MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Wesley Harris speaks to MITES students as part of lecture series

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Professor Harris engages MITES students with modern engineering questions.

Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Wesley Harris facilitated a lively discussion with the 72 Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) students on June 24. Topics included recent technological advances and the intersection of science and ethics.

“Build something, do something, study something,” Professor Harris said. “Get a passion in your heart. Get a passion in your belly.” Professor Harris spoke to the eager group of students about finding their niches in higher education and the greater world, as well as the “wonderful problems” awaiting them.

The following discussion focused on responsible progress, with an emphasis on keeping human interests in mind. In an era of rapid scientific growth, robots have replaced entire populations of workers. While technology can eliminate jobs, it has the ability to cultivate and expand the job market, Professor Harris said.

“Would you build a robot for Ford that eliminates jobs?” Professor Harris asked. The challenge of balancing progress and human interests became obvious to the students: If more jobs are eliminated than created by new technology, the purpose of scientific advancement is defeated.

Professor Harris started his career studying ecology at the University of Virginia and later researched rotorcraft technology, aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, sickle cell pathology, financial management methods, and defense systems acquisition. His lecture incorporated anecdotes from years of research and teaching.

Talking points

Throughout the discussion, Professor Harris posed the students questions from modern engineering challenges. One of these challenges involved stimulating human sensory responses with mere images and the obstacles associated with this task. “A rose is more than color. It has texture. It has fragrance,” he said. “How do I look at water visually and feel its wetness?”

“Our brains process things differently,” one student responded. “It is not your eyes that see, but your brain.”

Professor Harris also challenged the students to think of creative ways to ensure that space travelers return home with their original features and characteristics. “How does the human body respond to weightlessness? We want people coming back from Mars looking just like they did when they left, with one head, not two,” Professor Harris said.

Questions for the future

At the end of the presentation, students peppered Professor Harris with questions about glacial melting, genocide and efficient energy production without turbines, to name a few.

One student, Fabian Aristizabal of Hialeah, Fla., was concerned with the concept of life after human travel to Mars. “After Mars, what comes next? We’re stuck in our own neighborhood,” he said. Abigail Arnold from Seattle, Wash., asked, “Are humans fixed creatures, or do we move in conjunction with time and space to create our own perceptions of reality?”

Though the lecture focused primarily on engineering, Professor Harris left the MITES students with life advice. Asked to describe the legacy he wished to leave behind, Professor Harris said, “One: That I have been a good father. Two: To understand that I’ve been fair and positive, and that every day I move through this world with no intent to harm anyone. Three: That I’ve had a career in which there was modest success as a teacher and a researcher.”

—Sydney Lester

39th MITES class welcomed to MIT

The MITES class of 2014 met in Simmons Hall for a welcome dinner.

The MITES class of 2014 met in Simmons Hall for a welcome dinner.

On June 13, 72 rising high school seniors from across the country joined instructional staff and administration at MIT’s Simmons Hall for the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) Welcome Dinner. It marked the beginning of the 39th session of MITES, the longest-running offering of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

Yonatan Tekleab, summer program coordinator for MITES, greeted the students and charged them with one task: to change the world. “Changing the world can mean something different for everyone,” he said, while recounting his own academic and career path. He also commented on the social experience of the MITES program. “The bonds you create with one another will be everlasting,” he said.

Through the intensive MITES curriculum, each student will complete courses in calculus, physics, life science and humanities, along with one hands-on engineering elective course. At the welcome dinner, Kathryn Shroyer of the MIT Sea Grant College Program previewed the new Underwater Robotics course, which joins MITES after a successful pilot course in OEOP’s one-week program, Engineering Experience at MIT (E2@MIT), last year.

After dinner, students learned about policies surrounding housing, safety and fitness and recreation. Instructors and teaching assistants introduced themselves and the topics they planned to cover, and Brandon Holloway, head teaching assistant and MITES ’09 alum, revealed this year’s class theme: crafting the pillars of innovation.

MITES Faculty Director and MIT Professor Cardinal Warde stressed the value of good citizenship, striving for excellence and stepping up to take challenges. He reminded students that “someone gave money to give you the chance to be here. Show appreciation. We want you to try really hard.”

The level of excitement in the hall was high among instructors, coordinators, teaching assistants and especially the students. Ahmed Bosier, from Detroit, MI, said he’s excited to collaborate with like-minded people and learn more about engineering.

Abigail Arnold from Des Moines, WA said that aside from the great opportunity of being at a place like MIT, she’s most looking forward to meeting her peers. “We’re already planning a movie night,” she said.

