It’s hard to define what makes a place ‘cool’, but whatever it is, Seattle has it in abundance. Beer-lovers find plenty to keep them occupied—as do foodies—and there are plenty of outdoor adventures right on the city’s doorstep. We’re offering ten lucky Instagrammers the chance to join Lonely Planet expert Valerie Stimac (@Valerie_Valise) and talented Instagrammer Victoria Wright (@Veekster) on a bespoke tour of Seattle on Sunday 12th April. We’ll share some of our insider tips on where to go and what to see in Seattle, as well as pro advice on Instagramming your travels.

Who is @Veekster?


Victoria Wright is a Seattle-based photographer and Pacific Northwest native. With camera in hand, she enjoys exploring all the corners of the state with her favorite people and pup.

Valerie Stimac


Valerie is a contributing Lonely Planet writer who works primarily in the Seattle area. She’s spent time around the world, and brings a love for European food, Asian architecture, and American friendliness to all her travels.

How to enter

For the chance to win a spot on the #LPInstawalk, post your best city picture to Instagram and add the hashtag #LPinstawalk, along with the handle @lonelyplanet  (you can also add these to an existing post) by 8am PDT on 2 April. Winners will be announced on 3 April. The #LPInstawalk attendee who posts the best Seattle picture on the day will win a set of Moment lenses (momentlens.co) worth $199.

Moment Lens

Moment lenses take your smartphone photography to the next level. Image courtesy of Moment.

Can’t make it?

Follow the action on Instagram and Twitter by searching #LPInstawalk.

Terms and conditions

By Emma Sparks

Computer-network security breaches are never out of the news for long, but lately, they’ve been hogging the headlines: the Sony hack, the Uber hack, and last month, the revelation that an international gang of cybercriminals had used malware to steal an estimated billion dollars from financial institutions over two years.

In this context, MIT yesterday announced plans to address the problem of cybersecurity from three angles: technology, public policy, and organizational management.

At an event at MIT’s Stata Center, the home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), with more than 200 students, academics, and industry representatives in attendance, MIT faculty and administrators unveiled three new cybersecurity initiatives, to be housed at CSAIL and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Funded with a $15 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative will pool the expertise of researchers at CSAIL, MIT Sloan, the MIT departments of political science and economics, and the Science, Technology, and Society program to better characterize the security dynamics of large networked systems, with the aim of guiding policymakers.

Cybersecurity@CSAIL will provide funding and coordination for the lab’s ongoing research into hardware- and software-based approaches to computer security, while MIT Sloan’s Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure in Cybersecurity, or (IC)3, will focus on the human element — how organizations can ensure that their employees or volunteers are not creating security vulnerabilities, whether intentionally or not.

The launch event was emceed by Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and the speakers included representatives of each of the three initiatives and MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

In his opening remarks, Reif emphasized both the new initiatives’ partnerships with industry and the interdependence of their research programs. “New technologies will require new policies and incentives,” he said. “Emerging policies must adapt to future technologies. And none of that matters if they cannot make the present a safe place to do business.”

“Security by default”

Reif was followed by Daniela Rus, the Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of CSAIL. Rus began by emphasizing MIT’s long history of involvement in cybersecurity: as the home of one of the first computers to allow multiple simultaneous users, it was also the birthplace of the computer password.

But Rus also gave some sense of what the future of cybersecurity would look like. “Many of today’s cybersecurity issues stem from older, poorly designed systems that viewed security as an afterthought,” she said. “Organizations learned to ‘patch and pray,’ planning to manage attacks as they happened rather than fighting them systematically. But we can change that. Instead of looking for patches, we can move towards security by default.”

Rus then introduced Howard Shrobe, a principal research scientist at CSAIL, who will direct Cybersecurity@CSAIL. Shrobe elaborated on Rus’s historical observations, pointing out that the researchers who developed MIT’s multiuser computer, under the auspices of Project MAC, in fact wrote an operating system that had “security by default.” But the computers of the time simply weren’t powerful enough to execute its security protocols efficiently.

Today, however, “on every criterion that you can think of, machines are 50,000 times more powerful than when Project MAC started,” Shrobe said. “We can now start to use those resources to enforce security in a systematic way.”

Cybersecurity@CSAIL, Shrobe added, would focus on three themes: prevention, or designing systems that are harder to hack; resilience, or designing systems that can offer secure transactions even after they’ve been compromised; and regeneration, or designing systems that can repair themselves when breaches are detected.

The founding member companies of Cybersecurity@CSAIL are BAE Systems, BBVA, Boeing, BP and Raytheon.

