out of their day to come into the laboratory,” says Harthorne. “This really limits how much of the human experience we understand. Even worse, for the most part, we are mostly able to study people who are part of a university community—again, because those are the people who are nearby the laboratory.”

“By switching to using the Internet, we can get a much more diverse population, and so we are in a better position to understand what generalizes and what does not. Otherwise, we are in the dangerous situation of trying to extrapolate from MIT undergraduates to the entire human race.”

All that data also allowed them to use a statistical technique called bootstrapping.

“The basic problem is in our actual data, it may be that people who are 33 years old did the best. But that could be due to random chance. How do you know that the people who are 33-years-old really are doing reliably better than people at other ages? What you’d like to do is run the experiment many times and see if you usually find the 33-year-olds doing the best. In bootstrapping, you use the data you collected to simulate those additional experiments.”

What are some other intelligence timestamps?

  • Raw speed in processing information appears to peak around age 18 or 19.
  • Short-term memory improves until around age 25, holds steady for a decade, then begins to drop off.
  • The ability to evaluate the emotional states of other people peaks in the 40s or 50s.

Now you can play

You can compare your responses in a series of quick games and quizzes to others of your age and education range on these research web sites: gameswithwords.org and testmybrain.org.

Read the MIT News article, the “Rise and Fall of Cognitive Skills,” to learn more. Or check out Hartshorne’s other writing on topics on such as brain games and the role of citizen scientists.

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03.13.15_Pi_Day_crop

Tomorrow is Pi day and MIT offers infinite ways to celebrate. This day, observed on March 14, 2015, is actually Super Pi Day because the numeral date format represents the first five digits of the mathematical constant—3.1415.

For students applying for the Class of 2019, it is a momentous day. Some 850 will be very happy indeed with their acceptance news. Tomorrow morning at 9:26 a.m.—to continue with the next few digits of Pi—they will be able to check the results of their applications online. They also will get the news earlier than previous classes.

In recent years, MIT posted admission decisions online at 6:28 p.m., which is called Tau Time, to equally honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau. Not quite sure about the debate between Pi and Tau? Here’s the answer in a short video, Tau vs Pi Smackdown. If you are a glutton for Pi, you can peruse Numberphile’s list of Pi day videos.

In anticipation of the acceptance decisions, the Admissions Office created a fabulous video that shows a swarm of drones taking off from the Great Dome and delivering MIT acceptance tubes worldwide. In reality, though, drones were not involved. At least not this year.

If you’re looking for ways to honor this special day, here are some on-campus options:

Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year

The Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year. Photo credit: Aarthy Kannan Adityan, Ashdown House.

Students can party at the seventh-annual Pi Day event put on by the Ashdown House. This year’s event, a collaboration with Sidney-Pacific, will be held from 6:00–8:00 p.m. in the Hulsizer room and will include pie-throwing contests and a Pi recital competition.

Also Saturday night, the MIT Alumni Arts Exchange is hosting a special arts and music event for Super Pi Day from 6:00–10:00 p.m. in the Media Lab. Students will enjoy savory and sweet pies, a delicious way to celebrate the mathematical constant. Click here to register for the event.

Further afield, you can celebrate Pi Day virtually:

Pi-card-03-13-15

Pi Day e-cards

Click here to learn more about Pi Day in years past at  MIT.

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Professor Munther Dahleh

Professor Munther Dahleh

At the next Faculty Forum online on March 19, you can find out what 21st century statistics means and how this new approach can shape global problem solving. Plus you can ask your own questions either now via email or during the 45-minute live webcast.

The speaker is Munther Dahleh, an expert in areas from networked systems to the future of the electric grid. Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will lead a new center at MIT aimed at applying 21st century statistics to diverse problems from systems behavior to social networks.

Dahleh is already working with complex problems. He is the acting director of the Engineering Systems Division, founded in 1998 to undertake interdisciplinary, systems approaches to challenges such as making healthcare affordable and accessible and managing global manufacturing and supply chains. He led the Laboratory for Information and Decisions Systems, an interdepartmental research center engaged in the analytical information and decision sciences. Both ESD and LIDS will become part of the new, as yet unnamed, entity, which will also include a significant new initiative in statistics.

During the Faculty Forum Online, Dahleh will share his hopes for this new undertaking and take questions from the worldwide MIT community via interactive chat.

Register today to participate in the Thursday, March 19, webcast from noon-12:45 p.m. EDT. A link to the webcast will be sent upon registration. A reminder email will be sent on the morning of the event. Email questions for the speaker ahead of time or ask them live or via Twitter using #mitfaculty.

About Munther Dahleh

Munther Dahleh’s research interests include networked systems, social networks, the future electric grid, transportation systems, and systemic risk. He is a three-time winner of the prestigious George Axelby Outstanding Paper Award from IEEE, winner of the Eckman Award for the best control engineer under 35, and a fellow of IEEE. At MIT, he has received the Graduate Student Council’s best teaching award. He is currently the housemaster at MacGregor House and the chair of the Committee on Discipline.

In the Press

The Connector,” MIT News
Dahleh appointed leader in LIDS,” MIT News
Gaming the System,” Technology Review

About Faculty Forum Online

Up to eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics, including nuclear weapons, neuroscience, digital privacy, and climate policy and research. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 75,000 times.

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Guest blogger: Professor James H. Williams, Jr.

Professor James H. Williams, Jr.

Professor James H. Williams, Jr.

In the new issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, Professor James H. Williams, Jr. ‘67, SM ‘68 writes about an unusual topic—this year’s fabulous football season in the context of campus culture and personal history. Professor Williams, an accomplished author as well as faculty member in MIT’s mechanical engineering department and writing and humanistic studies program, discusses the art, discipline, beauty, and management of football at MIT. This excerpt is likely to give you a taste for the longer piece titled “A Magical, Almost Perfect, Season.”

If you are a first-year undergraduate and want to study economics, linguistics, literature, political science, urban studies and planning, or writing at MIT, you must nevertheless take—or, perhaps I should say be grateful for the opportunity to take—freshman biology, calculus, chemistry, and physics alongside some of the world’s future top engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. There are no “basket-weaving” subject offerings or scholarships for jocks at MIT.

Thus, the task of finding enough students to play competitive intercollegiate football at MIT is immense. Even so, one of the distinctions of the Institute’s undergraduate population is that this body of students is also the same pool that has produced the largest number of Division III Academic All-Americans in the history of collegiate athletics. [In fact, my former research student (SB, SM, PhD) in 1979-80 became MIT’s first Academic All-American.]

I suggest that anyone who has not visited the MIT Athletics homepage do so. Whatever positive feelings you may already have for our undergraduates, your respect for them will grow after visiting the MIT Athletics homepage. You may also better understand why during my years as a student and faculty member, I have attended hundreds of intercollegiate athletic events involving MIT undergraduates and I competed on dozens of intramural athletic teams (until I broke my leg playing softball for the New West Campus Houses in 1982).

I often write about our undergraduates who need to hear more often how much the faculty and administration enjoy observing their growth and want to support them in achieving their goals. Last month, I was chatting in the corridor—where many, if not most, important conversations occur at MIT—with a colleague who was so pleased with the dedication and intellectual development of the undergraduates in a demanding disciplinary subject in mechanical engineering. Last year, I wrote the following to a senior administrator, in response to a speech he gave: “In the daily hustle and bustle of MIT, our students’ global perspectives, capabilities, and potential impacts can be easily submerged, and occasionally even lost. Thus, daring to positively change the world becomes an important message for them to hear . . . .” Our students are too sophisticated to be enamored with false compliments but, in what is too frequently MIT’s no-praise culture, they need to hear the faculty’s and administration’s applause when they have earned it.

MIT's first marching band was formed in 1978.

MIT’s first marching band was formed in 1978.

As the first housemaster of New House in the late 1970s, I witnessed several uniquely memorable events in MIT’s history.