In the closing remarks, Shawna Young, executive director of OEOP, reinforced that students will work harder than they have before, but that the experience will be worth it. “Take in every moment,” she said.  “You won’t get it back, but it’s okay, because you have it now.”

—Alexandra Koktsidis

Dean of Engineering speaks to local OEOP families during annual dinner

"Pick the thing that's most exciting," Ian Waitz, Dean of the school of Engineering, told students during the annual dinner with the dean event.

“Pick the thing that’s most exciting to you,” MIT Dean of Engineering Ian Waitz told students during the annual dinner with the dean event hosted by OEOP.

On May 19, the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) hosted its annual Dinner with the Dean event, featuring a talk by MIT Dean of Engineering Ian A. Waitz. Over 60 high school and middle school students – all participants of OEOP’s programs for public school students from Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, Massachusetts – arrived with their families at the Ray and Maria Stata Center for dinner, refreshments, and a chance to learn more about engineering and MIT from the dean.

“Engineers are people solving problems that matter,” Waitz told the students and their families. “We really value when we look at the world and see how something changed.”

Waitz, a faculty member of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics since 1991 and dean since 2011, highlighted several important elements of the engineering student experience at MIT, including a hands-on approach to learning, opportunities to work abroad, and a special focus on collaboration in projects. “Engineering is not a job where you’re working in a box by yourself,” he said.

Students asked Waitz a wide range of questions including what they could do to prepare for an engineering track in college. Waitz said that the first step is learning the fundamentals of math and science in high school by taking every course available to get a full understanding of basic principals. He noted that the students in the room are already on the right track by taking the programs offered through OEOP.

Another student asked how to plan her undergraduate engineering education to maximize her job prospects after graduation. “Most employers are not focused on what you did. It’s about what you can do for them,” Waitz said, emphasizing the importance of being entrepreneurial.

Waitz concluded the ceremony by offering advice that guided him in his career. “Always be open to options,” he said. “Pick the thing that’s most exciting to you.”

—Alexandra Koktsidis

Mechanical arm wrestling demonstrates muscles’ electrical signals for local middle school students and mentors

On April 5, dozens of local middle school students stuck electrodes to their arms and observed the power of the electrical signals that travel through their muscles. The activity was part of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs’ Middle School Mentoring Program, which pairs undergraduate and graduate mentors with middle school students from Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, MA.

In the activity, developed by the NSF Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering – a partnership between MIT, the University of Washington and San Diego State University, among other institutions – electrical signals from the students’ muscles, captured by electrodes, controlled motors in two mechanical arms. Together, those two mechanical arms formed a simulated arm-wrestling game called WrestleBrainia 3000, in which students competed to pin their opponents by generating stronger electrical signals.

Before entering the WrestleBrainia ring, the students and their mentors tested a simpler version of the system that used the electrical signals from their muscles to control a single motor. They experimented with sensor placement and arm movement to determine the effects of different variables on the speed of the motor. At the end of the activity, the students shared out their findings to their peers and mentors.

MIT Professor Joel Voldman led the activity, introduced the students to the field of sensorimotor neural engineering, and showed a real-world application in a 60 Minutes clip featuring an amputee who could control a robotic arm through electrodes attached to her head.

—Nick Holden

SEED Academy concludes semester with Graduation and Final Ceremony

“You have to believe the sky’s the limit. You can’t have limitations on your thoughts,” Dr. Yvonne Spicer, Ed.D. told students of MIT’s Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy at their Graduation and Final Ceremony on Friday, April 2.

Over 150 students, staff and family members filled the auditorium on 50 Vassar Street, where, as part of the ceremony, students showcased their work from the semester’s classes: Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Robotics, and Synthetic Biology.

Photos by Joel Laino.

Spicer, vice president of advocacy and educational partnerships for the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science in Boston, was a keynote speaker at the event. With energetic flair, she detailed her experience as a worldwide advocate for underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and offered advice and insight relating to this year’s theme, “Knowing Matters.”

“Know that failure is good,” she said. “Very rarely do we hear failure is good, but in engineering, it’s good. We want things to fail early. We don’t want things to be built and then fail.”

Spicer stressed the importance of graciousness, patience, persistence, evaluating choices, and having a vision. She emphasized that she was proud of all of the students and that their passion and commitment inspires her to go to work every day.

101 students completed the six-Saturday SEED Academy semester. This year’s graduating senior class included 21 seniors, many who will attend top universities in the fall, including MIT, Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, and Boston University.