Square one

Danny Weitzner, a CSAIL principal research scientist and director of the new Cybersecurity Policy Initiative, took the podium next. No one, Weitzner said — neither researchers nor policy makers — has a very good understanding of the dynamics of cybersecurity. But that doesn’t prevent policy makers from trying to control them.

“The United States government, in last year’s budget, is spending over $13 billion on cybersecurity efforts,” Weitzner said. “That’s 1 percent of discretionary spending.”

Weitzner then offered an example from his own two-year stint as the U.S. deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy. During that time, he said, the U.S. Congress was debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, which included what Weitzner called a “seemingly simple proposal to require Internet service providers to use some features of the domain name system to block access to [content pirates’] websites.”

Discussions of the proposal elicited a letter from 83 distinguished Internet engineers — including MIT’s David Clark, who was the Internet’s chief architect for most of the 1980s — who argued that tampering with the Internet’s domain name system, which translates human-readable URLs into machine-readable IP addresses, could have potentially disastrous consequences.

“Their intuition as really good Internet engineers was that it could cause some problems,” Weitzner said. “But really, there was no science presented, no formal model of the interaction between the domain name system and the rest of the Internet — certainly no understanding of how individuals would behave at large scales.” Generating that type of multidisciplinary model is one of the goals of the Cybersecurity Policy Initiative.

Human factors

S. P. Kothari, the Gordon Y. Billard Professor in Management and deputy dean at MIT Sloan, then introduced the final speaker, Stuart Madnick, the Maguire Professor of Information Technologies at MIT Sloan and a professor of engineering systems, who will lead (IC)3.

“It’s great to hear about the work being done to improve the technology by our colleagues at CSAIL and the regulatory considerations being studied by CPI,” Madnick said. “But various studies have shown that up to 80 percent of the incidents [of cybersecurity breaches] are aided or abetted by authorized users.”

“Understanding the organizational, managerial, and strategic issues about cybersecurity is of great importance to protecting our critical infrastructure,” he added, “and that is the focus of (IC)3.”

By Larry Hardesty | MIT News Office

When a middle-school girl from rural Maine updated her Facebook page with a 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 coastal Maine — a place they loved, but one with limited resources.

The couple, living full-time in Nobleboro, Maine, for the past five years, wanted to find a meaningful way to contribute to their community. 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. Drawing 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.

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. A local television station produced a short video that shares student projects from a spinning a disco ball to recreating a Hawaii wind storm.

Those interested in learning more can visit the Gizmo Garden Facebook page or email the Silvers at 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.

Read more stories about MIT alumni and campus culture on Slice of MIT.

By Nancy DuVergne Smith | MIT Alumni Association

Science journalism is the central way many of us learn how advances in science and technology are affecting and changing our lives — in everything from daily choices about food or health care, to issues that impact the planet as a whole.

But crafting great science journalism is a formidable challenge. Science journalists must be schooled deeply in complex scientific and technological practices, theories, and information. They must have superb skills in writing, video, and other media in order to convey the facts, import, and implications of new discoveries and data. They must be ace reporters, bringing critical thinking and hard questions to their investigations. They must have command of language that is both nuanced enough to communicate intricate ideas, and compelling enough to engage a broad public audience.

For the past 30 years, the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program at MIT, has been helping talented science journalists meet that challenge. Many fellows describe their year at MIT as one of the most productive of their lives, and as a source of eduring strength. As one of this year’s fellows commented, “The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

A world leader

The MIT KSJ fellowship, the leading program of its kind in the world, admits 10 to 15 seasoned journalists each year to spend two terms at MIT exploring new fields, solidifying their understanding of a particular research area, and getting up to date on the latest developments. Over nine lively months, the selected science and technology journalists build expertise and community in a program structured around course work, seminars, field trips, and workshops. 

Hailing from all across the globe, the 2015 class of fellows pursue science journalism in a diverse array of media, from traditional newspapers to online video, as beat reporters, editors, and producers. They cover a broad range of scientific fields, including climate change, public health, and astrophysics.

“Working with this group of caring, curious, and committed Knight Fellows has made my year as acting director of the program a real joy,” says Wade Roush, a former editor-at-large for Xconomy who holds a PhD from MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program. “When I think about the concrete things they’ve accomplished and the things I know they’ll do in the future, my worries about the journalism business fade away.”

SHASS Communications recently spoke with a number of the current Knight Fellows about their fellowship year at MIT, the science stories they think are most important, and their views about journalism. Click on the “Interview” links to read a short Q&A with each KSJ Fellow:

Rachael Buchanan
Medical producer, BBC News, United Kingdom

“The explosion of social media platforms and digital story telling tools has complicated questions of who is a journalist and what journalism is.”

Ian Cheney
Director/producer of Wicked Delicate Films, Massachusetts

“Human narratives not only hook viewers, but also provide context and grounding for otherwise complex or intangible ideas.”

