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MIT Better World Hong Kong (December 14, 2016). Photo: Brian Ching

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

Next Stops on the Better World Tour

This fall: the tour comes home to Boston

MIT Better World Hong Kong (December 14, 2016). Photo: Brian Ching

The momentum continues as alumni and friends come together to celebrate MIT, our vibrant global community, and our mission to build a better world. President L. Rafael Reif has already shared his vision for the future of MIT at community gatherings in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Washington, DC. And that’s just the beginning. The tour continues this fall with a stop near home in Boston, then heads west.


Join the MIT community

 
9.28.17
Boston

1.19.18
Houston

2.20.18
Seattle

Learn more, RSVP, and watch for new locations: MIT Better World Events


A special invitation for MIT Sloan alumni

Building on the Campaign for a Better World tour, MIT Sloan alumni are invited to join Dean David Schmittlein for additional events that will highlight the school’s impact in the world. After gatherings earlier this year in San Francisco, New York, and Boston, MIT Sloan is crossing the ocean this fall.

9.26.17
São Paulo

10.16.17
Singapore

12.6.17
London

Learn more: MIT Sloan Campaign Events

To outsiders, MIT can appear to be a place where people are good at “getting the right answers.” But I believe a more revealing distinction is that the people of MIT have a gift for asking the right questions—and one of the ways we frame those intriguing questions, experiment with the possibilities, and arrive at compelling answers is through the process called design.

Given its deep roots in engineering and architecture, design thinking has been part of MIT from the start, and it has gained growing relevance across the Institute. Today, you will find the people of MIT “designing” across a huge range of scales, contexts, and levels of abstraction, from a molecule to a machine to a metropolis, from a new material to a nanotextured surface to a system of production.

In the last few years, we have taken steps to promote design thinking across the Institute through the lens of problem setting: a multidisciplinary strategy for asking the right questions by thinking expansively about new possibilities, examining their implications, and continuously refining them to generate new approaches.

As you will see throughout this issue of Spectrum, design has particular power in addressing questions that have no single correct answer. As Hashim Sarkis, dean of our School of Architecture and Planning, explains, by teaching students to think as designers, we deepen their capacity for judgment. Design thinking gives students a strong but flexible process for exploring, testing, and refining solutions, and for making continual judgments, often centered on the most unmanageable variable of all: human beings.

By imparting the tools, human values, and habits of mind central to the design tradition, we teach a dynamic way of inventing excellent answers. Expanding the strategies we can employ to make progress has never been more important, as we seek—together—to make a better world.

reif-signature-2016

L. Rafael Reif

Wide Angle

Growing Knowledge

Using cancer cells to study neural development

Image: Russell McConnell/Gertler Lab

In cellular society, neurons are the overachievers. When hundreds of billions of them are born in a developing fetus, their work has just begun: they must grow fibers, called axons, that will create the connections of the body’s nervous system. Not only do axons travel remarkable distances from their nuclei (the longest in the human body, belonging to the sciatic nerve, can extend up to a meter long), they must wend their way to the designated spot where these highly specialized cells can close specific circuits dictated by their DNA.

Over the past few decades, scientists’ understanding of how axons navigate to exact targets—what types of signals guide them, and how those signals are received—has grown exponentially, according to Frank Gertler, a faculty member of MIT’s Department of Biology and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. His lab is working to solve some of the remaining mysteries about the process, which he likens to a customized GPS system. “We know some of the basic rules and key players, but we know a lot less about how a growing neuron that’s moving through a complex environment coordinates all the information around it and translates that into a precise type of movement,” he says.

Primarily, Gertler and his team study actual neurons from developing mouse brains. But samples of the real thing are delicate, and in short supply. So when they want to run large volumes of experiments, test basic ideas, or drastically manipulate cells (expressing or removing certain genes, for example), they sometimes turn to a close approximation: cells from a brain tumor, like those pictured here.

Tumor cells’ weedlike ability to reproduce and thrive, so threatening inside the body, becomes an asset in the lab. Scientists have capitalized on this for decades: the most widespread of such cell lines, HeLa, dates back to a 1951 case of cervical cancer. Gertler says the usefulness of neuronal tumor cells in research is limited by significant differences from their healthy counterparts. Nevertheless, they are a valuable tool in illuminating fundamental neurobiology.

And in vivid images like this one—currently on display in the Koch Institute Public Galleries, on an enormous canvas visible from the street—Gertler sees another benefit: “It makes you say wow, that’s gorgeous, what is it?” Hanging alongside other winners of the Koch Institute Image Awards, it’s a reminder of the beauty of discovery. “Scientific images contain a lot of information and meaning, but some are also works of art,” the biologist says. “They serve a purpose in sparking imagination and curiosity and interest.”

The subject's Fall 2016 lecturers included associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Hamsa Balakrishnan, whose work includes a collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and major US airports to upgrade air traffic control tools. Photo: Bryce Vickmark.

Subjects

Flight School

A roster of experts steers students through the inner workings of the airline industry

The subject’s Fall 2016 lecturers included associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Hamsa Balakrishnan, whose work includes a collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and major US airports to upgrade air traffic control tools. Photo: Bryce Vickmark.

Title
1.232/15.054/16.71
The Airline Industry

Departments
Aeronautics and Astronautics (Aero/Astro), Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Management

Principal Instructors

  • Peter P. Belobaba SM ’82, PhD ’87, principal research scientist, Aero/Astro
  • Arnold I. Barnett PhD ’73, George Eastman Professor of Management Science, MIT Sloan
  • Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88, chancellor and Ford Professor of Engineering, CEE
  • R. John Hansman SM ’80, PhD ’82, T. Wilson Professor in Aeronautics, Aero/Astro
  • Thomas A. Kochan, George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, MIT Sloan
  • William Swelbar, research engineer, Aero/Astro; executive VP, InterVistas Consulting

Fall 2016 Enrollment
40 graduate students, representing:

  • MIT Sloan School of Management (17)
  • School of Engineering (18)
  • School of Architecture and Planning (2)
  • School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (1)
  • Harvard University (2)

Benjamin Sanchez, CEE graduate student: “It helps to have a large number of students from different backgrounds. The engineering students and the management students often approach the same problems from different perspectives.”

From the Catalog
Overview of the global airline industry, focusing on recent industry performance, current issues, and challenges for the future. Fundamentals of airline industry structure, airline economics, operations planning, safety, labor relations, airports and air traffic control, marketing, and competitive strategies, with an emphasis on the interrelationships among major industry stakeholders. Recent research findings of the MIT Global Airline Industry Program are showcased, including the impacts of congestion and delays, evolution of information technologies, changing human resource management practices, and competitive effects of new entrant airlines.

Caitlin Bradbury, MBA Candidate: “I’m interested in working in the airline industry after Sloan, so I thought this class would be helpful in preparing me.”

Sanchez: “I worked in the airline industry for three years before coming to MIT. Whenever you work for a company for a significant period of time, you tend to look at the industry through the perspective of that company. I wanted to take this class to get a broader understanding of what is happening in the industry from a global perspective.”

Origins
The global airline industry today generates hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue; it comprises more than 2,000 airlines operating more than 23,000 aircraft and providing service to more than 3,700 airports. The Global Airline Industry Program was founded in 2000—under the umbrella of the Sloan Foundation’s Industry Studies Program, and supported by the MIT Airline Industry Consortium—to develop a body of knowledge for understanding development, growth, and competitive advantage in this critical industry. The program spun out this graduate-level offering in 2001, aiming to educate future leaders of the airline industry while providing practical solutions to its most pressing problems.

Format
Many different faculty members and guest lecturers—all participants of the Global Airline Industry Program—teach the class. Belobaba coordinates all the lectures and also teaches a wealth of material related to air transportation economics, airline planning, and competitive strategy. Over the course of the term, students hear from about 10 scholars and industry experts. In Fall 2016, for example, MIT Sloan’s Barnett, an expert in applying mathematical modeling to problems of health and safety, taught students how to estimate the mortality risk of commercial air travel. Aero/Astro’s Hansman, a specialist in aircraft design, flight information systems, and air traffic control, introduced students to airline operations and provided an overview of current surveillance and communications technologies. And Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, taught a class on labor relations.

