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first taste of the firehose

You may recall that I did not know much about what it was like to be an MIT student before my freshman year. I'd heard a few things from people at Stuy, but a lot of the information was conflicting. I'd actually been on campus a couple of times during some family visits to Boston, but nothing much more than a brief walk down the Infinite Corridor or the Student Center.

However, about thirty years ago today, I got my first real exposure to student life at the 'tute when I attended the MITE (now known as MITES program. From what I recall, the day I went was a big family outing – not just my immediate family but my maternal grandparents as well. (I can picture my grandfather talking to me while I was getting settled in the MacGregor H-Entry room I stayed in.) Back then, it wasn't possible to make outgoing calls from the dorms (and cell phones were not mass-market items), so I wasn't able to call back for a while after they left, and was surprised to hear that my parents had racked up quite a bit of long-distance charges trying to reach me.

The program has changed quite a bit from when I participated. In my day, it was a two-week program primarily oriented towards civil and mechanical engineering. I don't remember the professor from the civil engineering department, but Cravalho was the Course 2 representative. There were also a couple of "recitation instructors" (I didn't know the significance of this at the time) who also doubled as TAs. Classes began around 9am and lasted until sometime in the afternoon (with breaks for lunch). There were problem sets (as you might expect) and a couple of design projects (one was building a bridge out of toothpicks, tongue depressors, and other miscellaneous small wooden items). Basically, it aimed to give us an idea of what engineering (at MIT) was like.

I had some problems during the program. I found it difficult to follow the recitations. For one thing, one of the instructors wrote very small, at the bottom of the chalkboard, in thin chalk, which was very difficult to see. Another thing was that I had trouble staying awake during lectures. Falling asleep during a class was a new thing to me – even though I had to get up early in the morning to make it to Stuy, I don't ever recall having a problem staying awake in class. Perhaps the Stuy classes featured more interaction between teachers and students. As a result, I missed some information that I needed, such as some restrictions on the bridge construction, which led to some last-minute bridge redesign and rebuilding. Then there were the "moment" lectures, where the instructors started out with a page of vector calculus equations pulled from a calculus book (Thomas, probably) and somehow wound up at solving torque problems. At various times during the program, I found myself lost, and the questions I asked didn't seem to help much.

There were some bright spots. I liked being around the other students and having a chance to meet current and future students. (Some MITErs would go on to enroll at MIT, and there were also Project Interphase students around.) I had a chance to get around the Boston area a bit. There was a group trip on the last night of the program to The Rocky Horror Picture Show which I hadn't yet seen. I made a few friends (one of whom encouraged me to go to a weekend program a few months later for students interested in pursuing medical careers, which I'll write about later). So it was a worthwhile two weeks.

But I felt unprepared for MIT at the end of the program. I remember telling Cravalho and the others that I wanted to come back, and hoped MIT would accept me, but that I didn't feel comfortable with the style of teaching. I said that I hoped I would be accepted into Project Interphase the following summer, so that I would have more of a chance to become acclimated to the 'tute academic environment. Unfortunately, I was not accepted into Project Interphase, because (presumably) they didn't take students from magnet schools. (I found out later that there were exceptions.) I think I would have benefited from it in a number of ways, not just academically.

As a footnote to this story, shortly afterward, there was a six-week summer program held at CMU with a similar theme that some of my Stuy friends had enrolled in. I wanted to go to that also, but my parents said that I had to work for the rest of the summer. They didn't think the program would be all that useful, since I was (probably) going to MIT anyway. Also, they thought I shouldn't be away from home that long (?). If I had known then what I know now, I would have argued that it was much more important for me to attend the program, as lots of other kids were doing that sort of thing. (One thing that surprised me was hearing from other MITErs how many summer study programs they'd already been to, and seeing how that experience helped them in MITE and as MIT students.) In the long run, I think it would have been better to participate in summer study programs, although at the time I appreciated having some personal spending money.

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
cellio
Jul. 15th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)
I was in the CMU program -- two years, which was unusual. (I qualified as a sophomore.) I didn't have the impression that my classmates were doing some sort of circuit of these things, for what that's worth. I hadn't heard of similar programs anywhere but CMU; my parents are both alumni so that's how we found out about it.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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