Olga Dobrovidova
Science and environmental producer and head of desk for RIA Novosti, Russia

“Science journalism, when it’s accurate, balanced, and not overhyped, can have an incredible public impact.”

Gideon Gil
Health and science editor for The Boston Globe, Massachusetts

“The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

Giovana Girardi
Reporter with O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil

“We all will be affected on some level by climate change. But I am afraid that journalists have been losing relevance in this area, and we need new strategies to communicate the importance of this dramatic issue. One big step in that direction is to understand the science and the politics of climate change better.”

Scott Huler
Independent writer/producer, North Carolina

“The fundamental questions we learned to ask in philosophy, the basic understandings we glean from history, politics, economics — these all form the foundation on which you base your understanding of any science, research, or policy.”

Kathleen McLaughlin
Independent journalist, China

“It’s great to be away from China at MIT this year to recalibrate and think about how we frame important issues related to China and the rest of world.”

George Musser
Freelance journalist, New Jersey

“History and philosophy, especially, are essential to how I think about the fields I write about. We have math, we have the empirical scientific method, and we have philosophical analysis. To neglect any one of these would be like trying to sit on a two-legged stool.”

Bob Young
Staff reporter at The Seattle Times, Washington

“From neuroscience classes to medical-evidence workshops — and much more — the MIT fellowship has propelled me toward my goal of becoming the best-informed reporter on the beat.”

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

In computer-science classes, homework assignments consist of writing programs. It’s easy to create automated tests that determine whether a given program yields the right outputs to a series of inputs. But those tests say nothing about whether the program code is clear or confusing, whether it includes unnecessary computation, and whether it meets the terms of the assignment.

Professors and teaching assistants review students’ code to try to flag obvious mistakes, but even in undergraduate lecture courses, they usually don’t have time for exhaustive analysis. And that problem is much worse in online courses, with thousands of students, each of whom might have approached a problem in a slightly different way.

In April, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, MIT researchers will present a new system that automatically compares students’ solutions to programming assignments, lumping together those that use the same techniques.

For each approach, the system — called OverCode — creates a program template, using variable names that a preponderance of students happen to have converged on. It then displays templates side-by-side, graying out the code they share, so the differences stand out in relief. And from any template, instructors can, if they choose, pull up a list of the student programs that accord with it.

Instructors who notice variations across templates that make no difference in practice can also write rules establishing the equivalence of alternatives. In some instances, for example, “y*x” might yield a different result than “x*y”, but — depending on the ways in which x and y are defined — in other instances, it won’t. When it doesn’t, an instructor could further winnow down the number of templates by creating the rule “y*x = x*y”.

The system could allow instructors of online courses to provide generalized feedback that addresses a broader swath of their students. But it could also provide information on how computer-science courses — both online and on campus — could be better designed.

With online courses, “in a few months, you can have many orders of magnitude of students go through the same material and find all the interesting alternative solutions or make the same errors,” says Elena Glassman, an MIT graduate student in computer science and engineering and first author on the new paper. “Then it’s taking all those records of what people did and making sense of it so that when we run the course again, it’s better, and when we run the course residentially, we’re better able to handle the particular 200 students that we’re meeting with on a regular basis.”

Two programs that perform the same computation may have code that looks somewhat different. The programmers may have chosen different variable names — “total,” say, in one case, versus “result” in the other. Subfunctions may be executed in different orders.

So in addition to comparing programs’ code, OverCode observes the values that variables take on as the programs execute. Two programs with variables that take on the same values in the same order are judged to be identical.

In their new paper, Glassman and her collaborators — her thesis advisor, professor of computer science and engineering Rob Miller; her fellow graduate student Jeremy Scott; Rishabh Singh, who completed his PhD at MIT last year and is now at Microsoft Research; and Philip Guo, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester — also report the results of two usability studies that evaluated OverCode.

In the studies, 24 experienced programmers reviewed thousands of students’ solutions to three introductory programming assignments, using both OverCode and a standard tool that displays solutions one at a time. For each assignment, the subjects were given 15 minutes to assess the strategies students most commonly used to design a particular function and to provide general feedback on each, complete with example code.

Remarkably, when assessing the simplest of the three assignments, the subjects analyzing raw code performed as well those using OverCode: In both cases, the five strategies they identified covered about half of the student responses.

For the most difficult of the three assignments, however, the OverCode users covered about 45 percent of student responses, while the subjects analyzing raw data covered only about 9 percent. “The strategy starts to shine on more-complicated programs,” Glassman says.