Belobaba: “It’s a very unusual course in which you are getting world experts in each of the different areas. No single faculty member could possibly provide that level of expertise.”

Guest Speakers
In addition to tapping MIT experts, The Airline Industry typically features one or two lectures by an industry leader. This year, the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, Ben Baldanza, discussed the impact of competition on the evolution of the airline industry. Previous speakers include:

  • Montie Brewer, former president and CEO, Air Canada
  • Scott Nason SM ’77, former CIO, American Airlines
  • Bill Brunger, retired senior vice president for network planning, Continental Airlines

Sampling of Lecture Topics

  • Airline Pricing Theory and Practice
  • Fleet Planning and Aircraft Acquisition
  • Airline Operations
  • Human Resource Management in Airlines
  • Overview of Air Traffic Control
  • Environmental Impacts of Air Transportation
  • Aviation Safety and Security

Bradbury: “This class has been extremely useful in introducing me to aspects of the industry that I was not as familiar with, like operations and the regulatory environment.”

Belobaba: “You can use mathematical models to optimize networks and schedules, but none of that is operationally possible without people. Labor relations and human resources can make or break all optimization.”

From the Textbook
Belobaba, P., Odoni, A., and Barnhart, C. (eds.), The Global Airline Industry, 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons Publishers, 2015.

At the time of this book’s publication, the airline industry is about to enter yet another phase in its continuing transformation, with the development of global networks served by new airlines from emerging regions and by new alliances of existing carriers. Mature (North America) and maturing (Europe and parts of Asia) markets will test the extent to which new capacity can continue to be added. Energy costs will play a large role in the development of markets and service, as inevitable increases in ticket prices will begin to test the elasticity of air travel demand as never before in many regions of the world. As the industry evolves, the airline planning process will not undergo dramatic change, aircraft fleet decisions will remain long term, route planning decisions will remain medium term, and short-term decisions will continue to be driven by unpredictable events. What will change is how the global airline market develops, as many new route opportunities will emerge. Global alliances, and possibly even global mergers, will present different decision-making challenges for airline management.
—Chapter 16, “Critical Issues and Prospects for the Global Airline Industry”

Belobaba: “The textbook is based on the lectures developed for this course.”

Assignments
Students are asked to conduct a variety of analyses related to airline traffic and financial performance, market share models, operating costs and route profitability, and revenue management. Their final project is a team assignment to evaluate the performance and business model of one specific international airline and assess its current challenges and future prospects.

Belobaba: “Sometimes these are so good that I forward final presentations to colleagues at the airlines.”

At MIT, Tiandra Ray '15 specialized in computational design; her thesis focused on the connection between built environments and mental health. Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Designing the Future

The Lens of Design

New initiatives from the School of Architecture and Planning sharpen MIT’s focus on design-based learning

At MIT, Tiandra Ray ’15 specialized in computational design; her thesis focused on the connection between built environments and mental health. Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Scan a list of MIT’s departments and you won’t find the word “design” anywhere. And yet, there are enclaves of design all over campus. Some are student clubs: from the civic-minded Design for America, to teams that construct rockets and solar cars. Others are research groups whose territories seem to have minimal overlap: synthetic biology, self-assembling materials, smart cities, educational video games, DIY health devices. “This is typical of MIT. You may think something doesn’t exist, and it turns out to exist in a hundred places,” remarks the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, Hashim Sarkis.

Such permeation has been helped along, says Sarkis, by the gradual dissolving of traditional boundaries between “problem solving and solution improvement” that historically framed design as a late-stage step. “In the world of products, it’s become very important for design to be an integral part of the making,” he says. Not only do managers, engineers, and scientists increasingly want to have a designer in the room from the beginning—often, they want to look through the lens of design themselves. And why not? “Linear thinking and holistic thinking are not separate,” Sarkis says. “Scientific method and design method are not separate. They are enmeshed.”

Now, a collection of educational initiatives emerging from Sarkis’s school are focusing that design lens for students bound for a range of endeavors. Among these are an undergraduate Design Minor, established in Fall 2016 by the Department of Architecture, and DesignX, an entrepreneurial accelerator. Both D-Minor and DESx, as they’re known, are open to participants across MIT (DESx teams must include at least one SA+P graduate student).

According to J. Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture, the minor provides students of all majors “a methodology for processing context—both physical and cultural—and constraints, seeing the opportunities, and realizing those opportunities.” Along the way, students master creative and technical skills that are increasingly in demand throughout the job market.

Fruits of this methodology can be seen in the estimated 1,200 startups that have been launched by SA+P alumni. DESx will provide the next generation of MIT entrepreneurs the specialized resources such endeavors require, aided by research led by Andrea Chegut, the director of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab. Her team is studying the landscape for companies innovating in the spheres of the built environment, media, and design: “what makes them tick, and what makes them distinct from other types of businesses,” Chegut says. “We’ll apply this knowledge to DESx, to enable our entrepreneurs to understand the nuts and bolts they need to form successful organizations.” Selected DESx teams receive $15,000 in seed funding, mentorship, and specialized for-credit workshops over the Independent Activities Period and spring semester. After four months of focusing on business models and prototypes, they will be ready to pitch their ventures to funders.

Over the past decade, MIT’s integral role in the creation of the Singapore University of Technology and Design—which led to the establishment of an International Design Center based in both Cambridge and Singapore—has demonstrated the Institute’s commitment to formalizing and sharing globally what it knows about teaching and learning design. In that same spirit, SA+P announced this fall that its faculty will help to shape the curriculum of a new Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI). Expected to open in 2019, DIDI will offer the Middle East and North Africa region’s first undergraduate degree in design, which has become a major driver of economic growth in that part of the world. SA+P is also developing a new MicroMasters in Design, a semester’s worth of online courses opening a path for learners worldwide to earn an MITx digital credential for successful completion and, for some high performers, to enroll in a full master’s program on MIT’s campus.

For undergraduate and graduate students alike, the heart of SA+P’s learning model is the studio. The term evokes a small-workshop setting, where peers work elbow to elbow at tables teeming with sketches and materials; it also signifies an iterative, critique-driven learning process. Both meanings of the word were in play this fall in 4.031 Design Studio: Objects and Interaction. The foundational class brought together students majoring in architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, among other fields. The resumes of its instructors, Marcelo Coelho SM ’08, PhD ’13, and Jessica Rosenkrantz ’05, reflect their own multidisciplinary MIT backstories. Coelho, an alumnus of the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group, manipulates physical and computational materials in service of novel experiences. His recent work includes the design of the Rio 2016 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and an architectural-scale pavilion collaboratively assembled by humans and robots. Rosenkrantz, who double-majored at MIT in architecture and biology, is a cofounder of Nervous System, known for its intricate housewares and fashion inspired by natural phenomena such as coral reefs, and for its online applications that allow customers to co-create their purchases.

In 4.031, Rosenkrantz and Coelho challenged their students with three projects that would add up to “an overview of design as the giving of form, order, and interactivity to the objects that define our daily experience.” Students began by building their own take on a simple wooden chair (with personalized touches ranging from practical: a frame that comfortably accommodates a backpack; to whimsical: a cushion into which you can stuff your rejected brainstorming notes). Next, the students created 3-D-printed wearable textiles; their final project required them to create an interactive clock for an alternative measurement of time.

Design minor Lucia Liu ’18, a MechE major who aspires to a career in product design, says 4.031 increased her appreciation for the process that will get her there. “The path to a good design solution is almost never straightforward,” Liu observes. “It is easy to be attached to one design idea, but I have learned that it is better to value the fluidity of design.”

This fluidity, believes Sarkis, will be one of the MIT community’s greatest assets as it continues to take on the planet’s toughest challenges. “There’s never one solution to a problem. There are always many,” he says. “There isn’t one world, but many possible worlds that are imagined, invented, and created by design.”

Media Lab Director Joi Ito

Designing the Future

New Intersections for Design, Science, and Publishing

Media Lab Director Joi Ito

In early 2016, the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Press launched the online, open-access Journal of Design and Science (JoDS). Media Lab Director Joi Ito points to JoDS as “a new model for academic publishing,” with a staunchly antidisciplinary outlook. The journal utilizes PubPub, a new platform for open-access publishing, created by PhD candidate Travis Rich SM ’13, Thariq Shihipar, and others in the Media Lab’s Viral Communications group. In contrast to the rigidity of peer-reviewed, issue-bound academic journals, PubPub enables easy integration of rich media and data, and its extensive annotating and commenting features encourage iteration, interlinking, and participation. Not coincidentally, those are characteristics of the “new kind of design and new kind of science” JoDS will explore, as Ito describes in the inaugural essay excerpted here.

Design has evolved from the design of objects both physical and immaterial, to the design of systems, to the design of complex adaptive systems. This evolution is shifting the role of designers; they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems. This is a fundamental shift—one that requires a new set of values. […] This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control—more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.

An example of this kind of design is the work of Media Lab Professor Kevin Esvelt, who describes himself as an evolutionary sculptor. He is working on ways to edit the genes of populations of organisms such as the rodent that carries Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria to make them resistant to the pathogens. The specific technology— CRISPR gene drives—is a type of gene edit such that when carrier organisms are released into the wild, all of their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, and so on through the generations, will inherit the same alteration, allowing us to essentially eliminate malaria, Lyme, and other vector-borne and parasitic diseases. Crucially, the edit is embedded into the population at large, rather than the individual organism. Therefore, Esvelt’s focus is not on the gene editing or the particular organism, but on the whole ecosystem—including our health system, the biosphere, our society and its ability to think about these sorts of interventions. To be clear: part of what’s novel here is considering the effects of a design on all of the systems that touch it.

Unlike in the past, where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging. […] We are finding that we are more and more able to design and deploy directly into the domain of “nature” and in many ways “design” nature. Synthetic biology is obviously about our ability to “edit nature.” However, even artificial intelligence, which is in the digital versus natural realm, is developing its relationship to the study of the brain beyond merely a metaphorical one. We find that we must increasingly depend on nature to guide us through the complexity and the unknowability (with our current tools) that is our modern scientific world.

From Joichi Ito’s “Design and Science: Can design advance science, and can science advance design?” (Journal of Design and Science, MIT Media Lab and the MIT Press, January 30, 2016)

The Krebs Cycle of Creativity, by designer, architect, and MIT Media Lab faculty member Neri Oxman PhD ’10, was featured in the Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) in January 2016. The illustration refers to the Krebs cycle, the sequence of reactions by which organisms generate energy; and to previous matrices put forth by designers John Maeda ’89, SM ’89, a former Media Lab professor, and the late Rich Gold—both of which located Art, Science, Design, and Engineering in quadrants with distinct boundaries and specialized missions.

In a JoDS essay accompanying this illustration, Oxman names her own goal: “to establish a tentative, yet holistic, cartography of the interrelation between these domains, where one realm can incite (r)evolution inside another; and where a single individual or project can reside in multiple dominions.” Oxman suggests multiple ways to view the graphic: as a clock, a microscope, a compass, a gyroscope. However the space is navigated, she imagines an output of creative energy—not unlike the output of chemical energy in living cells—resulting from the fluid movement from one realm to another.

IDM Spring 2016 final presentations included one team's proposal for reducing and reusing waste in the production of Camper Shoes. Photo: John Parrillo

Designing the Future

Constraints and Viewpoints

The Integrated Design and Management Program blends creativity, analysis, and empathy

IDM Spring 2016 final presentations included one team’s proposal for reducing and reusing waste in the production of Camper Shoes. Photo: John Parrillo

MIT has an established tradition of graduate education that combines engineering and management. A new master’s program has developed a third component: the integrated design process and the power it brings to solving not just management and engineering problems but social problems as well.

The Integrated Design and Management program (IDM) is an outgrowth of the graduate course Product Design and Development, which brought together MIT students in engineering and management with industrial design students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). For several years, Professor of Management Science and Innovation Steven Eppinger ’83, SM ’84, ScD ’88, who is the co-author of a widely used textbook also titled Product Design and Development, taught that course with IDM program director Matt Kressy (then at RISD), along with various engineering faculty members. The new IDM program, which enrolled its first students in Fall 2015, leads to an SM in engineering and management. IDM is offered jointly by the School of Engineering and MIT Sloan School of Management, and is targeted at early- to mid-career professionals.