Throughout weekends during that period, oversized—and I do mean oversized—audio speakers in Burton-Connor and elsewhere along Dorm Row bathed Briggs Field in Chuck Mangione’s “Feel So Good.”

In 1978, the MIT Football Club was founded and joined the National Club Football Conference, with the team ultimately becoming a varsity program and a member of the NCAA Division III in 1987.

The MIT Marching Band was also formed in 1978. Although I never saw more than six or seven members at any single time, I found them to be musically skillful and cleverly resourceful as I observed them practicing on Briggs Field. The band had no uniforms, and several of its members bristled at The Tech’s characterizations that they constituted a “spoof,” employed “haphazard formations,” and that their sundry shirts, shorts, and bell-bottom jeans were “random costumes.” Nevertheless, applying both Gaussian and Lévy distributions, I tried to write a manuscript using statistical analysis to describe the band’s marching formations, but my assumption of ergodicity was too constraining.

On Saturday, October 28, 1978, the MIT Football Club played, but lost, its only home game that year. (Actually, the team lost all its games that year.) The game also served as a campus-unifying Homecoming during which the MIT Marching Band performed. Another highlight of that festive day was the appearance of the reigning UMOC (Ugliest Man on Campus) who, as the Homecoming Queen, rode into Henry Steinbrenner Stadium on his “chariot” (a decaying flatbed covered with cardboard, depicting the urging “Go Tech”), waggling his “scepter” (a wooden walking cane), and bedecked in the queen’s pink cape and “crown” (part of a milk carton). I must confess: I adored him then and I have never forgotten him.

In 1978, MIT’s student body was at its sui generis best.

Read the full article in the MIT Faculty Newsletter.

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Guest blogger: Maggy Bruzelius, MITAA

View the Antarctica: Journey in Pictures by scrolling on the right. Do not click on the Menu button. 

A few weeks ago, during Antarctica’s summer, I joined the MIT Alumni Travel Program and a group of 38 MIT alumni and guests for a two-week expedition to the last great wilderness on Earth, Antarctica. I was impressed with the whole program—gliding around enormous tabular icebergs by Zodiac, walking along beaches covered with thousands of penguins, and kayaking among whales and sea birds. You can see a dynamic collection of photos from the trip Antarctica: Journey in Pictures.

Lectures by MIT Professor Susan Solomon, who spoke about the early Antarctic explorers’ experiences, were a particular highlight. After our return, I asked her for an environmental perspective since she is the leading atmospheric chemist who discovered the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.

Why do you think past environmental problems have something to teach us about climate change?

First and foremost, it’s a source of inspiration. There are a slew of environmental problems where we’ve been remarkably successful at making progress in the past—just to name a few, managing the challenges of ozone depletion, smog, acid rain, and lead in gasoline were each once thought to be impossible but people found ways to protect the environment and ourselves, usually at lower costs than originally feared. It’s important for people to remember that, and for younger people who didn’t live through the controversies over these things, to realize that such problems can be managed, if not solved. Younger people are usually very surprised to realize this, and it’s important to look at where we have been in the past to see where we might be able to get in the future.

Each of these past cases has something different to teach us about ways that things can happen—through factors including consumer engagement, technological advances, great science, smart policies, and combinations of all of these. Once we have thought deeply about the things that were done to advance progress on other environmental issues, I think it helps us understand the climate change challenge better and paths forward. Climate change is the toughest environmental issue people have ever faced in my opinion, but I also believe we will make more and more progress at dealing with it.

What do you hope to accomplish as the founding director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative?

I think the way we make the most progress on environmental issues almost always involves working across disciplinary lines. MIT has so much to offer—we have fantastic researchers spanning engineering, the physical and social sciences, management, and humanities, and I think it’s clear that we could contribute even more to environmental progress if we worked together more effectively.

The key goal of the environmental solutions initiative research is to foster that kind of interaction. We also have some exciting educational goals—we’d like to strengthen learning at MIT around environment and sustainability, and one thing we’re looking at is the development of a minor as well as targeted courses.

How can alumni help?

Alumni are a great source of ideas as well as support. We would love to hear from them.

