Tracking what students grasp

December 22, 2014

As a teaching assistant at the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2010, Amit Maimon MBA ’11 witnessed the origins of a technological phenomenon: Smartphones and tablets had started creeping into the classroom in the hands of students.

But instead of dismissing these devices as distractions, Maimon saw a way to leverage them to help teachers get a better idea of what students grasp during lectures.

That year, Maimon co-developed Socrative, an app that lets teachers design or select premade quizzes for students to answer, publicly or anonymously, on personal mobile devices during lectures. The app is now being used by about 1.1 million teachers and millions of students across the globe.

The idea is that students respond better to quizzes deployed via mobile devices — “which they’re already staring at,” Maimon says — and many feel more comfortable answering questions anonymously. For the teacher, the accumulated data gives immediate feedback on student comprehension — allowing tailoring of lectures to address problematic material — and tracks student or class progress over time.

“Teachers benefit tremendously by having knowledge of what their students find easy or difficult, what they’re understanding or not, in the moment, in class,” says Maimon, who co-founded a startup, also called Socrative, to commercialize the app. “Teachers [with Socrative] can see how well the class is doing in a very detailed way, and see who’s struggling more, what the class doesn’t understand, and even which students can help others.”

Quizzes can be designed, using a “teacher” app, on any mobile device — either as one-off questions or as a series of true-or-false, multiple-choice, or open-ended questions. In the classroom, students can punch in a class’s identification number on their “student” apps and answer away. Color-coded results for each student and question pop up instantly in the teacher app in rows and columns, with green boxes indicating correct responses, and red boxes indicating incorrect responses.

Importantly, the app is a time-saver — grading is automatic, and there’s a growing database of premade quizzes designed and shared by teachers — which has contributed to its wide adoption, Maimon says. In June, after accumulating 750,000 teacher users worldwide, Socrative sold for $5 million in stock and cash to MasteryConnect, a company that provides digital student-assessment tools to around 85 percent of U.S. school districts.

Current Socrative employees — including two co-founders, Benjamin Berte and Michael West — are further developing the app under MasteryConnect. (After the acquisition, Maimon is no longer part of the company.)

From classroom to classroom

Socrative was conceived and trialed in course 15.060 (Data, Models, Decisions), where Maimon served as a teaching assistant. Frequently, after lectures, students would pose questions about certain aspects of material that were not fully addressed in class, reflecting an understanding that was very different from what he might have expected.

Back then, the only real-time student-response systems were “clickers” — remote-control-like devices with buttons students can press to answer questions or vote in class. But teachers usually rent those systems, which can be expensive, and the systems are difficult to implement.

Seeing the inevitability of mobile devices in the classroom, Maimon recruited fellow MIT Sloan students — Slava Menn MBA ’11, Puneet Newaskar SM ’03, MBA ’11, Karan Singh MBA ’11, Tal Snir MBA ’11, and Jaime Contreras MBA ’11 — to help build an early prototype for an app that would send out a few multiple-choice questions on material he taught during class.

When he used the app in class a few days later, Maimon saw the potential power of gathering anonymous, real-time data. First, his students voted on answers to lesson-based questions by a show of hands. Then the students weighed in anonymously on the same questions on the prototype app. Maimon saw that certain answers received more votes anonymously than by a show of hands. One reason, he posits: Students may be uncomfortable admitting they don’t understand, so they don’t ask for clarification.

“That’s when the power of real-time anonymity came in, which is fantastic because it changes the social layout,” he says. “If you’re afraid of asking a question because you think you’re the only one who doesn’t understand it, and then suddenly you remove that barrier, you see many others don’t understand as well, and it changes people’s comfort levels.”

In 2010, Maimon recruited Berte and West, and turned to mentors in MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship for advice on marketing and financing, among other things. In 2011, they joined the Imagine K-12 startup accelerator in Palo Alto, Calif., and grew out their team.

“It was internal and external momentum,” Maimon says. “The more we saw people being excited about it from the outside, and the more we brought in team members who were excited about carrying this forward internally, the more we realized this is turning into an actual company.”

That momentum carried Socrative through to the 2012-13 academic year, when the app saw 278,000 quizzes created and shared by more than 3 million teachers and students worldwide, with more than 1,000 teacher users joining per day.

The experience of teachers

Today, other companies have released similar student-response tools. But what sets Socrative apart, Maimon says, is a core focus on K-12 teachers, which informs its simple design.

The app, for instance, has dedicated K-12 features, making it accessible to a broad audience, Maimon says. Apart from quizzes, a “space race” feature lets students compete for the most correct responses; “exit tickets” let students weigh in on what they learned — and what they’d like to learn — as they’re leaving the class.

This simplicity is especially important for teachers trying to educate dozens of students — sometimes very young — without disrupting class. “The experience of the teachers in the class became core to everything we do: making sure that it’s seamless. We knew that if we can’t make it simple enough for core users, we aren’t going to intro more teachers into our system,” Maimon says.

Today, testimonials on the company’s website — and countless online reviews from K-12 teachers of all disciplines — laud the app for its simplicity, as well as for saving time, helping students better understand material, and providing clear data analysis on student progress.

Having reached so many teachers, Socrative is expanding its mission — such as by using data to improve and personalize K-12 education. For instance, Maimon says, should some students learn by video or by lecture? What lessons should be taught by hands-on, experiential methods? Overall, how can we provide better tools for teachers to help every student based on individual needs?

“We need a body of data that is available to start deriving meaningful insights about how to tailor learning methods to students,” Maimon says. “That’s the lofty objective.”

By Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, the chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States and an assistant to President Barack Obama, will deliver the address at MIT’s 149th Commencement exercises on Friday, June 5, in Killian Court.

An internationally recognized entrepreneur, engineer, and technology executive, Smith was named as the nation’s CTO in September. Before joining the White House, she was a vice president at Google, where she led new business development and later joined the leadership team at Google[x], where her work included co-creating the “SolveForX” innovation project and the company’s “WomenTechmakers” diversity initiative.

Smith earned her SB in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1986 and her SM in mechanical engineering in 1988, completing her master’s thesis work in the MIT Media Lab. She served as a member of the MIT Corporation from 1988 to 1993, and again from 2006 to earlier this year.

“As a technologist, Megan Smith dreams on a grand scale, and she delivers just as grandly,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “Her open spirit, startling creativity, and deep technical insight shine through in everything she does, from the world-changing projects she spearheaded with colleagues at Google to her inspiring insights as a member of the MIT Corporation. In the best MIT tradition, Megan takes her work very seriously, but not herself. We could not be prouder that she is now guiding the nation’s technology policy, nor more delighted that she will address our new graduates in June.”

As U.S. CTO, Smith guides the Obama administration’s technology policy and innovation initiatives to advance our nation, with the goal of bringing the benefits of advanced information, data, networked communications technologies, and talented innovators to every sector of the economy.

“Engineers and innovators have a crucial role to play in serving our nation and the greater world,” Smith says. “MIT has been a leader in training the next generation of creative thinkers who will pioneer new technologies, launch businesses, and bring needed solutions to so many of the greatest challenges facing humanity.”

For nine years, Smith was vice president of new business development at Google, where she managed early-stage partnerships, pilot explorations, and technology licensing. During that time, she led the company’s acquisition of major platforms such as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Picasa, and served as general manager of Google.org during its engineering transition.

Smith previously served as CEO of the LGBT online community PlanetOut; helped design early smartphone technologies at General Magic; and worked on multimedia products at Apple Japan in Tokyo. As an MIT student, Smith captained the varsity swimming and freshman crew teams; participated in student research projects, including one that flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis; and was a member of the MIT student team that designed, built, and raced a solar car 2,000 miles across the Australian outback in the first cross-continental solar car race.

“We are honored to have alumna Megan Smith as our commencement speaker,” says Undergraduate Association President Shruti Sharma. “Ms. Smith embodies leadership in engineering, a quality that is especially important to students at MIT. As chief technology officer of the United States, she encourages innovation by incorporating the fundamentals of ‘mens et manus’ through her philanthropy work and her service to the White House.”

“I am thrilled that we will be able to hear from an alumna who embodies so many of the values we cherish as MIT students: scientific pursuit, entrepreneurship, applying knowledge to advance technology, and using our diverse interests to serve others,” says Joanne Zhou, president of MIT’s Class of 2015. “Megan Smith is a remarkable example of someone who has succeeded in expanding the limits of what is scientifically possible, and applied that knowledge to harness technology for helping millions of people. I know that her passion will continue to be an inspiration as we, the Class of 2015, each begin to expand our impact outside of MIT — now, and in the years after graduation.”

“We look forward to having Megan Smith as the 2015 Commencement speaker,” says Graduate Student Council President Kendall Nowocin. “As an alumna, she continually exemplifies MIT’s mission of advancing knowledge to solve the world’s great challenges for the betterment of humankind. Her leadership and contributions will make, and have made, impacts across the globe.”

Smith joins a notable list of guest speakers at recent MIT Commencements, including DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman (2014); Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston ‘05 (2013); Khan Academy founder Sal Khan ‘98, MEng ‘98 (2012); Xerox CEO Ursula Burns (2011); and Raymond S. Stata ‘57, chairman and co-founder of Analog Devices Inc. (2010).

“I am delighted with the selection of Megan Smith as the Commencement speaker,” says Chancellor for Academic Advancement Eric Grimson, who has long served on MIT’s Commencement Committee. “As an MIT alumna, she understands the passion that drives our students; as the leader of Google[x], she understands the role that innovation and entrepreneurship can play in changing the world; and as the U.S. chief technology officer, she understands how technology can be used for social good. These are all themes that are of great importance to our graduates, and I am sure her remarks will be an inspiration to them.”

Note: Megan Smith will deliver the commencement address in her personal capacity and as a graduate of MIT.

By Steve Bradt | MIT News Office

Innovation in the service of society has been at the core of MIT’s mission since the Institute’s founding more than 150 years ago.

Now a preliminary report, leading up to the launch of an MIT Innovation Initiative, is proposing a series of steps aimed at fortifying MIT’s culture of innovation — suggesting a suite of resources, programs, and facilities to aid in bringing significant innovations out of the labs and into the daily lives of people around the world, and to do so faster and more effectively.

Compilation of the report was led by the co-directors of the Innovation Initiative: Vladimir Bulovic, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology, and Fiona Murray, the William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship. The two professors are associate deans for innovation in the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management, respectively.

The effort was initiated in October 2013 by MIT President L. Rafael Reif. In his charge to the advisory committee, established to define the scope and goals of the new Innovation Initiative, Reif wrote, “With an interdisciplinary attitude and an appetite for hands-on problem solving, we define compelling new questions, attack them in novel ways — and bring our students with us every step.”

The report reflects contributions from a 19-member faculty advisory committee, led by Bulovic and Murray, and including representatives from all five of MIT’s schools. The report, based on substantive research and input from stakeholders both inside and outside MIT, outlines a set of priorities to help the Institute in supporting innovation, and a set of proposals to be prioritized and implemented over time.

“At MIT, our mission directs us to advance knowledge and educate students in service to the nation and the world; this profound work will always be our central focus and inspiration,” Reif wrote in a letter to the MIT community introducing the preliminary report, and welcoming feedback. “But our mission also compels us to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges — a good working definition of innovation as we practice it at MIT. With this new initiative, we have an opportunity to deliver better solutions to the world — and in the process, to deliver to the world a better MIT.”

A legacy of innovation

The preliminary report, titled “The MIT Innovation Initiative: Sustaining and Extending a Legacy of Innovation,” observes: “MIT will always be defined by its central focus on education and research. Yet more and more, innovation belongs to our mission as well.”

MIT’s forthcoming Innovation Initiative, the report adds, is focused on “providing a forum and a framework for enhancing the Institute’s innovation engine in ways that accelerate our community’s ability to transform brilliant ideas and fundamental research into positive and substantive social and economic impact.”

The report outlines a series of steps to foster these goals; some could be implemented immediately, while others will require further study and discussion to refine their details. The recommendations encompass four broad priorities:

  • strengthening and expanding MIT’s innovation capabilities;
  • cultivating communities that connect across campus and engage MIT with broader worldwide innovation needs;
  • developing additional, transformative hands-on infrastructure; and
  • formalizing, studying, and promoting the science of innovation through a new Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy. 

The report emphasizes that these steps represent a continuation of MIT’s longtime approach to education and research: Already, the study says, the Institute offers more than 50 courses specifically related to innovation and entrepreneurship, across all five of its schools, enrolling more than 3,000 students. Other programs and competitions, including undergraduate research opportunities and MIT’s annual $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, have involved thousands more students in activities related to innovation.

Growing demand

While such programs are an established part of MIT’s culture, the report notes that they are so popular that the Institute cannot meet current demand for them — either in terms of physical facilities, or in financing for such things as prototyping facilities and support for entrepreneurial projects. In addition, the report says, there is a clear desire for more ways to facilitate collaborations across schools and departments, and for more ways for MIT’s innovators to interact with communities around the world.

“We need to get better at recognizing and responding to the sorts of global challenges that exist,” Murray says. “We need to ensure that MIT’s solutions actually reach the people who need them by designing the right kinds of organizations and policies to ensure they reach impact.”

Specific proposals in the preliminary report include education with greater emphasis on learning that goes beyond traditional academic knowledge and research — specifically, encouraging solutions to real-world problems, scaling them up, and delivering them where they are needed. Toward that end, the report suggests creation of an undergraduate minor, a graduate certificate in innovation, and programming for postdocs.

“Our students are driven to make a positive difference in the world,” Bulovic says. “While at MIT, we need to enable them to hone their skills in translating ideas to innovations, so they can go on to provide solutions that scale rapidly and achieve broad positive impact.”

Opportunities on- and off-campus

The establishment of vibrant, small-scale global innovation communities to expand MIT’s innovation footprint is described in the report as another priority. These might bring together alumni, students, faculty, outside entrepreneurs, policymakers, and funding sources, all of whom could work together on problem-solving and implementation of solutions. The report states that by engaging with stakeholders around the world there is an opportunity to build on the long tradition of “science diplomacy” that forged mutually beneficial relationships among scientists around the world to inspire an era of “innovation diplomacy” On campus, specific suggestions include better coordination of MIT’s many hackathons, festivals, and competitions related to innovation, as well as a student leadership council to help coordinate the activities of the more than 40 existing student groups and clubs focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The report proposes a significant expansion of infrastructure, such as spaces for scaling up innovations, and the development of new sources of funding — such as new faculty innovations fellowships, visiting partnerships, and innovation advocates who could work with on-campus teams to help develop innovative ideas. Dedicated innovation spaces, situated in various locations around campus, could provide facilities and equipment specifically geared toward the development of both inventions and the teams to carry them forward. Expansion of the present research seed-grant programs, and establishment of new ones, would support dedicated research time for translating ideas into prototypes, accelerating their path to scale-up and impact.

Another key goal of the report: fostering and developing a “science of innovation.” The report notes, “We believe that the drivers and outcomes of innovation warrant rigorous, multidisciplinary analysis that increases our understanding of how to generate innovation more constructively, efficiently and effectively.” The report also proposes creation of a Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy to “develop new knowledge of the innovation process; promote new data, methods and metrics related to innovation science; and translate evidence-based insights into practical recommendations for industrial and policy partners.”

Bulovic and Murray welcome thoughts from all members of the MIT community on the framework and scope of the activities outlined in the report. They will host several community briefings; the first of these will occur Monday, Dec. 8, from 3 to 4 p.m. in Room E14-633. Feedback may also be sent to innovation@mit.edu.

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

By any media necessary

December 22, 2014

Nearly a decade ago, Sasha Costanza-Chock — now an assistant professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing — volunteered at the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for the rights of low-wage workers. Activists at the group wanted to inform local garment workers, many of whom are immigrants, about their rights.

To do so, they surveyed workers about which kinds of media or communications they used. Some had cellphones; a few had Internet access. But many workers, especially those instructed not to talk to co-workers on the job, listened to the radio or music at work.

So Costanza-Chock, along with colleagues and workers themselves, produced CDs mixing public service announcements about rights with music, oral histories, poems, and other materials. This way, many of the more than 60,000 garment workers in Los Angeles became better informed about their rights — and, for immigrants, about potential paths to citizenship.

The efforts of the Garment Worker Center were among the many cases in which advocacy groups tried a variety of tools — social media, radio, newspapers, street demonstrations, and more — to organize the nation’s immigrant-rights movement. While the political outcome of the debate remains unclear, the movement has produced unprecedented visibility for the issue, in part because of its diversity of media strategies, according to Costanza-Chock.

