The Promise of Technology-Enabled Education

Saturday, January 1, 2005
by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 2, No. 1

On August 26, 2004, the MIT Corporation elected Dr. Susan Hockfield, a distinguished neuroscientist and Provost of Yale University, the 16th president of MIT. Shortly before she took office on December 6, Dean Tom Magnanti spoke with her about some of her initial thoughts on the current status and future of the Institute and of Engineering.

First Impressions of MIT / Engineering

Tom Magnanti: MIT is clearly a bit different from Yale. Are you experiencing any kind of a "culture shock" here at the Institute?

Susan Hockfield: No, I don't think so. However, there is something that I'm calling the "information cost" that occurs when you go to a new place, regardless of what that new place is. So as I move from one university to another, I have tried to pay at least some of that information cost by spending a lot of time with people to learn about the Institute before I take office.

TM: So the fact that we refer to everything here by a number, like "Building 41" or "Course 6" . . .

SH: Well, yes, everything here is a number, but I'll learn the translation. More challenging than that, however, is actually learning what is in Building 36 and understanding where the people are, mapping the people to the geography of numbers and disciplines. Some days I feel that I'm making progress, and other days, I feel as if I'm throwing pebbles into the Grand Canyon. The incredible energy of the place is what strikes me most. A friend of mine once described Silicon Valley as a place where everyone seems to be carrying an extra battery pack. That's the way I feel about MIT – a place that's very energetic, tremendously intelligent, where people have a lot of passion. It's wonderful.

TM: So, you've been trying to soak up MIT, "drinking from the firehose," as we say. Has anything in particular surprised you about the School of Engineering?

SH: I was surprised by the extraordinary breadth, depth, and range of activities that belong in Engineering at MIT. It's a concept of engineering completely different from anything I had expected. Looking ahead, while I feel that it's very important to begin with a strong disciplinary base, I believe that the way for MIT to continue its leadership is to create an environment that encourages, supports, and builds collaborations across disciplines. I'll be looking to our colleagues in Engineering to help chart the direction forward. Since I am a creature of a collaborative culture, I'm pleased that this is very much part of the air we breathe at MIT. People here have no inhibition about crossing a disciplinary divide to find the ideas and resources needed to solve a particular problem.

Scientists and Engineers

SH: Since we're talking about "culture," people frequently ask me how I will come to understand the engineering culture. As I come to know MIT, I'm beginning to understand why I don't see a chasm between engineering and science. First, from my perspective, there is an unbroken continuum from theory through applications. I don't see a big gap where you've got to go over a bridge. Second, as a life scientist – in a field that is positioned somewhere along this continuum – the distance between the two ends of the spectrum seems shorter. Since I don't do theoretical biology, I sit almost halfway between the theoretical end and the most advanced applications. I may not yet fully understand the engineering culture, but so far I haven't found it to be a very distant reach. This, to me, marks one of the very greatest strengths of MIT: that the entire continuum is populated someplace on this campus.

The Future of Engineering With a Life Scientist as President

TM: As I said to you when we first met, even though you're a standing scientist, you're really an engineer, and so we embrace and welcome you as a fellow engineer to MIT. [Laughter] I think you're right about this spectrum. Many in engineering do science, and a fair number of those in science do engineering. The Venn diagrams do overlap. Just staying with this topic for another moment, let me ask you a question that some of our alumni and those outside the Institute might be wondering. Although we've had MIT presidents from disciplines other than engineering in the past – including a physicist and an economist from the School of Management . . . and the place didn't collapse either time – does having a life scientist as president for the first time signal a new direction that could mean the demise of Engineering at MIT in the future?

SH: [laughs] No, I don't see my being a life scientist as the death knell for Engineering by any stretch of the imagination. I rush to allay any concern about my respect for engineering and, most emphatically, my recognition of the need to support the preeminent engineering faculty in the world. What I actually envision is a chance to build on MIT's already magnificent strengths in engineering and develop them even further, to be innovative both in teaching and research, and to play upon MIT's growing strengths in the life sciences. I see enormous potential at the interfaces between engineering and the sciences – frankly, not just between engineering and sciences – but at the interfaces with many activities around the campus. From the perspective of Engineering, the strength in the life sciences at MIT is a very good thing because it increases the foundations on which Engineering can build the next iteration of itself. Frankly, I don't think there is another university, certainly not in America, that is as well situated as MIT to take advantage of the interfaces among engineering, management, the sciences and other fields. That is one reason I see MIT as such an exciting place.

