Thursday, April 21, 2016 - 08:00

With its inaugural Together in Service Day — which included volunteer-based events around the campus, region, and world — MIT managed on Tuesday to rally its entire community around a good cause, while strengthening ties with its host city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Throughout the day, more than 500 MIT faculty, student, staff, and alumni volunteered for 32 shifts at 27 nonprofits across Cambridge and Boston, through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center’s CityDays program. More than 200 additional alumni volunteered at 22 nonprofits in 11 other states and four countries. And, on campus, teams of MIT affiliates and others joined in a civic-engagement hackathon to invent innovative solutions to major infrastructure issues facing Cambridge.

In light of the day’s success, during a closing reception held at the Samberg Conference Center, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz announced three new Institute initiatives that aim, he said, “to further strengthen the ties between MIT and its host community.”

One initiative is to make the Together in Service Day an annual event; it was originally planned as a one-time program to celebrate the centennial of MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge in 1916. MIT has planned a series of public centennial events this spring, which will culminate in a parade across the river by water and bridge, and includes a rare open house at which tens of thousands of visitors are expected to explore the campus.

In another initiative, MIT will hire a K-12 outreach coordinator to help the Institute’s more than 120 educational outreach programs better connect with the needs of the Cambridge community. And the Institute will launch an “MIT Achievement Scholarship” program to award grants to college-bound seniors in Cambridge, regardless of what college they attend. “It is my sincere hope that they will have a positive and lasting impact in the Cambridge community,” Ruiz said.

Several Cambridge city officials were on hand during the closing ceremony, including City Manager Richard Rossi and Mayor E. Denise Simmons. Simmons praised the day of service for boosting community engagement and the new education initiatives for supporting the city’s youth. “Since leaving the other city across the river, Boston, and laying down roots in Cambridge one century ago, MIT has really become an integral part of the Cambridge community, and we are truly grateful for all the partnerships,” Simmons said.

Also as part of the Together in Service Day, thousands of collection-drive items donated by 40 MIT departments — including books, school supplies, toiletries, canned goods, and sports equipment for youth — were delivered to 23 nonprofit organizations in the region.

Hacking civic service

At the Samberg Conference Center, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) hosted what GSC President Michael McClellan called a “uniquely MIT” community service event: a hackathon-style event dubbed the “Serve-a-thon.”

Starting in August, the GSC and Cambridge city officials worked together to identify the major challenges in Cambridge, based on previous reports and on a participatory budgeting process in which citizens propose ideas that are voted on and funded through the city budget. “These are real, pressing issues for the city that students can address in six or eight hours of experimentation,” McClellan said.

For the hackathon, the GSC narrowed down ideas to four topics: tree-friendly sidewalks, blue-sky street redesigns (without budgetary, logistical, or other restrictions), parking solutions, and bus shelter redesigns. Over the course of the day, six teams of students, staff, and others tackled these problems.

The teams showcased their ideas on poster boards during the closing ceremony. Ideas included: an app to locate parking spaces around Cambridge, bus shelters with solar panels to power heat lamps and LED screens, and motorized minipods suspended from a monorail above sidewalks that can be used for public transit. The teams plan to explore potential grant funding through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to further pursue their ideas with city departments.

Taha Jennings, Cambridge’s assistant to the city manager, who helped coordinate the hackathon, said Cambridge could consider some of the projects. He also praised the hackathon for offering an “outside-the-box” solution to city issues. “It’s a fresh look at a challenge that maybe the city has been struggling with,” Jennings said. “Just having that conversation and generating more ideas ... could be really helpful.”

Outside the “MIT bubble”

For CityDays, the one-day volunteer program run by the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center several times a year, volunteers cleaned, painted, landscaped, prepared meals, taught, and worked various other odd jobs at nonprofits around the region. Alumni participants across the globe taught science to kids, organized robotics events, helped in animal shelters, and provided support to individuals facing life-threatening illnesses, among other activities.

Speaking at the day’s morning launch ceremony, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart told the audience of volunteers gathered in North Court that “our food banks, early education centers, and conservation and housing nonprofits, and so many others, are going to benefit tremendously from MIT’s minds, hands, and hearts.”

For organizations like the Community Art Center, which has a longstanding relationship with MIT, such community service events are vital. “We rely on volunteers here,” said Laura Chadwell, the center’s community programs director. “It helps us do deep cleaning that we don’t get the chance to get to, because there’s no dedicated cleaning staff.”

About 20 MIT staff spent two hours at that center on Tuesday, scrubbing the gym floor, painting walls in a hallway, and washing windows.

But participants found they also benefited from the community service, saying it helped them give back to the community and escape from the “MIT bubble” — referring to a concept that students too focused on coursework sometimes ignore issues in their own neighborhood or around the world.

Speaking at the launch ceremony, sophomore Lily Dove said volunteering for MIT’s ReachOut program, which matches MIT students with school children in afterschool programs, has helped her break free of the MIT bubble. “It’s always important to remember to give back to the city which is our host,” said Dove, who majors in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. “I think every student of life has that desire to learn everything they can about the world, and service in the community is a great way to do that.”

Mechanical engineering sophomore Caralyn Cutlip, who volunteered with fellow Next House undergraduates at CASPAR, an emergency service shelter for homeless individuals grappling with addiction, agreed with Dove’s sentiments. Among other things, Cutlip said the event showed her a volunteer opportunity “right in our own backyard” that she’ll pursue in the future.

“I had no idea this place was here,” Cutlip said. “Since we’re so isolated on campus, it’s easy to not think about the world, and not think of the people right next to us that need help. I think it’s important to integrate ourselves into that community.”

Featured Article?: