For MIT faculty, grappling with the most intractable problems of our time is just another day’s work — from battling poverty to combating cancer, from designing “smart” cities to inventing new alternative energy technologies, from charting the future of the World Wide Web to plumbing the nature of the cosmos. For our students, MIT’s legendary Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) offers direct, hands-on experiences to develop their own taste for relentless problem solving and fearless exploration.
Mens et manus, mind and hand. This potent motto — in theory and in practice — has set MIT apart from the beginning and has set many of our best minds on paths that changed the world. It has produced an Institute with a strikingly different kind of education: if MIT had an ivory tower, it would be topped with a wind-powered turbine; it would be built by our students of a novel material stronger, more sustainable and less pretentious than ivory; and there would be a garage out back in which they could start their own company.
Building on our passion for discovery and invention, UROP has become a signature feature of an MIT education. Matching undergraduates with faculty or senior staff researchers, UROP pulls students out of the classroom and lets them experience what it feels like to race along the frontiers of knowledge. Complementing traditional problem sets and rigorous classroom experiences, UROP gives students a window into the world where abstract knowledge is applied to real questions by top scholars in every field. For many students, in UROP they understand how mind meets hand.
The result can be transformational. Students learn how to break down a tough research problem; how to work in teams on complex projects; and how to communicate compellingly about their results. Working side by side with a world-class scholar also shows them the value of their education while in the midst of it. Often, these experiences can vault a UROP student to graduate school or open the door to an unanticipated career.
One measure of how much students crave these opportunities (and of their tireless and ambitious drive to make the most of their time at MIT): although UROPs and the workload they imply are completely optional, nearly 85 percent of students complete one or more UROPs by the time they graduate. Just as impressive, nearly two-thirds of faculty work with UROP students, perhaps because they feel that the most powerful way to teach the field they love is not from the lectern but in the lab, the field, or the studio.
This year the Institute celebrates UROP’s 40th anniversary. What began with a few dozen students has become an MIT institution and now extends its reach with a sister program: the International Research Opportunities Program (IROP), which last year sent students to 20 nations, from Switzerland to Thailand. As with MIT’s most compelling ideas, the legacy of UROP extends well beyond our campus; the program is now widely emulated at colleges and universities around the world. We are proud to be its birthplace and its home.
In the enduring spirit of mens et manus, UROP continues to unite our mission in teaching with our mission in research, connecting young people with inspiring mentors — and with the world whose problems cry out for their curiosity and rigor, their energy, analysis, and aspiration. When I talk to students about their UROPs, I often wish I could sign up, too. This issue of SPECTRVM may leave you feeling the same way — because an instinct for learning-by-doing may be the most powerful legacy of an MIT education.