IDM aims to attract equal cohorts of students with engineering, business, and industrial design backgrounds. The program’s admissions criteria emphasize the attribute of altruism along with creativity and achievement. Candidates are rated on test scores and a portfolio, but also on what Kressy calls the “love metric.”

“Shouldn’t we be predisposed to select people with compassionate, loving visions?” Kressy says. “You can’t test for that, but I think it’s important.”

IDM prepares its graduates to become leaders in industrial design, engineering, or innovation at large firms, as well as entrepreneurs who create things that are profitable while also improving the world. One of the goals is for students to use what they’ve learned to bring new perspectives to deeply complex social problems. Suppose the desired “product” were a method or approach for ending violent encounters between police and black men. Using the integrated design process, a team composed of experts from several disciplines would “embed” with all the stakeholders (police officers, black citizens, policy makers, and others), and propose a solution that takes into account the full array of constraints and viewpoints.

“In design thinking, we use the word ‘empathy’ all the time,” Kressy says. “The design process starts with developing a deep connection with your customer. You make an emotional connection to a problem, and with that connection comes insight.”

Along with engineering and management foundation courses and electives, IDM students learn the tools and methods of design in the ID Lab, located in the International Design Center. For their theses, students approach the design of a product or service by researching the market and formulating a business plan.

For example, Huda Jaffer SM ’16, the first student to complete IDM, examined investments in renewable energy technologies in the developing world. She researched the needs of various stakeholders—underserved communities, designers of renewable energy technologies, and the potential investors in those technologies—to propose guidelines for investors to gauge an energy technology’s “holistic sustainability,” that is, its potential to offer a positive social or environmental impact as well as a financial return.

“Engineers’ responsibilities have expanded substantially over the last 25 years. They’re now expected to understand the entire system that will influence the product they’re developing,” says Professor of Mechanical Engineering Warren Seering, who is faculty co-director, along with Eppinger, of IDM.

“I’ve noticed that many industries have begun to emphasize design leadership, and I think the IDM program is perfectly positioned to create those leaders,” says second-year IDM student Sara Remsen, whose undergraduate majors were biology and digital arts. Remsen is collaborating with the MIT Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group to design new augmented/virtual reality experiences that explain the ecological processes of a recently restored wetland. The idea is to bring the story alive for visitors to help them better understand the benefits of restoration. Learning firsthand about stakeholders’ needs in the context of the larger environment “results in a more creative concept generation process,” Kressy says. “Combine that with the analytical element we’ve traditionally taught here at MIT and you end up with a very powerful way to solve problems.”

More than 40 students formed the cast and crew of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, staged in November 2016. Photo: Jonathan Sachs

Designing the Future

Weaving through the Action

MIT Theater Arts: performance and design, under one roof at last

More than 40 students formed the cast and crew of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, staged in November 2016. Photo: Jonathan Sachs

It’s the week before the 2016 presidential election, and onstage in MIT’s Kresge Little Theater is the shell of an abandoned campaign headquarters, the set for Bertolt Brecht’s political parable The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The production’s cast features more than 20 students, with another 20 working behind the scenes.

What’s not apparent, viewing that set between performances, is that it’s activated during the show by nine cameras that feed into multiple onstage screens. Another surprise: one wall, marred by a jagged crack, is not just shabby but shatterable. “Someone gets thrown through it. It’s pretty classy,” jokes Jay Scheib, the production’s director and head of the MIT Theater Arts program, sitting on the edge of the deserted stage one afternoon during the show’s run. He gestures stage left. “Someone also gets thrown through that window, which we make out of heat-shrink plastic.”

These two dynamic elements—the blending of action and live video, and the violent breaching of walls—are bread and butter for Scheib and for the department’s director of design, Sara Brown. It’s an aesthetic they will continue to explore with their students come spring, under a new roof: the Theater Arts Building (W97), soon to open in a gut-renovated warehouse on Vassar Street.