By Larry Hardesty | MIT News Office

At this year’s Armory Show in New York City, Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia will present the latest iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” as part of the fair’s regional focus on MENAM (Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean). The Armory Show, March 5-8, is but one stop on “CULTURUNNERS’” nationwide tour. The project debuted in 2014 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, before traveling to Boston, where it stopped at MIT for a weeklong series of workshops and a symposium the first week of October 2014.

“CULTURUNNERS” is a Gulf Stream RV-cum-performance/exhibition/broadcast studio that hosts artistic journeys and exchanges between the United States and the Middle East. Azra Akšamija, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in the MIT Department of Architecture and an assistant professor in the MIT Art, Culture and Technology Program (ACT), and Stephen Stapleton, director of Edge of Arabia, created “CULTURUNNERS” in collaboration with artists who have spent a decade traveling between the U.S. and the Middle East — from the UK over Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and from the Balkans over Central Europe to the United States. Akšamija was working on a project called the Islamobile when ACT research affiliate Daanish Masood, a member of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, introduced her to Stephen Stapleton and the Edge of Arabia organization, and the project took its current shape as “CULTURUNNERS.”

The project is a platform for the production and sharing of a range of content, including performances, sound, and video installations, food production, rituals, social media, and adaptable wearables. By developing new “cultural technologies,” “CULTURUNNERS” imports personal narratives and unofficial histories from the MENAM region to audiences in the U.S. Akšamija points out, “Technology can help us create weird and unexpected encounters,” and help us cultivate “cultural empathy through dialogue.”

At the Armory Show, “CULTURUNNERS” will feature custom-built artistic technologies to map, archive, and broadcast voices and ideas from the FOCUS: MENAM section of the fair. The RV will be on site at Pier 92 and Pier 94, and will also take to the road to visit Middle Eastern neighborhoods throughout New York, such as 125th Street in Harlem, and “Little Syria” near Battery Park.

This iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” features projects by Akšamija, Dietmar Offenhuber, Nick Beauchamp, Chris Riedl, Darvish Fakhr, Madeleine Gallagher, John Steiner, and Orkan Telhan. Many of these artists have ties to the Institute. As Akšamija stresses, “this project and ACT facilitate involvement of creative individuals across MIT.” “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory was curated by Akšamija and produced with assistant curator Jessica Varner, a PhD student in the MIT Program in History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture.


Akšamija’s project, “Yarn-dez-vous,” a growing wearable quilt made of American and Middle Eastern textiles that can be transformed into letterman’s jackets, addresses ideas related to cultural fabric and social identity, or collectivity and individuality. The title “Yarn-dez-vous” plays upon the double meaning of the word yarn and the romance of a rendezvous, Akšamija explains. The jacket design and prototypes were developed with Andrea Boit, Lillian Harden, and Karina Silvester MArch ’14. The fabrication team includes Emily Tow, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT; Bjorn Eric Sparrman, a graduate student in ACT Program; and Emma Harden and Elliot McLaughlin. Gedney H. Barclay, a graduate student in the ACT Program, and Sooyoung Kwon MS ’14, an ACT Program alumna, produced the project videos, which feature participation of 20 MIT students and staff members.

Another iteration of “Yarn-dez-vous” will be developed in a new course for freshmen in the School of Architecture, 4.S10 (Exploring Design: Thinking Through Making). In this version, Akšamija will use raincoats to signify “shelter for the bigger community.”

“A Now for MENAM” 

Orkan Telhan, assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, holds a PhD in design and computation from MIT’s Department of Architecture. He was part of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and the Mobile Experience Lab at the MIT Design Laboratory. His work, “A Now for MENAM,” integrates various historical and contemporary practices of time keeping across the cultural geography of Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, eschewing the idea of unifying the different time zones and calendar systems used within this vast geography. The calendar works as a mobile application that delivers images, videos, information, or text from different archives and online sources. The format refers to the calendars published in Turkey since 1900s known as the “educational calendar with time.”  “A Now for MENAM” offers a contemporary take on this format. The calendar also functions as a temporal navigator for the “CULTURUNNERS” RV and customizes its content based on the RV’s travel routes.

“MENAM Art Map”

Dietmar Offenhuber is an assistant professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Art + Design, where he heads the MFA program in information design and visualization. He holds a PhD in urban studies from MIT, and degrees from the MIT Media Lab and the Vienna University of Technology. Together with Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor in political science at Northeastern, Christoph Riedl, assistant professor for information systems at Northeastern, and research assistants Armin Akhavan and Rohith Vallu, they created “MENAM Art Map.”

“MENAM Art Map” is an interactive visualization of the institutional connections, life trajectories, and centers of prominent members of the Middle Eastern art scene exhibiting in the West. The geo-spatial network representation is based on information extracted from a large corpus of artist biographies. It represents the first stage of a project dedicated to the analysis of text networks at the NU Lab for Texts, Maps and Networks at Northeastern University in Boston.


