The MIT Way

MIT has never had a weakness for the conventional. Founder William Barton Rogers was a bit of an iconoclast himself, and his spirit is very much infused in the customs, philosophies, and mindset of the MIT community. Here, the most mundane tasks are an opportunity for invention. That culture of unfettered innovation has inspired generations of successful inventors and entrepreneurs—arguably more than any other institution on earth.

Mens et manus

“Of all the innovations MIT has produced,” MIT professor Rosalind Williams once observed, “none has been more influential than MIT itself.” Indeed MIT’s distinct model of education has grown generations of prominent doers. It all started with Institute founder William Barton Rodgers and his “New Education,” a philosophy that emphasized the integration of theory and practice. Rogers wanted MIT to focus on practical subjects that tackled hands-on approaches to real-world problems. Laboratory experience, he believed, fused theory and practice more effectively than traditional lectures.

The Institute’s official seal, bearing the slogan Mens et Manus (Mind and Hand), is a perfect pictogram of Rogers’s vision. Adopted in 1864, it portrays a scholar and a blacksmith standing on either side of a stack of volumes labeled “Science and Arts.” Unlike most school mottos, MIT’s Mens et Manus has been a living credo guiding the work of the Institute from Rogers’s day through the present. Nearly one-third of the 2016 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees hail from MIT.

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Hacks

The Cambridge campus and its buildings have been, since their inception, an irresistible blank canvas for MIT students’ free-floating ingenuity. Every fa├žade, every hallway, every block of windows presents possibilities and challenges. In 1926, hackers hauled a Ford chassis, with engine intact, up five stories to the East Campus residence hall roof. In 1992, they acknowledged the lofty grandeur of Lobby 7 by outfitting it as a cathedral, complete with organ, faux stained glass windows, and an actual wedding ceremony.

The grid pattern of windows on the 295-foot-tall Green Building has inspired pranksters since its construction in the early 1960s. In 2012, hackers employed the Green Building’s fenestration to create a 21–story fully playable Tetris game. But no architectural feature on campus has inspired more elaborate pranks than the Institute’s iconic “Great Dome.” In 1994, for example, hackers crowned it with a campus police cruiser driven by a dummy occupant hoarding a half-eaten box of donuts. The police cruiser hack is on view at the MIT Museum.

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  • Visit the MIT Hacks gallery

  • Institute Historian T. F. Peterson, Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)

1982 Harvard-Yale football game hack

The Harvard-Yale Football Game Hack consisted of a device for inflating a weather balloon, which was buried in the ground near the 50-yard line of the Harvard-Yale game in November 1982 by MIT fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon. The balloon emerged from the ground and displayed the letters MIT.

Great Dome

William Barton Rogers

Many of his 19th-century contemporaries at schools like Harvard and Yale considered MIT founder William Barton Rogers a utilitarian. But those who dismissed him as a glorified tinkerer did not know the man. First, William Barton Rogers was not an engineer at all. He was a geologist and nationally recognized authority on mountain ranges (Mount Rogers in Virginia was named for him). He was also a bit of a Renaissance man. A prodigious correspondent, he was comfortable discoursing on literature and philosophy, politics, and world affairs.

While teaching at the University of Virginia (1835–1853), Rogers developed a driving vision about the power of science to raise civilization. He recognized, however, that UVA was not the place to pursue it, for the school was not inclined toward science. In addition, Rogers was a confirmed abolitionist and a Darwinian, and inebriated UVA students had taken to shooting out the windows of professors who displeased them. When Rogers’s brother Henry, seeking a faculty position at Harvard, noted that there was interest in Boston for the establishment of a technical institute, Rogers, who was married to a Bostonian, decided to pursue his dream up north.

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NSE UROPs, photo by Justin Knight

Students have the opportunity to participate in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

Photo: Justin Knight

UROP: The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

William Barton Rogers’s dream for a technical institute centered on the idea of hands-on learning. He wanted students to take what they learned in books and put that knowledge to work in the world—and that’s exactly how MIT turned out. In the 1960s, however, Edwin H. Land, inventor of instant photography and cofounder of Polaroid Corporation, believed that MIT could take the hands-on learning approach further. Land, a brilliant amateur scientist who never graduated from college himself, provided the funds to create a program that would encourage and support research-based collaborations between MIT undergraduates and members of the faculty.

MIT Professor Margaret L. A. MacVicar shared Land’s enthusiasm for the idea and in 1969, launched the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program—UROP. The intent was to invite all undergraduates to participate in each phase of research activity as a junior colleague of a faculty member. The student would help write the research proposal, develop a plan, conduct the research, analyze the data, and present the results in oral and written form. Now half a century later, nearly 88 percent of students surveyed recently had participated in UROP during their time at MIT. More than 100 papers are published every year from UROP research.

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President Vest's disappearing office hack; photo: Donna Coveney

Welcome to MIT! On October 5, 1990, the day that President Charles Vest was to take office, he arrived on the second floor to find that his door had been covered with a bulletin board. Read about the Disappearing President’s Office

Photo: Donna Coveney

William Barton Rogers, MIT Founder

William Barton Rogers

Image courtesy of the MIT Museum

Independent Activities Period

MIT students have a voracious need to explore, absorb, and stretch their thinking, which is what the Independent Activities Period is all about. IAP, developed in the 1970s as an outlet for that bottomless zest for investigation, takes place every January between the fall and spring semesters, from one end of campus to the other. Students, faculty, and staff generously offer to teach one another something that they’re particular good at or knowledgeable about, from claymation to nuclear physics. Some activities are a month long, others just an hour or two. Some are for credit, others entirely for fun.

The sheer variety of the 700 or so annual offerings are irresistible enough to draw students back to campus a month early. Want to find out how to colonize Mars? Try out freestyle popping? Learn how to make a bamboo bicycle or an electric guitar? Understand global monetary policy or how to commercialize an idea? Or maybe vie for the title in the annual Mystery Hunt—the legendary cross-campus scavenger hunt. Widely regarded as one of the oldest and most complex puzzlehunts in the world, winning is a crowning accomplishment.

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VIDEO: Mythdusters

Entrepreneurship

William Barton Rogers’s dream for MIT was that the skill of its students would translate into real world value. As the campus grew, so did the hubs of innovation, generating a steady march of technical, scientific, scholarly, medical, and humanitarian advances. The story of value is especially vivid in the area of entrepreneurship. MIT students and alumni have been spinning out successful enterprises for generations.

To formalize the multipronged education necessary to launch and sustain new enterprises, MIT has established some of the most influential entrepreneurial engines in existence, including the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (the first of its kind), and the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator. The impact of this focus on starting smart is tallied from time to time. At last count, MIT alumni had founded more than 30,000 active companies employing approximately 4.6 million people and generating annual global revenues of nearly $2 trillion. If they formed their own country, that nation would rank as the 10th largest economy in the world.

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