To learn more, visit the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and use the contact page for responses. Check out the MITAA Antarctica: Journey in Pictures photo gallery from the trip. 


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New robot adds two useful fingers to your hand.

New robot adds two useful fingers to your hand.

MIT is full of invention. One quick way to tap into the riches on campus is to browse the MIT Video collection, curated by the MIT News Office to bring highlights of research and campus culture into view. Whether you have just a minute—or an hour—you can learn something fun, intriguing, or maybe life changing. Here are a few suggestions:

Learn how to don the mascot costume.

Learn how to don the mascot costume.

If you browse by types, do venture into the Demonstrations section. Upwrap one of the mysteries of campus culture by watching Tim the Beaver: Putting on the Mascot Costume. First rule: do not try to put on the costume by yourself. Did you know ice packs are involved? Time: 00:03:54

Need an extra hand—or at least a couple of extra digits? Watch 7 Finger Robot, a 0:58 second spotlight on a new robotic device, worn on the wrist, that acts like two extra fingers adjacent to the pinky and thumb.

Learn how materials science is changing energy resources.

Learn how materials science is changing energy resources.

How are materials-driven advances transforming energy and economics worldwide? Watch Hey, Atoms: What Have You Done for Me Lately?: The age of materials design and how it will change the energy world. After an eight-minute introduction, hear Jeffrey C. Grossman, MIT professor of materials science and engineering, present the Wulff lecture. First, he lights things on fire, the way most energy is currently produced. And then it really gets interesting. Time: 58:12.

If you browse by channels, you can zoom in on 133 videos on mathematics including the 18.02 Tutorial Video: Partial Derivatives, which runs 11:59. Or among 261 videos on engineering, you will find Emmy-Award Winning Work on High-Speed Video Cameras by Brian Anthony SM ’98, PhD ’06, an entrepreneur who leads the MIT Medical Electronics Device Realization Center. Time: 02:51

Most visitors to Barcelona visit Antoni Gaudi’s iconic structures that join fanciful decorations with conservative structures—churches and housing. You can understand the subtleties of his work by watching an architecture and urban planning channel video titled the Creative Practices of Antoni Gaudi in Colònia Güell and Sagrada Familia. Time: 01:42:19

You can also explore channels devoted to the arts, student life, and entrepreneurship. Or click types to find history for a video on the Harnessing the Wind at MIT: Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel or the story of the telegraph and its impact in the Whole Wired World. Enjoy!

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Instructables offers myriad valentine do-it-yourself projects.

Instructables offers do-it-yourself valentines.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—have you made your token of love? Don’t despair–it’s not too late for your MIT mind-and-hand training to kick in. Here are some ideas brought to you by alumni working in the maker zone.

Check out the Valentine’s Gift Guide for makers, hackers, artists, and engineers at Adafruit Industries, founded by Limor Fried ’03, MEng ’05.

You could buy cool gifts—like the full color MiniPOV that would let you project your sweetheart’s name in light—or make your own gift using tutorials in the Adafruit Learning System. You can create a light-up heart display or a Ringly, a bluetooth notification device build into a metal and stone cocktail ring, with a few Adafruit components.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Popular Mechanics named Limor among the “25 Makers Who Are Reinventing the American Dream” along with Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04 and Christy Canida ’99, who launched the how-to company, Instructables.

Instructables has its own maker Valentine options. For a last-minute option, grab a dollar bill and watch the video to make a Dollar Bill Origami Heart. And with scissors, straws, and colored paper plus a few drink ingredients, you can still toast your love with Cheers to Valentine’s recipes and tokens.

To make a wooden cartouche, get out your woodworking tools and craft a chunk of hardwood into a polished heart. For a more electronically attuned Valentine, try making a Steampunked Heart-Beat-Box, which will provide a personal light show.

Another option is to visit the Makeymakey website, created by Media Lab colleagues Jay Silver SM ’08, PhD ’14, founder/CEO of JoyLabz/MakeyMakey, and Eric Rosenbaum SM ’09, a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Makeymakey invention kits can be transformed into interactive projects such as Sketch It, Play It, which connects a simple drawing to a jam station with lights and sounds, and Interactive ‘Zine, make a ‘zine that triggers soundscapes and animations programmed in Scratch.