“Autoluminescence” is multimedia installation and performance series that uses geometric and mathematical patterns of traditional Islamic art and music as a structure to manipulate transmissions of media and sound surrounding the “CULTURUNNERS” RV as it travels on a cross-country road trip through United States. Through light and music, “Autoluminescence” transforms the “CULTURUNNERS” RV interior into a lounge space to relax, connect, reflect, possibly decode, and/or invent meaning from the floating world of media surrounding us.

Madeleine Gallagher, a media associate in ACT at MIT, is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, and educator. John Steiner, a media assistant in MIT Program in ACT is a performer, songwriter, and visual artist working in audio, sculpture, electronic media, and design.

“RV Skin-NY” and more

Among the other projects hosted by “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory are Darvish Fakhr’s “The Flying Carpet” and Edge of Arabia’s online broadcast platform, “FREEWAY.” “The Flying Carpet” is a customized, motorized longboard with a Persian carpet attached, on which Fakhr will travel through the MENAM communities of New York and perform. “FREEWAY” will explore connections between the Armory Focus and MENAM communities across New York.

“RV Skin-NY” is an interactive re-skinning of the exterior of the “CULTURUNNERS” RV linked to phase 2 of the “CULTURUNNERS” website (by One Darnley Road), which will be launched on the first day of the fair. Azra Akšamija and Stephen Stapleton lead this piece, which was designed by Kuba Rudzinski.

On Friday, March 6, the lead education partner for the Armory Symposium, Art Jameel, will host a special “CULTURUNNERS” panel discussion, moderated by Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel. Featured panelists include Azra Akšamija; Husam Al Sayed of Telfaz 11; Matthew Mazzotta, artist and former lecturer in ACT; and Ava Ansari, Edge of Arabia associate curator.

The “CULTURUNNERS” RV will then take Route 2 from New York to Nebraska.

By Sharon Lacey | Arts at MIT

To see the impact of their investments, companies often use business intelligence tools — primarily data-analytics ­software — that analyze company data to link cash spent with outcomes.  

Now MIT spinout BrightBytes has developed similar data-analytics software for schools that links the implementation of classroom technologies, and other strategies, to student achievement. About one in seven U.S. schools now uses the software.

The software combines academic research with collected data on students, teachers, and schools to create school-by-school analyses and action plans for implementing technologies and strategies. This lets educators and administrators know where to direct their funding.

“It’s a business intelligence platform written for schools,” says BrightBytes CEO Rob Mancabelli MBA ’12, who worked in the education sector for 15 years before co-founding the startup. “Instead of a return-on-investment, though, it’s a ‘return-on-learning.’”

By giving educators these data-analytics tools, Mancabelli says, BrightBytes hopes to take the guessing game out of fund allocation. This is important, he says: The U.S. spends billions of dollars annually on classroom technologies — such as classroom tablets, interactive screens, and software — as well as targeted academic programs, yet it’s very difficult to measure whether any of these actually boost student success.   

“We think the best way to improve student learning is to give decision-makers who control the time, budget, and resources the best information to make decisions,” Mancabelli says. “If, along the way, it helps to eliminate financial missteps, then that’s fantastic.”

Mancabelli launched BrightBytes with entrepreneur Hisham Anwar MBA ’12, now chief technology officer, after the two met in the executive MBA program (EMBA) at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Over the course of the 20-month program, they turned BrightBytes from an abstract concept into a commercial product with more than 1,000 users.

There are six modules on BrightByte’s platform, called Clarity, that tackle different issues within schools. CASE is the module used to measure technology in the classroom. The startup’s most recent module, Early Warning, released last September, identifies at-risk students based on individual and school-specific factors. Five additional modules are due out this year.

Finding Clarity

Clarity works through a combination of human expertise and computation. Behind the platform is a team of researchers and data scientists who pore over academic papers, reports, and case studies to identify what works and what doesn’t in the classroom — for instance, finding technologies that have led to better student performance, or solutions that best curb the dropout rate.

Then, the platform takes information from surveys and questionnaires at the participating school, along with data from third-party sources — such as socioeconomic status and student performance — to report the school’s proficiency in certain areas.  

For example, a report from the CASE module will provide a numerical score for a school’s “proficiency” to implement classroom technologies based on factors such as student and teacher access to technology, overall online engagement among students, and professional development and support for teachers. Scores are given in five categories, ranging from 800 points or lower, to 1200.

If schools are deemed “proficient,” with a high number, they could be good to go. But if schools are lacking, the software suggests solutions. A certain school may want to use digital educational gaming, but it’ll first need to ensure that more students have access to mobile devices, and boost professional development for teachers, or the technology may have little to no impact on student success.

