MIT students are amazing.

In a recent entering class, nearly half were high school valedictorians and a majority scored at least one 800 on the SATs, but their stellar achievements do not stop with academics. While in high school, nearly 70 percent achieved distinction in the arts, more than two-thirds headed at least one student organization, and more than half were varsity athletes.

MIT is now involved in an unprecedented effort to improve the way it meets the needs of these future leaders. Based on a 1998 report from the student-faculty Task Force on Student Life and Learning, MIT has developed a plan to prepare students for life through an educational triad of academics, research, and community. The report noted that an MIT education should provide stronger opportunities for faculty and students to interact outside the formal learning situations. Not only does learning exist in the classroom and the lab, but it is a continuous process on campus and endures for life. Involvement with the broader community, meanwhile, helps to teach students communication skills, interpersonal and leadership skills, and critical thinking about societal issues.

In that spirit, last year MIT introduced 10 new service learning classes into its curriculum. These include classes in writing, management, urban studies, and computer science as well as four engineering design seminars. A joint venture of the MIT Public Service Center and the Edgerton Center, service learning makes it possible for students to contribute to the wider community while they learn. For example, in this year’s design seminars, students developed a voice-activated toy to aid speech therapists working with children, a technology for converting sawdust into cooking fuel, and web pages to help children study for the Massachusetts state educational exams.

Another service effort on campus is under way at the MIT Media Lab. Begun two years ago, Design That Matters is a studio course run entirely by students, who work with local and international organizations to design devices to solve global problems. This year, student teams developed a new type of incubator for premature infants, smart canes for the visually impaired, and a method to improve access to clean water in Nicaragua. In fact, the incubator and Nicaraguan water projects earned top prizes in this year’s first annual IDEAS Competition, which was established by MIT’s Public Service Center and Edgerton Center to encourage students to develop designs that benefit communities locally, nationally, or internationally.

This year, Phi Delta Theta fraternity held its 17th Annual Toy Day, where students crafted wooden toys for underprivileged children. Also this year, the student government of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology organized 65 graduate students who spent a day at the Greater Boston Food Bank sorting food for delivery to shelters throughout Boston. This effort led to the sorting of 39,658 pounds of food and the production of 22,230 meals.

MIT has several other educational programs under way to reach the wider community. At the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, middle-schoolers from Cambridge are introduced to the field through intensive week-long programs, in which they conduct lab experiments and participate in hands-on activities. Assoc. Prof. Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab developed the Computer Clubhouse as an after-school learning center where youth from under-served communities have an opportunity to become fluent in new computer technologies. The first clubhouse began in Boston nine years ago; now there are 50 around the world.

Priscilla King Gray, wife of MIT’s 14th president, Paul Gray, was instrumental in establishing the MIT Public Service Center 14 years ago, and she is a longtime champion of its goals and mission. Today the Center provides students with leadership and service opportunities throughout the community. Some students interact with elementary school children in Cambridge and Boston, while others work with local service agencies. In addition to volunteering, they serve through paid fellowships and work-study opportunities, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) projects, and service learning classes.

Education is not complete without community involvement. At MIT, responsibility toward our students extends beyond meeting basic duties in the classroom and lab. It also includes working together to build community by integrating student life and learning into a combined, coherent whole.

Charles M. Vest

Charles M. Vest