“It’s quite rare that a particular tool or platform is the centerpiece of an effective media strategy for a social-movement organization or network,” Costanza-Chock says. “Instead, movements work across many platforms to create strong narratives and symbols that circulate by any media necessary. And increasingly, they invite people to participate in media production as a way of building strong movement identity.”

Now Costanza-Chock has detailed this process in a new book, “Out of the Shadows, into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,” published this month by the MIT Press — and appearing just as the immigration-rights issue is making new headlines, given President Barack Obama’s decision to take executive action on the matter last week. 

In the book, Costanza-Chock enters into the debate of recent years about the role of new social-media platforms in abetting social and political change — a debate that precedes the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, but was amplified by them. Some observers have viewed social media as an essential spark for these movements; skeptics have said such platforms fail to create the lasting connections needed to make social movements successful. But Costanza-Chock thinks asking whether social media can build powerful movements is the “wrong question.” Rather, he offers, it is important to look at all of a movement’s organizing activities.

“If what we want to understand is the relationship between social movements and media technology, I think it’s a mistake to start from the technology, to start from the platform,” Costanza-Chock says. “It’s important to engage deeply with a particular social-movement network, if we want to look at all of the different ways people circulate media.”

Making media, building identity

In conducting his research, as Costanza-Chock makes clear in the book, he worked on several projects that aimed to develop media strategies for immigrant-rights groups, adopting the participatory approach familiar in anthropology. He emphasizes that actually making media — video clips, radio programming, social media messages, posters, newspaper columns — is important in how people start to identify with social movements.

“I felt there was something missing in terms of the way social-movement scholars understood the role of media, and media-making, in social-movement processes,” Costanza-Chock says. “The actual media-making process itself is very much part of forming social-movement identity.”

To be clear, Costanza-Chock does not downplay some of the changes brought about by online communications and communities; rather, in his view, he is placing those changes in a broader perspective.

“I will say that I think the Internet has made the diffusion of social-movement tactics more rapid, so people are now able to more quickly see experiments other movements came up with,” he adds.

And some of those tactics get adopted by developing social movements: The immigrant-rights movement, for instance, has used an approach developed by the gay-rights community, in which immigrants “out” themselves as undocumented residents in YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, street signs, and more. In so doing, they are attempting to humanize what can be an abstract debate.

“It’s a real human being saying, ‘It’s me, I’m a person, and if we’re going to have a real conversation, you need to look me in the eye so we can talk about it,’” Costanza-Chock observes.

Costanza-Chock refrains from making predictions about the future of immigration policy in the U.S. But he hopes he can catch the attention of scholars, commentators, activists, and other observers to reinforce the point that the relationship between social movements and media is multifaceted, and that the starting point for understanding that relationship involves grappling with the dynamics of those movements and their organizations.

“At a very basic level, any social movement is a narrative, a story, an idea,” he notes. “It’s a set of ideas about who we are as people, and what types of values we want to see made real in the world.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Deborah K. Fitzgerald announced today that she will step down as Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), effective July 1, 2015. Provost Martin Schmidt shared the news in an email to the MIT community.

Fitzgerald, who has served as dean of SHASS since 2007, and in the two preceding years as associate dean and acting dean, will return to her faculty position as a professor of the history of technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. 


“Under Deborah’s inspired leadership, SHASS has maintained the highest standards of academic excellence throughout its departments, centers and programs and has become an increasingly important contributor to the Institute’s overall capacity for innovation in teaching and research,” Schmidt wrote in his letter. “In particular, she was devoted to strengthening the core undergraduate education requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and among her achievements was the recent restructuring of several academic units in the humanities.”

“Deborah Fitzgerald has been a tremendous leader for SHASS and an influential advocate for the humanities, arts, and social sciences well beyond our campus,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “She understands that no matter how rigorously we educate our students in science and engineering, it is when we teach them about human culture and complexity that we truly equip them to change the world. For me personally, she has also been a wonderful colleague and counselor — wise, clear, candid, forward-looking, and deeply in tune with MIT.”

As dean, Fitzgerald has led a school of 170 faculty members in 13 fields of study: anthropology; economics; political science; global studies and languages; history; linguistics; literature; comparative media studies/writing; music, philosophy; theater arts; science, technology, and society; and women’s and gender studies. SHASS, which teaches all MIT undergraduates, is also home to seven graduate programs, and to many labs and centers, including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab; Center for International Studies; HyperStudio (digital humanities); Security Studies Program; Knight Science Journalism Fellows; Game Lab; Open Documentary Lab; and Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative.

“Serving as dean of this school, at this great Institute, has been a profound and humbling privilege,” Fitzgerald says. “It has been an enormous pleasure to collaborate with distinguished and dedicated colleagues from many disciplines, and with alumni from around the globe, to help advance MIT’s research and educational mission in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.” 

Boosting graduate and undergraduate education

During her tenure, Fitzgerald has been committed to strengthening resources for SHASS’s distinguished graduate program. She also initiated restructuring of MIT’s academic requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS), improving its approach to HASS core education; re-energized undergraduate education in SHASS, including a program for developing innovative new classes; and spearheaded restructuring of several SHASS academic units to create a single, stronger unit centered on media studies and writing. 


Fitzgerald has also strengthened the Institute’s offerings in international education. She was a member of the MIT Global Council that produced a 2009 report, “Mens et Manus et Mundi,” that explored goals for the future of global education and research at MIT. And she has supported the continued growth of the SHASS-based MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Institute’s international education program, which prepares students to collaborate and lead around the globe. MISTI connects MIT students — some 5,500 to date — to fully funded internship, research, and teaching opportunities in 18 countries.  
 