W97 marks a new era for a growing department where Scheib and Brown have been faculty since 2003 and 2008, respectively. Their collaborations on and off campus include World of Wires, a dark tale of virtual reality that opened with the smashing of a literal fourth wall—a moment the New York Magazine reviewer called “one of the most thrillingly witty displays of illusion I’ve ever seen on a stage or a screen.” For that production, Brown designed a warren of rooms divided by a narrow central hallway, with handheld cameras weaving through the action and capturing close-ups.

World of Wires, like the rest of Scheib’s Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems trilogy, was workshopped at MIT before its professional debut. Each installment, according to that show’s program notes, emerged “through dialogues with civil engineering and urban planning, computer science and artificial intelligence, aerospace and astronautics.” MIT theater students’ backgrounds in those and other fields not only influence the dramaturgy of works developed here, but provide a baseline comfort level with the technology that Scheib and Brown bring into the room from the very first rehearsal—building the physical world of the play amid a tangle of microphones, cameras, cables, and computers.

Brown describes one memorable project, from a workshop with visiting theater artist Robert Lepage. The students were asked to devise scenes around the motif of playing cards. “One of the students turned a playing card into a speaker—an actual working speaker—and it told the story for him while he performed silently.”

Scheib, too, frequently marvels at his students’ ingenuity. “I might say: ‘OK, we’re going to make a five-minute performance in which there have to be ten exits and entrances, four sentences, two failed kisses, one display of strength, one use of video from your cellphone, three sound cues, a dance solo, and a wrestling match. You have 20 minutes. Get started.’ And usually they go: What?! And then, they make stuff. And some of the pieces are astonishingly beautiful.”

Invention that transcends constraints is practically an MIT sport. But theater education, and theatrical design in particular, injects a bracing dose of aesthetics into the process. As Brown puts it: “Before you can design, you have to see. I teach a class where students have to research the history of a particular chair and what else was going on in the world when it was designed. When you put a chair on stage, you’re putting that web of references on stage, too.”

Apparently, MIT students welcome new ways of seeing. Theater Arts enrollment has more than doubled in recent years, and a major was established in 2015. As the program has grown, it has dispersed outside its barebones home base in E33 (the erstwhile Rinaldi Tile Building), making nomadic use of shared facilities for classes, productions, and semester-end exhibitions.

With E33 slated for demolition as part of Kendall Square’s transformation, the new building at 345 Vassar Street is an opportunity to consolidate all this scattered activity. Its 25,000 square feet include a two-story, 180-seat, multimedia-equipped venue that can be reconfigured for each use; as well as a rehearsal studio, dressing rooms, and set and costume makerspaces.

Brand-new facilities are a boon for a department used to operating out of an industrial garage, even as W97’s design honors the old space’s “nothing-is-finished, nothing-is-precious” aesthetic. But the ultimate upgrade is centralization. “It gives us an opportunity to think about programming in a much more autonomous way,” Scheib says, “to turn that building into a destination, both for the campus and locally for Cambridge and the greater Boston area.” Theater students will move easily between adjacent design, rehearsal, and performance spaces, with ready access to maker tools, and opportunities for immediately trying out what they’ve made. No longer will the theater be the place “where you show up the day before you open and unpack everything you’ve been working on and hope it works,” says Brown. And no longer will design and acting classes be divided by geography. “We’ll be able to bring those things closer together. We really don’t think of them as separate items, and this is going to make that ethos, which has always been a goal, much more possible.”

If it seems ironic that a program so keen on knocking down walls will flourish thanks to solid new ones—well, drama is fueled by such contradictions. While many MIT buildings are dedicated to solving problems, W97 will in some sense be devoted to creating them: constructing microcosms of conflict to see what transpires. As Brown puts it, “I think a lot of design in other areas is about making something better, more logical, more efficient. And sometimes in theater we have an opposite problem: how do you make it fall apart? How do you make it a challenge for people to navigate the space? There are lots of parallels with theater and architecture, but theater has such a different relationship to time. It has to rewind itself every night.”