“The seniors had really great enthusiasm this year,” said Jacob Rubens, a co-instructor for the Synthetic Biology and an MIT graduate student in microbiology. In Rubens’ class, students learned how to clone a gene and brainstormed innovative applications of bioengineering, such as developing plants that light up when adequately watered.

As juniors in the Robotics course, Antonio Santana and Keron Ali built and programmed robotic vehicles. “My favorite part was getting involved in activities,” Santana said. “The hard work paid off, and it was enjoyable to see work in action.”

Ali said his favorite part of SEED was learning about the different fields of engineering. “With engineering, you are making a connection to the outside world and doing something useful,” he said.

2014 SEED Academy College Attendance

2014 SEED Academy College Attendance

 

—Alexandra Koktsidis

Beginning a journey to the intersection of engineering and medicine

Roya Edalatpour, MOSTEC ’11, was provisionally accepted into an M.D. program as a sophomore.

Growing up, Roya Edalatpour wanted to be an astronaut. “Completely different from being a doctor,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t really consider medicine, I didn’t think I had the guts to do it,” she explains. She speaks with clarity and collectiveness, in a mature, light tone.

Roya, 19, is now a rising junior at the University of Texas, El Paso, where she studies engineering on a pre-med track. During her sophomore year, she was accepted to the Early Medical School Selection Program (EMSSP) offered through her school and the Boston University School of Medicine, where she’ll be this summer to complete a six-week residential program. Roya was one of four students recently accepted from her school to fill twelve national seats.  As Roya continues her studies, she plans to apply to complete her M.D./Ph.D. in engineering and medicine.

Inspired in Cambridge and Austin

In 2011, Roya took part in the inaugural class of the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) offered by the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. Through the program, she took part in a number of hands-on science and engineering experiences, including one of the most memorable for her: standing in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel during the one-week MOSTEC Conference on MIT’s campus. Recalling the tunnel, she positions her small frame into a boxer’s stance. “I had to stand like this the whole time to fight the wind,” she says, laughing.

Through MOSTEC’s coursework and inspiration from MIT professors and counselors, Roya identified her passion for biomedical engineering, robotics and electrical engineering. Her time on campus also helped her recognize that she wanted to come back to the Boston area.

So how did medicine become part of the mix? In 2011, Roya participated in a computer science program at the University of Texas, Austin, where she had the chance to witness the da Vinci Surgical System – a robot used for minimally invasive surgery – in action. “As I was sitting there, working with the team, I was like, oh my gosh this is so accurate. It was amazing for me to see this robot being so precise,” she says.

The summer before her freshman year at UTEP, Roya shadowed a doctor. The clinical experience confirmed her interest in medicine, but she didn’t want to let go of engineering. So, when her pre-med counselor at school told her she could do both by completing her MD/Ph.D., she jumped at the opportunity.

Roya in her lab coat on Boston University's campus. (Photo courtesy Roya Edalatpour)

Roya in her lab coat on Boston University’s campus.

The impact of a mentor

“Enthusiastic, creative, passionate and bright” are some words Roya’s mentor Martine Ceberio uses to describe her. Ceberio, an associate professor of computer science at UTEP, has given Roya career advice and introduced her to the National Center for Women in Technology Aspirations in Computer Science program, which “made a big difference in the opportunities that were sent her way,” Ceberio says. “Granted, without NCWIT AiC, she would have been successful anyway,” she adds.

Roya first met Ceberio during the summer of 2010, when she and another student were sent by her high school, Harmony Science Academy, to participate in a summer research internship in Ceberio’s lab. “Her energy and ability to make the most out of everything,” Ceberio says, is what stood out about Roya. One opportunity led to the next, and Roya agreed to continue conducting research with Ceberio during the academic year.

Now, Roya facilitates mentorship opportunities for others through a role on the marketing team for Magikstra, an all-student startup. It’s a new kind of social network aimed at connecting high school students with professionals in fields the students are interested in. The platform gives students a new chance to take action on an opportunity, as Roya did with Ceberio.

Motivated by family

Originally from Iran, Roya and her family moved to the United States when she was five years old. In El Paso, she lives with her parents and 11-year old sister, Shakila. It’s a 20-minute commute to campus, but she doesn’t mind living at home – especially having the luxury of home cooked meals. “I still do my own laundry,” she says.