The MISTI experience begins with preparatory coursework in the languages and cultures of the destination countries. “Giving MIT students deep knowledge of other languages and cultures, and the capacity to be global citizens and wise leaders, is vital to a 21st century education — and critical to the Institute’s leadership position,” Fitzgerald has said. 
 

Advancing the arts, empowering students

Fitzgerald also helped spur advances in MIT’s arts programming, including the launch of the MIT Center for Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST), a joint initiative between SHASS, the MIT Office of the Arts, and the School of Architecture and Planning. Established in 2012 with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CAST was founded to further MIT’s leadership in integrating the arts into the curriculum and research of institutions of higher learning. Recognizing the powerful place that the performing arts have in the creativity, growth, and success of MIT students and alumni, Fitzgerald championed plans for a performing arts facility in music and theater at MIT.

To further share significant ideas, news, and research from SHASS, Fitzgerald established an in-house communications effort, creating a feature-rich website; a monthly digest, “Said and Done”; a permanent exhibition — “Great Ideas Change the World” — in Building 14N; active social media channels, including the Twitter account @SHASS4Students; the Listening Room, a curated, free, web-based collection of MIT’s finest student and faculty music; and the Tour de SHASS, an annual event at which MIT students meet and talk with SHASS faculty and explore the school’s academic offerings through a travel-themed expo.

An MIT faculty member since 1988, Fitzgerald is a leading historian of American agriculture and author of the award-winning “Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture” (Yale University Press, 2003). Fitzgerald is a past president and member of the Agricultural History Society, and a member of the Organization of American Historians and the Society for the History of Technology.

Speaking of her mission in returning to teaching MIT students, Fitzgerald said, “As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both the STEM and HASS disciplines, we aim to empower our young students, thinkers, and citizens with superb skills, habits of mind, and experiences that help them serve the world well, with innovations, and lives, that are rich in meaning and wisdom.” 

In his email to the MIT community, Schmidt said that he intends to appoint a faculty committee in the near future to advise on the selection of the next dean of SHASS. He also asked for insights and suggestions from the MIT community to help identify the best candidates for the next SHASS dean. All correspondence sent by email (shass-search@mit.edu) or letter (Room 3-208) will be treated as confidential.

By News Office

For its inaugural event, the recently formed MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative presented “Examining Ebola,” a panel that probed the current global public health emergency from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The gathering, held at MIT on Oct. 28, also encapsulated the goals of the new initiative, which is based in the Anthropology section of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

“We want to bring together scholars in different fields who don’t normally have a chance to talk to each other,” said Erica Caple James, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative. “With this initiative, we hope to encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration on health matters — teaching together, researching together, and mobilizing the creativity of all five MIT schools, as the Institute continues to develop its future role in improving human health.”

Political, economic, and cultural determinants of health

In a series of planned panels and collaborative events, James says she aims to catalyze a “new kind of conversation” at MIT and beyond. “We want to look at illness and disease from a complex perspective, not simply as a matter of individual physiology,” she says. “This means also thinking through the political, economic, social, and cultural determinants of health.”

The six “Examining Ebola” panelists and moderator James provided a wide range of expertise and perspectives — from reports from the front lines of treatment in West Africa, to the latest laboratory advances in viral genetics and diagnostics, to analysis of the cultural and historical contexts for the current epidemic.

The impact of history

“The epidemic started at a crossroads where three countries meet in a forest region,” explained Adia Benton, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. “The history of war and transatlantic slave trade raiding in that region shaped movements of peoples across borders, and also explains some of the hostility that citizens there have toward health workers arriving in the region.”

Benton said such mistrust can grow in the face of “a military medicine intervention,” where there are forceful barriers to movement and when triage and treatment is prioritized according to established social hierarchies.

Referring to allegations that biological agents were used during the 1970s on members of the independence movement in what was then Rhodesia, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, associate professor of Science, Technology and Society at MIT, noted that, given that history, it is not surprising that in his home country of Zimbabwe “people are hesitant and suspicious of well-meaning scientific initiatives.” Mavhunga called for “scientific innovation diplomacy” to “lay the proper groundwork” for medical advances that could help arrest the Ebola outbreak.

Biomedical engineer works toward a field test for diagnosis

One such medical innovation potentially headed to West Africa is a new paper diagnostic test for Ebola from the laboratory of Boston University biomedical engineer James J. Collins, who has recently accepted an appointment to the MIT faculty. Collins, a MacArthur Award winner and member of the three national academies, described an Ebola diagnostic technique that resembles a simple pregnancy test: a paper strip changes color in reaction to the presence of microscopic samples of Ebola pathogen. The test requires no refrigeration, and Collins hopes this test, along with an inexpensive device that can transmit results digitally, can move to field testing in the near future.

Questions about the virus

Accurate diagnostics and treatment also depend on gaining more intimate knowledge of the Ebola virus itself, observed Stephen Gire, a research scientist with the Sabeti Lab, affiliated with the Eli and Edyth Broad Institute. The virus replicates so fast that “you literally have billions of viral particles in your body, which take a while to clear out,” Gire said. Researchers have discovered RNA fragments in different bodily fluids months after Ebola is cleared from the system, he continued, and “it’s unknown whether this is actually infected virus.”

Gire’s lab is helping to show “how the virus is changing in real time, and where the mutations fall.” With 10,000 reported cases in West Africa — which, Gire says, might actually “be more likely in the 25,000 range” due to underreporting — many samples of this prolific Ebola virus are available for analysis, revealing to scientists the emergence of different strains in human populations.