In its two years on the market, the software has shown some tangible results. In 2012, the Capital Area Independent Unit (CAIU) in Pennsylvania, which provides educational services to more than two dozen school districts, used CASE to gauge whether schools in its service area could successfully implement online and blended courses; results indicated significant gaps in technology access and professional development in some districts. Today, those districts have shown a 60 percent increase in student access to mobile devices, a 52 percent increase in teachers who post coursework online, and a 55 percent increase in online student collaboration.

The benefit of BrightBytes isn’t simply amassing data, but making sense of the data, Mancabelli says. With implementing classroom technologies, for example, administrators have had to spend a lot of time and money conducting their own research or hiring consultants.

“It’s rare anyone in schools, with as many things as they have on their plate, has time to do that,” Mancabelli says. “Instead, most use intuition to guess the problems and invest money and time into solutions and hope it turns out alright.”

This also happens when schools seek solutions for curbing the dropout rate, Mancabelli says. That’s why BrightBytes recently developed its Early Warning module, which has been adopted by the state of West Virginia. This module is powered by the same rigorous academic research as CASE, but instead analyzes 24 risk factors across schools — such as low attendance and grades, behavioral issues, and demographic factors — to flesh out the students in danger of dropping out.

The dashboard displays the total number of at-risk students, their likelihood to drop out, a list of the top at-risk students, and best practices to ensure that those students stay in school. It will also show which factors most likely lead to dropouts in the school’s district, so schools can choose which factors to focus on. “So you’re actually looking at research, and in the context of your own school,” Mancabelli says.

Scale meets mission

Today, BrightBytes is on its way to becoming an industry standard. But it began not too long ago at MIT Sloan as “ideas drawn on the back of napkins and on pieces of paper,” Anwar says.

In 2012, Mancabelli came to the EMBA program with aims of developing and scaling up technology that could help U.S. schools use hard data to find what works in the classroom. During the first week, he was grouped on a class project with Anwar, who had grown several successful tech startups in Silicon Valley — and was looking to put his entrepreneurship skills toward an altruistic cause. “I was in search of scale, and he was in search of a mission,” Mancabelli says. “It fit perfectly.”

Playing on each other’s strengths, they discussed a data-analytics platform that could link technology with student success. Within a couple of weeks, they’d built an early prototype of Clarity. Mancabelli pitched the platform to potential schools — and one jumped on the chance to purchase it.

Mancabelli recalls stepping out of class one day to answer a call from that school, which had offered $25,000 to build the platform. He then went back into his class, sat down next to Anwar, and texted him the information. “The look on his face and the way he raised his eyes when he got the text was priceless,” Mancabelli says.

In 45 days, they developed the CASE module and, a within a few months, had garnered 1,000 school clients across the nation.

Anwar attributes some of this early success to MIT Sloan’s rigorous EMBA program, which taught him how to bring ideas together, very quickly, into a tangible product. Another benefit was the program’s “very multidimensional” culture, he adds, where CEOs, novice and seasoned entrepreneurs, and senior executives, all with different skillsets and backgrounds, work together.

“There was a very diverse, unusual group of people who were the first-time collaborators with other people in other markets and industry,” he says. “That was a great learning experience.”

In fact, Mancabelli attributes BrightBytes’s rapid rise to this mixture of differing skillsets: his expertise on education, along with Anwar’s ability to produce technology at scale. “Hisham could translate my understanding of the pain points within schools, and solutions they needed, into a platform that would meet those needs,” Mancabelli says. “Having a grounding in what people in the market needed, as well as having grounding in what would scale to hundreds or millions of users, were two things that really accelerated our ability to grow.”

By Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

Social circles

March 31, 2015

If you live in a city, you know that a fair amount of your movement around town is social in nature. But how much, exactly? A new study co-authored by MIT researchers uses a novel method to infer that around one-fifth of urban movement is strictly social, a finding that holds up consistently in multiple cities.

The study used anonymized phone data that, unlike most data in the field, provides information that can be used to reconstruct both people’s locations and their social networks. By linking this information together, the researchers were able to build a picture indicating which networks were primarily social, as opposed to work-oriented, and then deduce how much city movement was due to social activity.

“Adding two data sources — one on the social side and one on the mobility side — and layering them one on top of each other gives you something that’s a little bit greater,” says Jameson Toole, a PhD student in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and one of the authors of a newly published paper outlining the study’s results.

“It’s a way to look at the data that wasn’t done before,” says Marta Gonzalez, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and another co-author of the study.

By developing a new means of quantifying how much urban travel is based on social activity, the researchers believe they have started creating a new analytical tool that could be of use to planners and policymakers.