Surprising Discoveries

TM: Are there any projects or activities you've seen in the School of Engineering that have been particularly intriguing or surprising to you?

SH: [laughs] Too many to even begin to list them; it's quite fantastic. I feel like a kid in a candy store! Everywhere I turn, I find something new and interesting. For example, I am extraordinarily pleased to discover a real passion for innovation in teaching here. It hadn't occurred to me that a place so dominated by science and technology would also be completely taken up with a passion for education. It has been wonderfully inspiring to see the same enthusiasm for innovation in the classroom as in the research lab.

Re-inspiring the Nation Educationally

TM: In other forums, you've mentioned your own interest in K-12 education and have said that you want MIT to be the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place. That statement resonates with me. In the School of Engineering, we have some special programs designed to get people more interested in the practice of engineering, as well as in the science of engineering: one is called MITES, the Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science, and a relatively new program called UPOP, the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program.

SH: I'm sure that you know even better than I that we suffer from an insufficient number of Americans who are interested in careers in science, technology and engineering. We really need to re-inspire the nation's K-12 education system and develop in students a desire to engage in this most exciting part of the world. I think that MIT has to play a role in invoking this inspiration and serving as a wellspring of it. MIT can serve kids in this nation and around the world by being more aggressive in sharing our knowledge and our innovative approaches to education and research. So, it's just fantastic that we have programs such as MITES and UPOP that focus on inspiring and preparing students to pursue studies and careers in engineering and science and their applications.

Graduate Education

TM: You've been actively involved in issues of graduate education at Yale. Since one might say that in some ways graduate education is less institution-based than field-based, I wonder if there are some lessons we could learn from Yale about graduate education?

SH: I took over the graduate school at Yale at a time when there was a tremendous need to reinvigorate and re-imagine the role of the graduate school and graduate education in the context of the University. While not neglected at MIT, I believe that some of the areas in which we worked could also be enhanced here, for example, helping graduate students feel part of the larger community. By its very nature, graduate education is very focused, and it needs to be, in order for the student to become an expert in a particular subfield. And yet, given that context of highly focused education, we can't lose sight of the individual as a person. While I don't yet know how graduate students experience their life here, I imagine that activities that might broaden their sense of community could be welcome. Another way to enhance the educational experiences of graduate students is to help them think about their future roles in a broader sense, beyond the specifics of being academics or practitioners in a particular narrow field, to understanding and communicating the implications of what they're doing. These are areas that need to be integrated into the curriculum.

Emerging Technologies

TM: Changing our focus just a little, I wanted to mention a challenge that the School is trying to address with one of our key initiatives, that is, the "funding gap" in which an enormous amount of laboratory innovation is under-funded or whose results are not harvested. We have a center on campus called the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation that functions as sort of a mini DARPA to fund emerging technologies and then works to link those technologies to the entrepreneurship and venture capital communities.

SH: I've just learned about the Deshpande Center and it strikes me as a brilliantly reasoned jewel. It's hard to imagine why there aren't similar centers on many other campuses, but it was imagined here first, as I understand it. In a unique way, MIT provides a fabulous environment for people to participate at all points along the entire continuum from very basic research to the highest-end applications. In that sense, the Deshpande Center serves as an articulation of that core value of the Institute.

TM: As we're closing, do you have any particular messages for our alumni in Engineering?

SH: My sense is that MIT has never been stronger. I really do believe that MIT is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new directions, the interfaces between science and engineering, engineering and the social sciences, and management. It's very exciting for me to be part of this enterprise and I'm looking forward to meeting the alumni of this School in the months and years ahead.

TM: It's exciting to have you with us as well. Welcome aboard!