The role of government policy and public education

Jeanne Guillemin, a senior advisor in the MIT SHASS Security Studies Program, and an authority on outbreaks of exotic disease said that resolving public health crises like the current Ebola outbreak requires the collaboration of researchers and experts from several realms. As critical as science is, she said, “Science alone rarely has all the answers.” For effective control of dangerous epidemics, she explained, the best medical science must be accompanied by astute government leadership and an informed public.

Guillemin also noted that limitations in political cooperation, legislation, and policy can damage our ability to respond well to health crises. For example, due to partisan politics the U.S. currently lacks a surgeon general to handle the Ebola crisis, including public education. 

Although the past century saw dangerous anthrax and smallpox episodes, not enough lessons have been learned, Guillemin said. “We have been here before,” she said. “There is a litany of different outbreaks that more or less look like the one we’re having now.” Guillemin argues that large-scale public health emergencies can lead to policy changes that create long-term, meaningful structural solutions in the healthcare of developing nations, where outbreaks typically originate. “Deploying people to West Africa to help now is wonderful, but it’s a band aid,” she commented.

Transportation, media, and fear, unintended consequences

Yet given the scale of the current emergency, even such provisional aid is essential, said Jarrod Goentzel, the founder and director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab. Goentzel, who is engaged in helping move medical supplies to nations ravaged by Ebola, particularly Liberia, noted that “Africans are taking the lead on health care,” and he envisions that this crisis could eventually lead to strengthening health infrastructure in the affected African nations. 

Today, however, only three counties in Liberia have diagnostic laboratories, and many hospitals and clinics are closed for lack of adequate protective gear, trained staff, and sanitation workers. Moreover, several factors are thwarting the distribution of vital equipment. Not only are African ports, airports, and roads blocked by the rainy season, but actions in the U.S. are complicating the supply chain as well.

With media coverage fanning fear at home, said Goentzel, “a lot of politicians are taking action, and, as just one example, the state of Ohio recently decided to stockpile protective personal equipment.” Actions like this lead to misallocation of resources, he said, and essential equipment “is not getting into the parts of the world where we have the most cases.”

Out of the silos

In the panelists’ conversation, Erica Caple James found confirmation that scholars from disparate fields have much to offer each other and the public on health issues. As the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative gears up, she intends to spark more productive interactions among scholars in the humanities, social sciences, science, and engineering fields.   

“Conversations are happening all over MIT around different components of health and health care,” she says. “But they tend to take place in silos, with institutes and departments each focusing on their research specialties,” she said. “We would like to help generate more cross-school collaboration.”  

As a medical anthropologist, James traces how illness unfolds in the specific contexts of family, social network, and community, and brings to light “the human experience of health.” She has focused on mental health, and in particular the struggles of Haitians in the face of a series of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and government-sponsored violence.

Medical humanities

Her field of medical and psychiatric anthropology is part of the larger, emerging discipline of “medical humanities,” a vein of study offered in medical schools that attempts, James said, to “provide greater insight into questions of human suffering, illness, and diseases, by situating them in historical and cultural contexts.”

Ethics, literature, the history of medicine, and the arts may all be featured in medical humanities programs. One goal is to give clinicians training in how “to think about a patient beyond being a constellation of symptoms on a checklist.”

James has seen that as medical schools “prepare clinicians of the future to encounter many different kinds of patients,” they are increasingly eager to add “cultural competency” to the portfolio of requirements for their graduates. With this in mind, James envisions an interdisciplinary Health Minor for MIT undergraduates who are pursuing medical and public health careers. In concert with the Institute of Medical Engineering and Science, she aims to help graduates and postdocs in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program who are seeking a global health course of study and research opportunities.

The “Examining Ebola” event was co-sponsored by the MIT Global Health and Medical Health Initiative, MIT SHASS Anthropology, and Prehealth Advising in the MIT Global Education & Career Development Office. 

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Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Leda Zimmerman

 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

MIT has received $15 million in funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to establish an initiative aimed at laying the foundations for a smart, sustainable cybersecurity policy to deal with the growing cyber threats faced by governments, businesses, and individuals.

The MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative (CPI) is one of three new academic initiatives to receive a total of $45 million in support through the Hewlett Foundation’s Cyber Initiative. Simultaneous funding to MIT, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley is intended to jump-start a new field of cyber policy research. The idea is to generate a robust “marketplace of ideas” about how best to enhance the trustworthiness of computer systems while respecting individual privacy and free expression rights, encouraging innovation, and supporting the broader public interest.

With the new awards, the Hewlett Foundation has now allocated $65 million over the next five years to strengthening cybersecurity, the largest-ever private commitment to this nascent field. “Choices we are making today about Internet governance and security have profound implications for the future. To make those choices well, it is imperative that they be made with a sense of what lies ahead and, still more important, of where we want to go,” says Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation. “We view these grants as providing seed capital to begin generating thoughtful options.”

“I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Larry Kramer throughout this process. His dedication and the Hewlett Foundation’s remarkable generosity provide an opportunity for MIT to make a meaningful and lasting impact on cybersecurity policy,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “I am honored by the trust that the Foundation has placed in MIT and excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.”

Each of the three universities will take complementary approaches to addressing this challenge. MIT’s CPI will focus on establishing quantitative metrics and qualitative models to help inform policymakers. Stanford’s Cyber-X Initiative will focus on the core themes of trustworthiness and governance of networks. And UC Berkeley’s Center for Internet Security and Policy will be organized around assessing the possible range of future paths cybersecurity might take.