Designing the Future

Digging into Design

Engineering students create new products from the ground (and molecule) up

Fiona Grant ’17 and 2.009 lab instructor Geoff Tsai PhD ’16 discuss design details for “Roger,” a product enabling better communication for workers wearing respirators in hazardous conditions. Photo: Dabin Choe ’16

Pompoms wave wildly in the lecture hall as students gear up for a team challenge in 2.009 Product Engineering Processes, taught by mechanical engineering professor David Robert Wallace SM ’91, PhD ’95. Today’s topic is “design for assembly,” and the objective seems simple enough: be the first to screw one piece of wood into another. But Wallace, wearing a striped referee shirt and his trademark Santa Claus beard, impishly explains the catch: while the pink team is using straightforward Phillips-head screws in boards with pre-drilled holes, the orange team has slot screws, the blue team has one of its boards glued upside down in a box, and the red team has its board glued upside down inside a box with eight different screws.

“Go!” shouts Wallace. The cheering is deafening as the students set to work—but it’s no contest. The pink team is done in a minute and a half, while red and blue are still working, frustrated, 7 minutes later. “So why do we care about design for assembly?” asks Wallace. But of course, the point has already been made.

Wallace has been driving that point home to students for more than 20 years with this legendary course. Designed to closely mimic a real-world product design experience, from concept generation to assembly and launch, it culminates in a high-energy event in Kresge Auditorium that typically attracts more than 1,000 spectators.

Chemical engineering professor Bradley Olsen ’03 may work with his students on a different—and less theatrical—scale, but the goals of 10.00 Molecule Builders are no less ambitious. The new class, which he debuted in Spring 2016, challenges first-year undergraduates to create their own devices using chemical reactions. “When students come to MIT, they always say they want to build something with their hands,” says Olsen. “It’s easy to imagine how you would do that with software or LEGOs or robots, but hard to envision at the molecular level. And yet, chemical reactions are the core of many devices.”

Olsen gave students the choice to engineer one of three projects—a small car powered by a fuel cell; an enzyme cocktail to create biofuel out of switchgrass; and a 3-D-printed microgel for medical applications. Outside of a few parameters, the details on how the students approached the projects were up to them. “It was a very steep learning curve,” says Rebecca Grekin ’19, who chose biofuels. “We had to figure out what switchgrass was made of, what kind of enzymes we needed to break it down, and how to turn those parts into glucose.”

“Students are always surprised when experiments don’t work well on the first try,” notes Olsen, “because in lab classes, they always do. Those failures mean that students have to take their time to figure out why.”

On one try, Grekin’s group used the wrong antibiotic, so the bacteria meant to produce the enzymes died; in another, the bacteria contaminated the experiment. Through perseverance, they finally produced trace amounts of glucose. And Grekin carried these lessons to her summer job in a biofuels lab in Brazil. “I was working with a master’s student, and I had more hands-on experience in some of the procedures than he did,” she says.

In 2.009, “Part of the mission is to build the attitude and motivation to take on challenges and be successful,” says Wallace. Each year, he introduces a different theme—this year it’s “Rough, Tough, and Messy”—and students brainstorm products to build within that category. “If you are smart and skilled, you have a good chance of solving a problem—but the important thing is figuring out which problem you want to spend your time on,” Wallace says. The student teams pitch six different ideas to a group of advisors that includes MechE faculty, teaching assistants, and mentors from industry. As the semester progresses, they gradually narrow their focus to one product and get a budget of $7,000 to design, build, and assemble it. Over two decades, Wallace’s students have designed everything from a rappelling device for caving, to a braille label maker, to a beer-keg dolly. The last two ideas, says Wallace, went on to become commercial products.

Inventing a marketable product, heady as that may feel, is beside the point, says Wallace. “First and foremost, we want students to get excited about the positive and important contributions they can make in society as technical innovators. Secondly, we want to provide them with the skills and knowledge that allow them to work effectively in teams—and those skills are just as applicable to research and many other types of activities.”

For Olsen’s part, he hopes to expand the very notion of what it means to be a product designer. “I hope they get excited about digging into design and build not just at the macro level or the digital level,” he says, “but also seeing the potential that exists at the microscopic level.”