Roya explains that knowing the sacrifices her parents made for her future is a great part of what keeps her going. In Iran, her mother had a research job at a university, and her father was the head of a company. “They had a lot of really great opportunities over there,” Roya says. But Roya’s family passed on their own opportunities to ensure even better ones for Roya.

“They told me it’s because they wanted me to have a better future, for me to grow up in the education system here,” Roya recalls. “Knowing that really pushes me to do better in school, to strive to learn and achieve my hopes and dreams, because I know that makes them happy, to see me succeed.”

—Alexandra Koktsidis

With MITES ’01 as launching pad, aerospace engineer targets entrepreneurship

Theresa Johnson, MITES ’03, is combining aeronautics and astronautics with entrepreneurship as she works to inspire future scientists and engineers along the way.

When she arrived on MIT’s campus for the first time in June 2001, Theresa Johnson didn’t know anything about engineering. Her high PSAT scores and academic drive had helped secure her a spot in that year’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, but her primary reason for attending was to enjoy a summer outside of her hometown of St. Louis. Over a decade later, Theresa is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, where she is combining aeronautics and astronautics with entrepreneurship as she works to inspire future scientists and engineers along the way.

Raised in a series of college towns – first Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, then Austin, Texas, and finally St. Louis, Missouri – Theresa experienced deep socio-economic divides. Theresa’s parents did not have college degrees and were looked down upon as “townies” in communities dominated by large universities.

Despite their social status, Theresa’s parents worked hard to thrive and shield her from potentially toxic atmospheres. Theresa recalls her mother taking on a number of projects, including launching her own dog walking service, to provide for her. “I hadn’t heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ until my summer in MITES,” Theresa says. “But I saw it in my parents.”

Through grade school, Theresa’s teachers identified her as an academic star. Theresa remembers taking a liking to math, in particular, as early as second grade. By middle school, her academic talent began to work against her. “In eighth grade, I had a teacher, Mr. Brownfield, who saw that I was getting bored,” Theresa says. “He pushed me to improve my work ethic.”

That increased work ethic would put her into a position to enroll in MITES in summer 2003 after her junior year of high school. During MITES, Theresa faced a number of challenges. Academically, she says, “it was the most rigorous experience I ever had at that point in my life.” She had to put more work into her MITES physics class than she did for any of her high school classes.

Outside of the classroom, Theresa faced challenges as well. It was the first time she had been surrounded by people from such different socio-economic backgrounds. “Some people could just go out to the movies or out for dinner whenever they wanted,” she says. “It was difficult for those like me always budgeting. And we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about socio-economic disparity.”

Ultimately, her experiences academically and socially gave her new perspective. “It matured me. It grounded me,” Theresa says. Most of all, she appreciated the sense of community that MITES provided, and she still keeps in touch with many of her MITES peers and teaching assistants, especially those now on the west coast.

During her senior year of high school, Theresa gained acceptance to her top three schools – Stanford, MIT and Harvard. Ultimately, she chose to attend Stanford “for its interdisciplinary engineering education, entrepreneurial vibrancy, opportunity for exploration, and cultural groundedness,” she says. Entering Stanford with the insights she gained during MITES, Theresa breezed through her first year in a Science, Technology and Society program. “MITES prepared me for that workload,” she says. “I probably had a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA in my first year of Stanford undergrad, and I certainly have to credit MITES for preparing me for that level of rigor.”

Theresa points out a calibration chamber used for an experiment at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Theresa managed a team of research scientists and other graduate students for the experiment as part of her work toward a Ph.D. from Stanford.

While excelling academically, Theresa explored the cultural vibrancy that Stanford had to offer by joining Delta Sigma Theta, a historically black public service sorority, studying as an exchange student at Spelman, a top historically black college for women, and studying and working abroad in Japan, Ghana, Ethiopia, Switzerland, Greenland, and Germany, among other places.

Today, Theresa is a fifth year Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering at Stanford. She is working on a number of projects with the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which develops inventions and ideas in the lab and spins them out into startups. She hopes that one of her projects will become a launching pad for her career out of graduate school, but she is also interested in joining one of the many existing startups in Silicon Valley that are focusing on aerospace or “the internet of things,” which, with its connection to satellites, drones, and high-altitude balloons, she finds deeply interesting.

Ultimately, Theresa says, she has learned and grown with the help of many role models along the way, and she wants to be a role model, herself, to let others know that anything is possible. “Flying cars are possible. Getting us to Mars is possible. It’s all going to happen,” she says. “It just takes the will, intellect, and spunk of a few to light that fire.”

—Nick Holden