And, as long as you are working in Scratch, a free programming language and community based in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, you could try the Valentine poem maker and the Valentine’s card maker.

More MIT-style Valentines:

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Taylor’s photograph on the stamp was taken circa 1890, when he was an MIT student. Photo: MIT Museum.

Taylor’s photograph on the stamp was taken circa 1890, when he was an MIT student. Photo: MIT Museum.

The United States Post Office is honoring one of MIT’s own today, issuing a stamp to honor architect and educator Robert Robinson Taylor. He is MIT’s first African-American graduate and is believed to be the country’s first academically trained black architect.

Taylor’s lifework included supervising the design and construction of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama while also overseeing the school’s programs in industrial education and the building trades.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif addressed Taylor’s contributions at the dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, DC, on Feb. 12.

“As we honor the legacy of Robert Taylor, today’s ceremony reminds us that he was a builder…not only of structures, but of communities…and an architect who designed not only a campus of national importance…but a more promising future for generations to come,” said President Reif. “Robert Robinson Taylor truly represents the best of MIT.”

Taylor, who was born in North Carolina in 1868, learned carpentry and construction from his father, a former slave. After working as a construction foreman a few years, he moved to Boston in 1888, and threw himself into his MIT studies. He took as many as ten courses per semester, earning honors in trigonometry, architectural history, differential calculus, and applied mechanics.

After graduating from MIT’s architecture school, the first in the US, he accepted an offer from educator and activist Booker T. Washington to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

At Tuskegee, he had an enormous impact—first by establishing a beginning architecture curriculum, which helped graduates enter collegiate architecture programs or win entry-level positions in architectural offices. He raised the sights of African-American students to look beyond working as builders and carpenters to taking on professional roles as designers and architects. His second major contribution at Tuskegee was designing and building major campus structures over a 30-year period, creating state-of-the-art buildings where cabins once stood.

Beyond Tuskegee, Taylor designed academic and commercial buildings and helped found the Booker Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Liberia. After he retired in 1932, Taylor was involved in public service and advocacy until his death in 1942.

Taylor addressed MIT’s 50th anniversary in 1911, summarizing what his MIT training helped bring to Tuskegee: “the love of doing things correctly, of putting logical ways of thinking into the humblest task, of studying surrounding conditions, of soil, of climate, of materials and of using them to the best advantage in contributing to build up the immediate community in which the persons live, and in this way increasing the power and grandeur of the nation.”

Tuskegee named its architecture school after Taylor in 2010.

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Ice shells become strong and artful objects.

Ice shells become strong and artful objects.

When MIT students are out in freezing weather making things, anything can happen. During Independent Activities Period (IAP), they made structurally complex objects using the power of frozen water-soaked fabric. Watch the video Forces Frozen: Structures made from frozen fabrics.

The three-day workshop drew students from many disciplines.

The three-day workshop drew students from many disciplines.

The IAP workshop, titled Forces Frozen, pushed the boundaries of ice shells through design, experimentation, and fabrication. Led by Assistant Professor Caitlin Mueller ’07, SM ’14, PhD ’14 and post-doc Corentin Fivet, the workshop invited 30 students to research and design ice/fabric forms and the methods for making them on the first day and then spend the second day building formwork and rigging systems.  On the final day, they constructed an outdoor landscape of frozen structures and shared the work in a public exhibition.

The projects focus “on thin shell structures that get their strength not from the materials they are using or a thickness of material, but from the form they are using, just like an eggshell,” says Mueller. “The shells that we are designing are inspired by a twentieth-century Swiss structural designer, Heinz Isler…he was really inspired by nature and the forms that come out naturally through the forces of gravity. This is a really fun opportunity to combine physics, mechanics, and science with creating something that is almost artistic.”

Learn more on the Forces Frozen tumblr and a BetaBoston article.

You can try this at home.

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