Interdisciplinary approach

The Institute-wide CPI will bring together scholars from three key disciplinary pillars: engineering, social science, and management. Engineering is vital to understanding the architectural dynamics of the digital systems in which risk occurs. Social science can help explain institutional behavior and frame policy solutions, while management scholars offer insight on practical approaches to institutionalize best practices in operations.

MIT has a strong record of applying interdisciplinary approaches to large-scale problems from energy to cancer. For example, the MIT Energy Initiative has brought together faculty from across campus — including the social sciences — to conduct energy studies designed to inform future energy options and research. These studies include technology policy reports focused on nuclear power, coal, natural gas, and the smart electric grid.

“We’re very good at understanding the system dynamics on the one hand, then translating that understanding into concrete insights and recommendations for policymakers. And we’ll bring that expertise to the understanding of connected digital systems and cybersecurity. That’s our unique contribution to this challenge,” says Daniel Weitzner, the principal investigator for the CPI and a principal research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Developing a more formal understanding of the security behavior of large-scale systems is a crucial foundation for sound public policy. As an analogy, Weitzner says, imagine trying to shape environmental policy without any way of measuring carbon levels in the atmosphere and no science to assess the cost or effectiveness of carbon mitigation tools. “This is the state of cybersecurity policy today: growing urgency, but no metrics and little science,” he says.

CSAIL is home to much of the technology that is at the core of cybersecurity, such as the RSA cryptography algorithm that protects most online financial transactions, and the development of web standards via the MIT-based World Wide Web Consortium. “That gives us the ability to have our hands on the evolution of these technologies to learn about how to make them more trustworthy,” says Weitzner, who was the United States deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy in the White House from 2011 to 2012, while on leave from his longtime position at MIT.

First steps

In pioneering a new field of study, CPI’s first challenge is to identify key research questions, select appropriate methodologies to guide the work, and establish patterns of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Research challenges include:

  • How policymakers should address security risks to personal health information;
  • How financial institutions can reduce risk by sharing threat intelligence;
  • Developing cybersecurity policy frameworks for autonomous vehicles like drones and self-driving cars; and
  • How to achieve regional and even global agreements on both privacy and security norms in online environments.

To address these issues, CPI will not only bring to bear different disciplines from across MIT — from computer science to management to political science — but also engage with stakeholders outside the Institute, including government, industry, and civil society organizations. “We want to understand their challenges and work with them on formulating solutions,” Weitzner said.

In addition to research, a contribution of the CPI in the long run will be to create a pipeline of students to serve as the next generation of leaders working at this intersection of technology and public policy.

The mission of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is to “help people build measurably better lives.” The Foundation concentrates its resources on activities in education, the environment, global development and population, performing arts, and philanthropy, as well as grants to support disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Foundation was established by the late William Hewlett with his wife, Flora Lamson Hewlett, and their eldest son, Walter B. Hewlett. William Hewlett, who earned an SM degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1936, was co-founder, with David Packard, of the Hewlett-Packard Company, a multinational information technology company.

By Resource Development

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins yesterday urged an MIT audience to “reflect on what our role is as scientists and citizens of the world.”

“What we’re engaged in is a noble enterprise,” Collins told attendees at the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture, who filled Room 10-250. “It is an opportunity to alleviate suffering and reach out to those who need help.”

This is all the more important in the face of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed nearly 5,000 lives and is expected to take many more, Collins said. He noted that the NIH has been supporting the search for Ebola vaccines since the mid-1990s, and now has two candidates poised to enter Phase II clinical trials in December. “I wish we were one or two years ahead of where we are now,” he added.

In what was undoubtedly the first Compton Lecture with a musical conclusion, Collins then summoned Pardis Sabeti, a Broad Institute researcher, guitarist Bob Katsiaficas, and the MIT Logarhythms a cappella group to help him lead the audience in performing a song, “One Truth,” which Sabeti and Katsiaficas wrote after the deaths of three of Sabeti’s colleagues in Sierra Leone who contracted Ebola last summer.

Striking a balance

During his lecture, Collins also acknowledged the budget limitations that have forced his agency to cut back on its funding of medical research. That only makes it more difficult for the NIH to achieve the right balance between its two missions: supporting basic scientific research and applying new knowledge to enhance human health, Collins said.

“We talk about that every day at NIH,” he said. “I wish we had more resources so we could do more of both.”

Collins noted that MIT received $103 million in NIH funding in fiscal year 2014 and highlighted some of the projects supported by that money. Linda Griffith, a professor in MIT’s biological engineering and mechanical engineering departments, is working on a “liver on a chip” — a small device designed to mimic the three-dimensional architecture of the human liver, allowing researchers to test potential drugs before they go into clinical trials. One version of the chip also includes breast cancer cells, enabling an investigation of what happens when cancer metastasizes to the liver.

Projects like this could help translate the vast amount of information scientists have learned about the molecular basis of disease into treatments for patients. Scientists now understand the causes of nearly 5,500 diseases, but effective therapies exist for only about 500 of those, Collins noted. “There’s a huge gap between what we know and what we’re able to do,” he said.

Devices such as the liver on a chip could help close that gap by reducing the time it takes to get a potential drug from the discovery process to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — a process that currently takes an average of 14 years.

“This kind of technology is enormously promising for understanding biology, and also to speed up the process of identifying what is a safe and effective drug,” Collins says.

Several MIT researchers were also among the recipients of the recently announced NIH Brain Initiative grants. Six of the 58 grants went to MIT, more than any other institution. At this early stage, most of the projects are dedicated to developing new technologies that will eventually help researchers understand how the brain’s 86 billion neurons communicate with each other to perform functions such as forming memories, processing sensory information, and initiating movement.

