I’ve learned more about the inner workings of MIT from my summer job than I learned in one year of being a studentâ€¦ and I’m not even working for the Institvte!
This summer I’m on staff for the Research Science Institute, or RSI, a summer program for rising high school seniors around the country and the world. They all come to MIT, stay in Simmons hall, and get paired with a mentor in the Boston area to do an original scientific research project in six weeks. I attended RSI myself in high school, and this year I had applied to be a counselor, but I landed the job of AD. My boss thinks this stands for “Assistant Director,” but I much prefer “Awesome Diva.” 617)
Being AD means that any time any of the 77 students or any staff has a problem, I’m the one they call. But who do *I* call? Through trial and error, I’ve become an expert in certain areas of the MIT bureaucracy. Student lost their meal card? I’ve got contacts at the Card Office. Projector won’t turn on? The “emergency” facilities number actually gives you a menu option for “this isn’t an emergency” and will then solve all your problems. Facilities worker says the projector isn’t going to be fixed in time for class this afternoon anyways? Susanne at the Schedules office has got your back.
Need to register a six-week lecture series as an official MIT event? I found all 4 different offices that will need to sign your paperwork. Going to these offices in the late afternoon? Tough luck; the police office in the basement of the student center closes at 2pm. (I want *that* job!) One of the lecturers needs a document camera in his presentation? MIT Audio Visual is the place to go, and I found their cleverly hidden basement offices (turn left at the bottom of the stairs, not right!) And if MIT AV forgets to give you a projector to go with the document camera? I begged a favor from my favorite student group, ESP, to borrow one of their projectors.
Speaking of ESP, the MIT Educational Studies Programâ€¦ every once in a while, I have time to take a break from dealing with RSI issues and volunteer for other high school summer programs. ESP runs Junction, an intense 4-evenings-a-week non-residential program for high school students to take college-level classes taught by volunteer college students. Last Wednesday was the first day, and Junction had the most awesome check-in process I’ve ever heard of.
After students signed in and got their t-shirts, they were taken out to Kresge Oval, a grassy area right in the middle of campus, to participate in several stations and try to earn stickers for their folders (the five-year-old in me loved this. I got to give out train stickers!) There were improv games, human knot-theory (oh no, they didn’t just have to untie knots, they had to create them!), robotic ice-cream sundaes, and toothpick-and-marshmallow construction. But my station was the best.
The task: build a Rube Goldberg machine to pop a balloon, with at least 5 transfers of energy. The Junction students could use any of the materials we’d gathered: small cardboard boxes, wooden skewers, straws, bouncy balls, mousetraps, a hotwheels car and ramp, feathers, rubber bands, and more, along with as much duct tape as their hearts desired. (I had planned to limit duct tape, but it was a windy dayâ€¦) The hard part: a group of 10-15 students had only 10 minutes to complete this task.
This is harder than you might think. How can 5 energy transfers be so hard? When your 6th grade teacher gave you a Rube Goldberg assignment as part of your energy unit, you had to have at least 15. (At least, I did. Maybe Mr. Cave was being extra hard on us?) But I challenge you to do this. Start now, I’ll give you 5 minutes to run around your house collecting materials before your 10 minutes start. You’ll want that duct tape.
As it turns out, I didn’t get to give my train stickers to any of the groups—the record was 4 energy transfers, and they had to touch the device to make one of the bouncy balls roll down a ramp because the previous step had failed. If I had to guess why this was, I’d say it was communication. Most of the Junction students had just met each other, and it was hard to start grabbing materials, assigning tasks, testing components, and combining elements quickly. It’s really hard to tell someone you just met, “No, that’s probably not going to work.” It was really cool standing back and letting them figure out how to work with each other though, and given 5 more minutes to get over the awkwardness barrier, the groups would have done great.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and one of the Junction groups was in the middle of this process when I get a tap on my shoulder. I whirl around to see three or four of my RSI students just standing around. The must have seen my pink hair from all the way across the field. “What’s going on here, Kate?” they ask, and it’s clear that the jumble of office supplies all over the table is beckoning them to jump in with the Junction students and start building. I’m also pretty sure that’s not the point.
So what do I do? Tell them to go away? Let them join in? Oh, I know, I’ll stammer awkwardly for a bit until one of them offers me a blueberry (best solution ever, right? It was a good blueberry, too). The RSI kids eventually wandered away, and the cleverest thing I could think of to say was, “Turns out I do other things while you guys are at work” …I’m pretty awkward for an Awesome Diva.
And I’m sure the awkward isn’t over. Elizabeth Choe apparently wants me to sing?