“There are a lot of people who need to have estimates of how people move around cities: transportation planners and other urban planners,” Toole says. “But a lot of data-driven models don’t take into account social behavior. What we found is that … if you are trying to estimate movement in a city and you don’t include the social component, your estimates are going to be off by about 20 percent.”

Going mobile

The paper, “Coupling human mobility and social ties,” is appearing this week in Interface, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Royal Society. The co-authors are Toole, who is the lead author; Carlos Herrer-Yaque, of the Technical University of Madrid; Gonzalez, who is the principal investigator on the study; and Christian Schneider, an MIT post-doctoral researcher during the course of the study.

The study’s anonymized mobile phone data comes from three major cities in Europe and South America. By examining the locations of calls, the networks of calls made, and the times of contact, the researchers found that most people have essentially three kinds of social networks in cities: social companions (who they are around a lot in the evenings and on weekends), work colleagues (who they tend to contact during weekdays), and more distant acquaintances with whom people have more sporadic contact.

After distinguishing these networks from each other, the researchers were able to quantify the extent to which social activity was the primary cause of an urban trip; their conclusion falls within the bounds of previous, broader estimates, which have ascribed 15 to 30 percent of urban movement to social activity.

“It’s pretty rare you would find these patterns showing up by themselves in multiple cities,” Toole says. “It lends credence to the universality of this [pattern].”

In the paper, the researchers also build a model of urban social movement, which they call the “GeoSim” model; it extends previous models of urban mobility by adding a layer relating to social-activity choices. The model better fits the data in this study, and could be tested against future data sets as well.

“Big data is amazing,” Toole says, “but this adds the context back into the social networks and movements.”

Scholars say the paper brings new insight to urban mobility studies. The study’s “novelty resides in the method used to study the relationship between mobility of different users and their social relationship,” explains Esteban Moro, a professor of mathematics at the Charles III University of Madrid, in Spain. “Using different mobility metrics, the authors are able to know the nature of the relationship between two people. … This allows a quantitative understanding of how people manage their time, tasks, [and] interactions in a geographical context like cities.”

Moro adds that the current research project opens the way for more detailed studies of the subject, noting, “It would be interesting to see if the socioeconomic status of people, their age, and/or gender have a role in the results found.”

The research was partly funded by the Accenture-MIT Alliance in Business Analytics, the Center for Complex Engineering Systems at MIT, and the National Science Foundation.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, has been named the winner of this year’s Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his revolutionary advances and leadership in engineering at the interface of chemistry and medicine. The award credits Langer with improving more than 2 billion lives worldwide through the disease treatments created in his lab. Langer will receive the prize from Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony later this year.

“Bold, down to earth, and incredibly creative, Bob Langer represents the very best of MIT: a daring inventor, a brilliant entrepreneur, and an admired and beloved educator,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “His creativity has changed the world not only through his own innovations but through the hundreds of exceptional engineers who have begun their careers in his lab. If engineering is the art of transforming knowledge into progress, then the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering could go to no one who deserves it more than Bob.”

Langer, who holds appointments in MIT’s departments of chemical engineering and biological engineering, and at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is cited as “the first person to engineer polymers to control the delivery of large molecular weight drugs for the treatment of diseases such as cancer and mental illness.”

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a global £1 million prize that celebrates engineers whose innovations have been of global benefit to humanity. The objective of the prize is to raise the public profile of engineering and to inspire young people to become engineers.

“The number one thing we look at is, ‘Can we relieve suffering?’” Langer said in an interview with the BBC earlier today. “That’s the thing that drives me, and drives many who do this work — to relieve suffering and improve life.”

“A prize like this is intended to celebrate engineering,” Langer added. “Hopefully young people will read about it and think it’s a great career. In the end, a culture gets what it celebrates.”

Langer received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University, and earned his ScD in chemical engineering from MIT. He has written more than 1,175 research papers — which have made him the world’s most cited engineering researcher — and holds approximately 800 issued and pending patents worldwide, which have been licensed or sublicensed to hundreds of pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, and medical device companies.

In 1989, Langer was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1992 he was elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. He served as a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s Science Board from 1995 to 2002, and as the board’s chairman from 1999 to 2002. He has received more than 200 awards, including the National Medal of Science in 2006, the Millennium Prize in 2008, the Priestley Medal in 2012, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2012, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award.

In the popular media, both BioWorld and Forbes have named Langer as one of the world’s 25 most important individuals in biotechnology, in 1990 and 1999, respectively. In 2001, both Time and CNN named Langer as among the 100 most important people in America, and as one of the top Americans in science or medicine. In 2002, Discover named him as one of the 20 most important people in biotechnology, and Forbes selected him as one of the 15 innovators worldwide who will reinvent our future.

By Karen Shaner and Robert Fadel | School of Engineering

When logic meets rhetoric

March 31, 2015

During the 2012 election season, Edward Schiappa closely watched the campaign in his longtime home of Minnesota, where voters were entertaining a measure called Amendment 1. A “yes” vote would have changed the state constitution to make marriage legal only between a man and a woman; a “no” vote would have been a move in favor of gay rights.

“Going into the 2012 election, I was not at all optimistic about the results,” says Schiappa, then a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, who favored a “no” vote. After all, the “yes” campaign led in many polls late into the summer. But the momentum then shifted: The “no” side starting gaining traction, and on Election Day, Minnesota voters voted “no” by a 51-47 margin.

“I was watching the Minnesota campaign thinking, ‘They’re blowing it,’” Schiappa recalls of the amendment’s opponents. “But in fact they did exactly the right thing. They had a much stronger ground game, they enlisted a lot of religious leaders … and they reframed the debate [toward] family values, that this is promoting love and companionship and family. And history was made.”

Schiappa has a keen understanding of another factor behind the “no” vote on Amendment 1: mass media and popular culture. Nearly a decade earlier, in multiple papers, Schiappa and a pair of colleagues had been among the first scholars to present empirical evidence suggesting that television shows featuring gay characters, such as “Will & Grace” were creating more positive attitudes about gays in the minds of the general public. Indeed, they found, this change “was most pronounced for those with the least amount of social contact with lesbians and gay men.”

A decade before that, in the 1990s, few people could have foreseen that Schiappa would be studying contemporary mass media. He established his academic reputation as a scholar of ancient Greek rhetoric, writing three books on the subject. Schiappa’s breadth of knowledge and appetite for new types of inquiry are two reasons he is now serving as head of MIT’s section in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, having joined the Institute in 2013 as the John E. Burchard Professor.

To Schiappa, this feels like a natural evolution.

“Rhetoric has been understood primarily as about persuasion, and that is a huge topic,” he explains. “Ancient rhetoric was when thinkers first explored the relationship between language and thought, and the role of ‘reasoned speech’ in collective decision-making. Those issues are still central to communication studies today. … So for me, there was never a disconnect between the study of classical and contemporary rhetorical theory.”

Debating the future

Growing up in Manhattan, Kan., Schiappa knew he would end up in a classroom. He just didn’t know it would be at the university level.

“Starting in high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and as I worked my way through college I planned to be a high-school teacher and debate coach,” Schiappa explains.

But as he was finishing his undergraduate degree in 1980, Schiappa says, “I was offered a position to coach the debate team at Kansas State University. It took only a few months for me to realize I really enjoyed teaching college students, and I’ve never looked back.”  

Schiappa enrolled in a master’s program at Northwestern University, which has a leading debate program, “thinking I would get a quick master’s degree, then return to K-State.” That isn’t quite what happened: As a graduate student, he “discovered how much I enjoyed research and writing.” He also happened to be fascinated by the Greek Sophists, pioneers of classical rhetoric — partly spurred by a bestseller from the 1970s, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which discusses the Sophists.

After receiving his PhD from Northwestern in 1989, Schiappa taught at Kansas State and Purdue University before joining Minnesota in 1995. While much of his research at the time focused on Greek rhetoric, Schiappa’s interests also started shifting into the contemporary era. His methods have also evolved, to include quantitative audience measurement as a tool for understanding the effectiveness of mass-media communication.

“What I have tried to bring to the table is a mix of comparative methods that combines the best insights from both approaches,” Schiappa explains. “So we can analyze and critique individual shows like ‘Will & Grace,’ but also step back and talk with audiences and do surveys that can help us understand the important cultural work such a show does.”

The “parasocial contact hypothesis”

Schiappa’s mass-media studies are also interdisciplinary in nature. While studying “Will & Grace” and other shows, including “Six Feet Under” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Schiappa and his colleagues formulated what they call the “parasocial contact hypothesis,” which suggests that media content can influence social attitudes, much as direct human interaction does.

The idea links a pair of ideas from psychology — Schiappa started college as a psychology major — known as “parasocial contact” and “contact hypothesis.” “I think it’s important for communication scholars to be aware of work that’s being done in other disciplines,” Schiappa says.

Schiappa says he enjoys teaching, and encourages students to work on research with him, when possible; one of his books was co-authored with a former student. “I’ve been teaching long enough now that it’s enormously satisfying to hear from students I’ve had, in some cases decades ago, [and] to know you positively influenced students,” Schiappa says.

And while Schiappa was content at Minnesota, he is enthused about the challenges of his still-new position at the Institute.

“It was a fortuitous coming together of my background and MIT’s needs,” he says. “I’m happy to be here.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office