“It’s an audacious idea that we might be able to understand how circuits in the human brain do the amazing things they do,” Collins said.

A louder voice

Asked how scientists can help to persuade government officials and the public that scientific research deserves more resources, Collins said that all scientists should be ready to explain their work to anyone who asks about it.

“The job we all have is to be prepared at any moment to explain what we do and why it matters,” he said. “I don’t think the science community has a voice that has been heard as loudly as it should in terms of the importance of what we do.”

He also pointed out some achievements of health research over the past several decades. Over the past 60 years, U.S. deaths from cardiovascular disease have dropped 70 percent, while deaths from cancer are now falling by about 1 percent a year, a modest but hard-fought advance. Furthermore, patients diagnosed with HIV can now expect to live a full lifespan; 30 years ago, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence.

“We need to be tireless in making people aware of why this is a very important investment in our nation,” Collins said.

By Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

Political tensions between the U.S. and Russia have increased in the last year, raising concerns about how effectively the two states will be able to pursue nuclear arms-reduction goals.

Striking a note of cautious optimism in an MIT talk yesterday, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, praised Russia’s “businesslike” enforcement of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty, but cited a need for continued progress in other areas of nuclear security.

“The United States and Russia are continuing to implement the treaty in a businesslike manner, despite all the tensions,” Gottemoeller said, referring to the military conflict in the Ukraine. The U.S. accuses Russia of occupying Ukrainian territory in Crimea; Russia claims the area is historically its own.

The U.S. and Russia inspect each other’s facilities 18 times a year as part of the New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010, went into effect in 2011, and calls for a reduction to 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on certain delivery systems by the year 2018.

Gottemoeller said that “the Russians have been good partners” on issues such as removing chemical weapons from Syria, and reiterated American willingness to reduce nuclear arsenals by a further one-third, an offer President Barack Obama made publicly at a speech in Berlin in 2013.

“The greatest prize at the current time is if we can get the Russians to [pursue] the Berlin” proposal, Gottemoeller said.

Still, as Gottemoeller made clear in her remarks, areas of arms-control friction remain between the two states right now. She noted a central one early in her talk: The U.S. contends that Russia has been in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 U.S.-Soviet Union pact that bans ground-launched nuclear and conventional weapons with a range of up to 5,500 kilometers.

“We have been attempting to press this very serious matter with the Russian Federation,” Gottemoeller said, emphasizing that the U.S. is “fully committed to the continued viability of the INF treaty, and we are in full compliance with it.”

The road ahead

Gottemoeller’s public talk — “Future Prospects for U.S.-Russia Arms Control” — was delivered Thursday afternoon in MIT’s Building 54, in front of an audience that included students, faculty, diplomats, and peace activists. 

She emphasized that public awareness of both the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons and of recent progress in arms control needs to be enhanced.

“At the end of the Cold War, the looming threat of nuclear war seemed to drift away,” Gottemoeller said. Public support for nuclear security has a practical dimension to it, since the U.S. Senate must ratify arms treaties — and public opinion has the ability to sway senators.

The U.S. has also significantly reduced a stockpile of what was once 31,000 nuclear weapons, Gottemoeller noted; in another area of progress, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on a program that has repurposed Russian nuclear materials — the equivalent of thousands of bombs — into nuclear-energy fuel in the U.S.

As for the next steps for nuclear security, Gottemoeller suggested that further bilateral arms reductions between the U.S. and Russia should take precedence over multilateral arms-reduction talks among several of the world’s nuclear powers, including Britain, France, and China.

“To my mind, this [multilateral approach] doesn’t make sense, because the U.S. and Russia control 90 percent of nuclear weapons,” Gottemoeller said.

The U.S. and Russia will also need to work together next spring to perform the mandated five-year review of 1970’s Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Weapons (NPT), the world’s largest and longest-lasting global nuclear-weapons agreement.

Gottemoeller said it could be “a difficult review conference” for multiple reasons, including U.S. concerns over the spread of nuclear materials in the Middle East. However, she stated, “I want the NPT regime to be increasingly and constantly strengthened.”

Moreover, Gottemoeller emphasized, “It is in the U.S. interest, and in the interest of countries around the world, that the 70-year history of nonuse of nuclear weapons be continued.” She concluded her talk by quoting former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, in what could be a mantra for arms negotiators: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

Subrata Ghoshroy, a research affiliate in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering, arranged for the undersecretary’s visit. The Program in Science, Technology, and Global Security; the Technology and Culture Forum; and the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering organized and hosted the event.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has selected MIT historian and engineer David A. Mindell as a 2015 AIAA Associate Fellow. 

“It is great honor to be selected,” said Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program of Science, Technology and Society (STS), and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “As aerospace engineering grapples with the critical importance of human beings in robotic and unmanned systems, it is heartening to see that the profession values humanistic perspectives.”

The AIAA selects individuals who have accomplished important engineering or scientific research; created original works of outstanding merit; or have made notable contributions to the arts, sciences, or technology of aeronautics or astronautics.

“David’s research has spanned all three areas — arts, sciences, and technology — showing how they are inseparable in the history of flight and space exploration,” said Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Head of STS. “His election as an AIAA fellow brings honor to STS, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to MIT, fittingly on the eve of the Institute’s centennial celebration of the nation’s most distinguished aerospace program.”

Mindell will receive the award on Jan. 5, 2015, at a ceremony held in conjunction with the AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Kissimmee, Florida.

 
  

By Kierstin Wesolowski | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences