Increasing equity through educational technology

Justin Reich was ready to observe a teacher integrating technology into her lesson plan at a school in rural New Hampshire. Her school had bought the laptops, Reich says. She had reserved them. They were charged. All of the kids were logged in. The power was on in the building. The wireless network was working. The projector bulb was working. The screen was working. But when the teacher went to plug the projector into the wall, the electrical socket fell behind the drywall, foiling her attempted lesson plan. “New technologies have tremendous potential to improve student learning,” Reich says, “but many pieces in a complex system need to be working seamlessly to make this happen.”

Reich, an assistant professor in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program (CMS/W), has remained excited about the possibilities that constantly evolving technologies have brought to the learning process over the last few decades. But while many believe that the free and low-cost learning tools becoming available have huge potential to lift up students from low-income families, he’s found that, in truth, this educational technology still benefits the affluent the most.

“I think people underestimate barriers,” Reich says. “Many educators get into the work because they want to create a more equitable world. But educational settings often end up reproducing social inequalities and social hierarchies.”

Through his work as executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, which now straddles CMS/W and the Office of Digital Learning, Reich works toward finding educational models that incorporate technology in ways that actually will increase quality of education and equity for students.

“All over the world, people are looking to see a shift in classroom teaching practice to more active, engaged, inquiry-based collaborative learning,” he says. “And the only way that will happen is if we can dramatically increase the quantity and quality of teacher learning that’s available.”

Having started off as a wilderness medicine instructor, Reich comes from a hands-on teaching background. Now, he makes sure he and his projects are constantly engaging with real classroom settings. He co-founded EdTechTeacher, a professional learning consultancy which focuses on finding thoughtful ways to use technology in teaching and learning. He also keeps conversations going with classroom instructors through his Education Week-hosted blog, EdTechResearcher.

Reich has also created learning tools for teachers through two online courses, Launching Innovation in Schools, done in collaboration with Peter Senge of the Sloan School of Management; and Design Thinking for Leading and Learning. Both courses were funded by Microsoft with a $650,000 grant.

In CMS/W, he looks to explore the field of learning science and the role that media plays in expanding human capacity, particularly in a civic sense.

“We investigate the complex technology-rich classrooms of the future and the systems that we need to help educators thrive in those settings,” he says.

Back to school special

As part of this year’s freshman orientation at MIT, new students encountered the typical lineup of takeaways: booklets and brochures, a list of 101 things to do before they graduate, lots of T-shirts, pens, etc. For the first time, however, they were also given a completely new version of the old campus staple: the backpack.

Heaped into an uneven pyramid in the Coffeehouse, a room on the third floor of the Stratton Student Center that serves as orientation headquarters, there were dozens of bags — all with a seemingly identical black, white, and grey plaid design. They looked unassuming until Yoel Fink, professor of materials science, started talking to students about them: “These bags are the world’s first programmable backpacks!” he effused. The students leaned in closer, intrigued.

“We express our identity through the fabrics we wear,” said Fink. “And while each one of us is truly unique, the stuff we wear is certainly not,” he added. What if it were? What if our fabrics — say, the ones making up our backpacks — could communicate?

Thanks to Fink, now they can. A unique code is woven into the fabric material of the backpack given to each first-year student. Unlike a QR code, this fabric-based coding system is subtle to the eye but immediately recognizable by an app called AFFOA LOOKS. The owner can link his or her backpack to their mobile device and program it to display a song, a cause, or anything the owner chooses to share. Anyone with the app can scan or “look” the bag and receive this information (in Fink’s case, it’s his business card and a customized song of the day).

Fink is a co-inventor of the tech behind the bag and the CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA). Located close to the MIT campus, the nonprofit institute was recently created through a $300 million proposal backed by federal and state governments, as well as academic and corporate partners, with the mission of creating functional fabrics that deliver value-added services while facilitating domestic manufacturing and economic growth in this area.

“The fabrics we wear have been functionally the same for centuries,” Fink explained to a packed house in Kresge Auditorium later in the day. “What we wanted to create was a fabric that is as unique as you are.” The manufacturing process employs special looms and materials, he explained. And the bags themselves are exclusive — not sold anywhere. They were made by Inman Mills in South Carolina just for the members of MIT’s Class of 2021.

The plan to give out the backpacks was first proposed by Katharina Ribbeck, a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering, who pointed out that the pack could help facilitate interactions and learning among incoming students. Her proposal was supported by Ian A. Waitz, MIT’s newly appointed vice chancellor and former dean of engineering, who saw it as an opportunity to give new students a way to directly engage with novel technology and each another (and a free place to store their gear and books). There are already plans for a hack-the-pack event during January’s Independent Activities Period.

For Fink, the functional aspect of the backpack is social in another way. Every first-year student he speaks with leaves with a broader understanding of the term “software” (as in soft wear). He wants incoming students to glean that manufacturing is undergoing a transformation; it’s as high-tech and as hot as coding, artificial intelligence, gene editing, and autonomy. It’s an option, a pursuit, a place for passion and a way for self-expression and creativity.

“If you are coming to MIT for the fist time,” he said, waving at the pile of coded bags behind him, “this is what is the place is all about. It’s about innovation and making a difference.” 

Celebrating Walker Memorial’s 100th year

Labor Day Weekend of 1917 marked the opening of MIT’s new student center, Walker Memorial — although not for its intended purpose. As part of the Institute’s contribution to the World War I war effort, 400 naval aviation students moved into the new building, taking over the gymnasium and balconies of the big hall for dormitory space, as well as the rooms on the second and third floors that had been built for student and faculty recreational use.

The building’s namesake, former MIT President Francis Amasa Walker, is still the only MIT president to have served as a military general, so he likely would have approved. As The Tech of the day reported: “the building erected in memory of him will be devoted to military purposes before becoming what it is destined to be, the social center of Technology.”

A hub for campus activities was considered the greatest tribute to President Walker, who was beloved by both students and alumni for his efforts to improve student life on MIT’s cramped Boston campus. But making that ideal student center a reality took two decades.

When Walker died in 1897, the Alumni Association formed a committee to plan and fund the project, and, by 1902, the funds and land had been set aside. The project was postponed, though, when MIT announced plans to relocate from Boston. It wasn’t until the Institute’s move to Cambridge 14 years later that construction on Walker Memorial finally became possible.

It became a landmark for MIT students began even before it was finished. On Feb. 9, 1917, the Class of 1918 gathered for “the first Class Photograph ever taken on the steps of Walker Memorial … this spot will probably be chosen as a place to take all class pictures in the future,” the 1918 edition of Technique reported. The tradition holds generations later: Walker’s steps are still used for alumni group portraits, most notably that of the 50th reunion class before they march in the Commencement procession as official Cardinal and Gray Society members in their distinctive red jackets.

After the Army and Navy aviation cadets moved out in January of 1919, the building was formally inaugurated as a student center. Henry A. Morss, Class of 1893 and then president of the Alumni Association, formally presented Walker Memorial to MIT “for the students that the student body would thereby be united and the Technology spirit be fostered.” 

For many of those who have passed through Walker Memorial over the past 100 years, the most enduring images remain the murals in Morss Hall, which were painted by Edwin Howland Blashfield of the Class of 1869. Created and installed between 1923 and 1930, their allegories of alma mater receiving homage from scientific and academic disciplines have watched over countless MIT community functions, from dining hall breakfasts to the Assembly Ball and more.

For most MIT alumni and students, Walker Memorial holds indelible memories. A century after its completion, the tribute to President Walker has been realized in the best possible way — with the building continuing to serve as a community gathering place.

Hacking functional fabrics to aid emergency response

Hazardous environments such as disaster sites and conflict zones present many challenges for emergency response. But the new field of functional fabrics — materials modified to incorporate various sensors, connect to the internet, or serve multiple purposes, among other things — holds promise for novel solutions.

Over the weekend, MIT became a hotbed for developing those solutions.

A three-day hackathon on campus brought together students and researchers from MIT and around Boston who developed functional fabric concepts to solve major issues facing soldiers in combat or training, first responders, victims and workers in refugee camps, and many others. The event was hosted by the MIT Innovation Initiative, the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute, and MD5, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and a network of national research universities.

Participants pitched their ideas on Friday night. By Sunday afternoon, more than 20 teams stationed around the MIT Media Lab’s sixth floor had design mockups drawn on poster boards, algorithms and brainstorming notes scribbled on large sheets of hanging paper, and even hardware and software prototypes on display.

Two winning teams earned grand prizes of up to $15,000, courtesy of MD5. Remote Triage, formed by MIT students, designed an automated triage system for field medics, consisting of sensor-laden clothing that detects potential injury and a web platform that prioritizes care. The other team, Security Blanket, designed a double-sided, multipurpose blanket for people displaced from their homes, based on an idea from a Drexel University student.

Some other ideas included smart belts that passively detect radiation exposure in submarines; military gear fitted with radio-frequency identification tags to manage materials and improve packing efficiency; biometric-monitoring stickers that detect potential post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms; lightweight body armor designed to better protect the heart and neck; stress-detecting shirts that improve military training exercises; and uniforms made with materials and tiny fans that deliver cool and hot airflow across the body. All teams were invited to continue working with MD5.

“This is just the start,” Bill Kernick, technology and partnership development executive for MD5 told MIT News. “The idea of the hackathon is getting the sparks of these ideas moving and creating a relationship with these innovators, who may have not thought about working with DoD, to help solve some really hard problems.”

In that regard, Vladimir Bulović, co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, said the hackathon embodies MIT’s goal of developing innovations for real-world applications. “As long as we can deliver impact that leads toward productive next steps, we have succeeded in our mission,” he said.

Through the hackathon, Bulović added, participants were also introduced to the newly launched AFFOA — a consortium of which MIT is a partner — and learned about the ever-growing possibilities of functional fabrics. “Fiber as a format that can deliver electronics, optics, photonics … is an entirely new platform that has not existed before,” he said. “It’s a new frontier.”

On Friday night, hackathon participants listened to talks from various experts — including military officers, first responders, and government representatives — who described major challenges they face in their fields. Participants brainstormed solutions, pitched their ideas to all attendees, and ultimately formed a total of 22 teams. Experts and mentors, from MIT and elsewhere, were on hand all weekend to help teams shape their ideas. (Some experts also joined individual teams.) On Sunday, a panel of judges — including representatives from industry, AFFOA, and MIT — chose 10 teams as finalists to pitch ideas, with two teams emerging as the big winners.

Some teams entered the hackathon with established ideas they wanted to refine. The finalist team OREverywhere, for instance, tweaked its augmented-reality (AR) headgear over the weekend to help field medics. The AR system displays biometric information collected from wearable sensors worn by soldiers and connects all medics on the field. A medic, for instance, can see when a soldier is injured, alert nearby medics, provide advice during care, and monitor everything via video feed — all while helping another soldier. During Sunday’s pitch round, the team presented a live demonstration.

Other teams developed their concepts entirely over the weekend. The MIT students of Remote Triage, who are all friends, landed on their winning idea during dinner, after hearing from an expert about problems with battlefield triage efficiency. “We came in with literally nothing. We weren’t even planning on pitching,” team member Aditi Gupta, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, told MIT News.

In two days, the team of six, including a former military officer, designed a mockup of an automated triage system called VITAL. It includes a garment integrated with sensors that continuously monitor vital signs. Signals are sent to a machine-learning algorithm that determines the necessary order of care for injured soldiers, from least urgent to most urgent, color-coded as green, yellow, red, and black. Other features also help the medic determine the whereabouts of the soldier down and the location of their injury, among other things.

With the prize money and other resources from MD5, Gupta said the team now aims to design sensor-laden clothing and further develop the machine-learning algorithm that will power their platform. They’re meeting with MD5 next week to discuss options for moving forward.

Gupta was surprised at how much the team completed in a short time. Hackathons, she added, really help participants — especially tech-minded MIT students — find real-world applications for their ideas and people to help make those ideas a reality. “Hackathons are useful in opening your mind and seeing the bigger picture in terms of how your technology fits in society,” she says, “as well as meeting people out of your field that have knowledge and expertise you don’t.”

Christina Kara, a Drexel University student who manages a lab that researches functional fabrics, had a similar experience. After hearing a first responder talk about working with Hurricane Katrina victims — who were in desperate need of tarps and blankets, and suffered from bacterial skin infections — she pitched the winning concept behind Security Blanket.

Teaming up with that first responder and a few others, the group developed a multipurpose comfort blanket for refugee camps or disaster relief that consists of a waterproof, flexible, robust material on the outside. The inside is lined with antimicrobial, soft, and quick-drying microfibers. The blankets can roll out into a sleeping bag or fold into a backpack. Luminescent strips on the outside improve safety by increasing visibility at night, as well.

“In the five minutes we’ve talked to you, 100 people have been displaced in the world,” Kara said during her team’s pitch. “This is not a problem that’s going away. When we have something that’s fairly affordable, multiuse tool to empower them in their everyday life … you’re improving the experience of these individuals.”

After being announced a winner on Sunday, Kara was in shock, but excited to move forward with her idea, with help from MD5. “Being in a situation, where I have a problem to solve and think about was a new experience for me,” Kara told MIT News. “It was an amazing experience.”

SproutsIO aims to power a “Personal Produce” movement

MIT Media Lab alumna Jennifer Broutin Farah SM ’13, CEO and co-founder of SproutsIO, has spent nearly a decade innovating in urban farming, designing small- and large-scale gardening systems that let anyone grow food, anywhere, at any time.

All this work will soon culminate with the commercial release of her startup’s smart, app-controlled microgarden that lets consumers optimize, customize, and monitor the growth of certain fruits, vegetables, and herbs year-round. Moreover, the soil-free system uses only 2 percent of the water and 40 percent of the nutrients typically used for soil-grown plants.

After piloting the system in Boston homes and restaurants, and following a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall, SproutsIO is ramping up production and hitting the shelves in a few months. Philosophically, the aim is to power a “personal produce” movement, Farah says, in which more people grow their own food, encouraging healthier eating and cutting down on waste.

“Over the last 60 years, we’ve gotten out of touch with growing our food,” Farah says. “But when you grow your own food, you care more about what happens to it. You’re not going to throw it away, you’re going to know exactly what’s going into your plants, you’re going to share your food with friends and family. It gives a new meaning to produce.”

Customized plants

Tailoring plants for taste preferences may not be well-known outside of the wine-making world, where grapes are grown under specific climatic conditions to produce specific flavors. But produce and herbs have similar peculiarities. Even within a given species or variety, individual plants can have different characteristics and growing needs.

“Most of that is dependent on the environment,” Farah says. “If you can customize the lighting, the water, and the nutrients, you can really optimize certain variations in the plants, according to how you want them to taste. SproutsIO can reproduce these specific climatic conditions to a very precise degree.”

SproutsIO consists of a growing device, which is a large basin with a curving, overhead adjustable lamp attached; a replaceable and compostable “sIO” seed refill with growing media, seeds, and nutrients, that’s dropped into the growing device; and “SproutsIOGrow” software that includes a mobile app that collects and analyzes growth data and controls the system. Currently, the system supports basil, kale, wheatgrass, arugula, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, tea, and a variety of plants from root vegetables to fruiting plants.

The SproutsIO system has a number of innovations developed by the startup, stemming from early research at MIT. The hybrid hydroculture system, for instance, consists of “hydroponic” and “aeroponic” growing, where roots are submerged in or misted with water and nutrients. Varying the watering process optimizes water and nutrient use while supporting the growth of different plants at different phases. A tomato plant, for instance, grows large roots during the fruiting stage. The system can lift the plant up at that time to let the roots grow larger, but still deliver water and nutrients by misting.

There’s also a custom LED light that automatically adjusts, depending on need. If the device is located near a window, where sunlight is plentiful, the light will dim; if the sunlight diminishes or if the device is placed in darker areas, the light shines brighter. The system uses about half the electricity of a 60-watt incandescent light bulb.

Sensors monitor plant growth and transmit data to what Farah calls the “backbone” of the system: SproutsIOGrow. The app lets users customize their plants and monitor the plant’s growth in real-time. Depending on light and nutrients added, for instance, tomatoes can be grown to taste sweeter or more savory.

The app also provides predictive growth cycles and connects to personal activity trackers, meal planners, and calendars to help with meal scheduling. A built-in camera takes regular snapshots of growing plants for health diagnostics and to create time-lapse images for users on the app.

Growing plants in such a controlled environment boosts growth efficiency by six times and cuts the length of growth cycles by 50 percent over traditional gardening, according to the startup.

Farah says people often ask her if all the technology tends to remove people from the growing process. It’s the exact opposite, she says: “Technology creates a whole new lens on the growing process. Most of us don’t understand how plants grow because they exist on a totally different time scale. But we show people how the plants grow over time and how they react to certain changes. That’s really eye-opening.”

Shrinking greenhouses

Today’s SproutsIO system is the product of years of refinement for mass adoption. In 2009, while working for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Farah designed a “vertically integrated greenhouse” system, called the Façade Farm. The system consisted of a large metal frame that could be affixed to the side of a building. Long metal planters were installed inside like shelves, and a pump system was installed on the floor. The boxes could be placed up and down a building like gardening balconies.

Though never fully realized, the system got Farah thinking about bringing growing systems to urban areas — a concept that’s popular now but was fairly novel at the time. Building massive structures, however, was a time-consuming and complex process. In 2011, Farah enrolled in the Media Lab, in the Changing Places Group, to develop the idea on a smaller scale.

For her master’s thesis, she built a slightly smaller indoor aeroponic system, called SeedPod, that consisted of modular planters made of inflatable plastic and suspended in three tiers by steel rods. The planters were equipped with sensors for monitoring the plants. An automated pump provided water and nutrients to each planter.

Partnering with Boston Public Schools, Farah installed the system in a middle school in Roxbury. Students started growing plants to eat, and teachers incorporated the gardening into their lessons. “It clicked that the more involved people are with growing food, the more they cared about what happened to it,” she says.

In 2012, Farah shrunk the system further, developing a microgardening “station” that could be used in homes. A number of growing pods — moving toward today’s SproutsIO device — were attached to a vertical pole at different levels, resembling a tree of pods. Included were early versions of the misting system, lighting, and sensors viewed through an app.

In 2013, Farah launched SproutsIO and entered the project into the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, where she was a semifinalist, and a entrepreneurship competition, which she won. Through MIT Sloan School of Management and Media Lab venture-based classes, she honed the business idea and fleshed out her startup’s larger “personal produce” mission. “Those courses were very inspiring classes that helped to get students thinking about how their ideas apply to larger world context,” she says.

Years of user feedback and research and development helped the startup refine the product into today’s SproutsIO system. Early prototypes, in fact, were sent to Barbara Lynch, a renowned Boston chef who is now advisor to the startup. “What better way to really understand how well the system can perform than putting it in a professional chef’s kitchen?” Farah says. SproutsIO continues to work with a number of professional chefs across the nation.

Ultimately, however, what benefit does a smart microgarden offer over simply growing potted plants at home? “At a base level, we make it easier for people to start growing,” Farah says. But she also believes the system is “a small-scale solution that can have a big impact.”

Individual SproutsIO units can save consumers water, energy, and resources, while easing them into growing their own food. If enough people adopt the system, she says, it could save significant amounts of water and encourage local, efficient growing. But the concept of optimized watering systems, if designed at scale, could also benefit a world where around 70 percent of fresh water is used for industrial agricultural, she adds.

“We need to be considering different solutions for growing that start to optimize the needs of the plant, rather than just pouring tons of water and nutrients on them,” she says.

Featured video: A self-driving wheelchair

Singapore and MIT have been at the forefront of autonomous vehicle development. First, there were self-driving golf buggies. Then, an autonomous electric car. Now, leveraging similar technology, MIT and Singaporean researchers have developed and deployed a self-driving wheelchair at a hospital. 

Spearheaded by Daniela Rus, the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, this autonomous wheelchair is an extension of the self-driving scooter that launched at MIT last year — and it is a testament to the success of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, or SMART, a collaboration between researchers at MIT and in Singapore.

Rus, who is also the principal investigator of the SMART Future Urban Mobility research group, says this newest innovation can help nurses focus more on patient care as they can get relief from logistics work which includes searching for wheelchairs and wheeling patients in the complex hospital network.

“When we visited several retirement communities, we realized that the quality of life is dependent on mobility. We want to make it really easy for people to move around,” Rus says.

Submitted by: Pauline Teo/SMART | Video by: SMART | 3 min, 3 sec

Defiance: Disobedience for the good of all

The mood was electric at the MIT Media Lab on July 21 when more than 500 people gathered for its annual summer event, this year called Defiance. Attendees were buzzing with news that had broken on the eve of the symposium: The Media Lab had not only chosen the winners of its new Disobedience Award, it had also selected several honorable mentions because the pool of more than 7,800 nominations was so rich with achievements that deserved recognition.

“We wanted to honor the people who found ways to say, ‘The systems aren’t working for us — we really need to step outside them and do something radically different,’” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a member of the award selection committee. Zuckerman said that the panel also wanted to recognize those working for good within institutions. “They’re taking brave steps and actions to make sure those institutions live up to their values and to their higher purpose, not just to the rules behind them.”

In selecting the honorees, Zuckerman, Media Lab Director Joi Ito, and 10 other committee members focused on work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles, including nonviolence, creativity, courage, and responsibility for one’s actions. Nominees had to be a living person or group engaged in “extraordinary disobedience for the benefit of society.”

The creation of the award was announced at Forbidden Research, the lab’s 2016 summer event. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, provided the funds after he and Ito came up with the idea last year. “The prize shines a light on the voices we should be listening to,” Hoffman said at Defiance. “On what examples we should be setting for ourselves and for our future selves. Some of the most important human progress comes when you are essentially speaking truth to power.”

Disobedience Award winners

The committee decided that’s exactly what Michigan pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech professor of engineering Marc Edwards did in investigating lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, and exposing official misconduct in the crisis. Both Hanna-Attisha and Edwards decided to donate their shares of the $250,000 prize to the people of Flint.

“It’s those kids who need these resources,” said Hanna-Attisha. “My activism today is to make sure that we don’t sit back and ignore the consequences of lead exposure. We know what it does to children. My commitment is to turn this around.” Edwards called himself a “serial troublemaker,” having exposed scientific misconduct by federal agencies connected to lead-contaminated water in Washington in 2004. “We were destined to see it repeated, and we knew something like Flint was going to happen. Ultimately, I got a call from a Flint mom who saw all the signs and then we started working with Flint residents so that they could save their own day.” Edwards and Hanna-Attisha persevered in the face of harassment and academic sanctions.    

Honorable mentions

James Hansen said his work also got him “in a lot of trouble.” He was one of three award finalists who received a $10,000 honorable mention. Hansen, widely recognized as a pioneer of climate change research, said he’s had “some differences with the scientific community, and I still do. There are many issues where we need to stand up and tell what we think is the truth even if the powers that be don’t like it.”

The co-founders of Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes and college prep to undocumented students and were also recognized as finalists, faced pressure as well. “Freedom U initially emerged in 2011 as an act of defiance against our employer [the state’s higher education board],” said Lorgia García-Peña. She and three other professors also at the University of Georgia at that time — Betina Kaplan, Bethany Moreton, and Pamela Voekel — established the school in collaboration with a coalition of undocumented students and immigrants’ rights activists. Now one-fifth of Freedom University students win full merit scholarships to traditional colleges.

When he introduced the third finalist to be honored — the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, who launched the massive protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline — Ito pointed out that many successful movements don’t have clear leadership. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said she doesn’t see herself as a leader. “Everything just happened because we stood in prayer and nonviolent resistance.” Allard mesmerized the audience as she related how the Standing Rock protest gained momentum. “It was all the people who came together. It was all the people who understood that water was important. It was all the people of the world who know that we have to change now. And we cannot back down.”

“We have been defiant for 500 years,” said Phyllis Young, a fellow protector of Standing Rock and longtime Lakota activist who shared the honorable mention with Allard, Jasilyn Charger, and Joseph White Eyes. Like Allard, Young also captivated the crowd as she chronicled the history of resistance by her ancestors. “We are the people on the edge,” she said, adding that she’d like to collaborate with MIT.

Young’s wish resonated with Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, former White House CTO and a member of the Media Lab advisory council. Smith was so moved by the stories of Standing Rock that, together with MIT’s Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, she suggested a Dakota-MIT summit on green energy. That announcement drew loud applause, especially when Young said “Yes, we could coordinate with the brass ring.”

A nod to the past

“Defiance is a celebration of the highest instance in human nature,” said the event’s emcee, Farai Chidaya. The veteran journalist and analyst, who recently joined the Media Lab as a Director’s Fellow, said that defiant work allows us “to transcend unjust rules and restrictions, and to surface the love of humanity in ways that are brave and risky.”

Another new Director’s Fellow, Jamila Raqib, picked up on that theme. She’s executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution and a Nobel Prize nominee in the peace category. The Einstein Institution is based on the legendary physicist’s belief, said Raqib, “that strategically applied nonviolent defiance offers humanity the best hope for bringing about a world with more peace and justice.”  

Past achievements laid the groundwork for the Disobedience Award winners and finalists, stressed another speaker, Gregg Pascal Zachary, author and Arizona State University professor. “Your legitimacy as rebels and dissenters today in part depends upon the legitimacy gained by dissenters and rebels. History can show you patterns, how they play out, so you can anticipate what you might face in your struggle.” Fellow presenter Julia Reda agreed. She represents the European Pirate Party, a movement to defend freedoms online, and said that progress will only happen “if somebody has planted the seed for change of thinking in society. This is what defiant people actually do.” Reda went on to talk about her unconventional path to politics, as an outsider now making the most of having “a seat at the table.”  

Echoing that sentiment was Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Biological Countermeasures Unit. He thinks the agency would benefit from bringing biohackers to the table as well. “What a fantastic act of defiance that would be. Members of the hacker community can come up with solutions for the FBI, and it’s important for everyone to push their comfort level.” Adam Foss, a former prosecutor who is working to reform the criminal justice system, also talked about bringing more people — and greater diversity — to the table. Foss told the audience that “the seats in this room that are not filled could be representative of black and brown bodies that could be here sharing their ideas. The lack of those ideas is impacting all of us.”

Engagement with other people is critical, said journalist and author Masha Gessen. “It is really important to talk with people who affirm your reality. But if that’s all you’re getting, then you’re not actually engaging with reality. I think we have to accept a level of discomfort for ourselves, too.”

Giving voice to underrepresented people

Esra’a Al Shafei, another Defiance speaker, is a Bahraini activist and founder of, a network of online platforms that amplify marginalized voices. “Defiance goes beyond dissent,” she said. “It’s creating avenues for self-expression. If you keep lowering the barriers through music, for instance, it makes censorship much harder, and encourages young people to develop their own identity and feel more in charge of their own voices.” Speaking of music, Al Shafei somehow found a way to weave singers Céline Dion and Meatloaf into her presentation, cracking up the audience throughout her time on the stage. Jose Antonio Vargas also had them laughing. “Humor is so important,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and media entrepreneur said. “If I didn’t laugh about my own circumstances, I don’t know where I’d be.” He shared the stories of his life as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., his home for almost 24 years. “The reality now though is when you have privilege like I did, like I do, is … what are you doing to risk it? What does it mean to stand up for your undocumented neighbors, classmates, and co-workers?”

While Vargas focused on issues of today, the next session again drew from examples of defiance in history, and also considered the tensions between science and faith. In a discussion between Dominican priest Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber, moderated by Berkman Klein Center co-founder and Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Zuber said that “we should always be looking at what the data is telling us. If it tells us we should change our idea, then we should change our idea. In the process of change, one thing to learn is having a good enough dialogue and trying to get enough explanations that you can get buy-in to allow change to proceed.”

The audacity of disobedience

Lab director Joi Ito gave a special shout-out to Zuber. She took a risk, he said, in being part of the Disobedience Award selection committee, because she has a position on the National Science Board, which is an advisory body to the U.S. President and Congress. But Ito said that the committee was “very careful to not allow fear or lack of courage to enter the selection process. We were checking each other to make sure there was no kowtowing.” In the end, he said, they were all pleased with their choices.

Reid Hoffman agreed, and announced that he would continue to fund the Disobedience Award. “These are the things that matter. These are the issues that we should surface. This is the light we should point this beacon at. This was a well-validated ‘seed experiment’ that was totally awesome.”

MIT’s Solve initiative seeks solutions to its 2017 global challenges

Solve — MIT’s initiative that brings together problem-solvers of all stripes to tackle the world’s pressing problems — has four new global challenges for 2017: brain health; sustainable urban communities; women and technology; and youth, skills, and the workforce of the future. Applications for those who have a solution to any of these challenges are due August 1.

Solve issues challenges for anybody around the world to apply to participate in. The program identifies the best solutions through open innovation. And, it builds and convenes a community of leaders who have the resources, the expertise, the mentorship, and the know-how to get each solution piloted, scaled, and implemented.

At its most recent event last May, Solve convened technologists, social entrepreneurs, business leaders, policymakers, researchers, and change agents on campus for three days of Solve at MIT.

“As I look out on the world, I’m more certain than ever of the power and significance of the collaborative problem-solving global platform we call Solve,” said MIT President Rafael Reif at Solve at MIT. “In the two and a half years since we first announced Solve, it has evolved in important ways. As many of you know firsthand, since then Solve has launched specific, actionable challenges around refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases, and inclusive innovation. In its first cycle, Solve attracted more than 400 solutions from more than 57 countries.”

The May event celebrated the first cycle of Solvers, who worked on those 2016 challenges, by bringing them together with the Solve community to form partnerships to help implement their solutions. Also at that time, Solve launched its new challenges for 2017. Those challenges are now getting ready to close on August 1. They are:

  • Brain Health: How can every person improve their brain health and mental resilience?
  • Sustainable Urban Communities: How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources?
  • Women and Technology: How can women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds use technology to fully participate and prosper in the economy?
  • Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future: How can disadvantaged youth learn the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce of the future and thrive in the 21st century?

Solve further announced three prizes for the 2017 challenges during Solve at MIT. Applicants for these challenges should be sure to opt in if they’re eligible.

  1. Atlassian Foundation International is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers from non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, social enterprises, academics, entrepreneurs, and for-profit organizations.
  2. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers who will have an impact in developing countries across the Indo-Pacific. 
  3. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is pledging to curate a mentorship prize for selected Solvers who propose solutions based in arts and culture to the four challenges.

Applicants who are selected as finalists will join the Solve Challenge Finals in New York City on Sept. 17 during the United Nations General Assembly Week. The Solve pitch session will take place in front of challenge judges, Solve members, and a live audience in New York. 

“This is just the beginning of the community, of the marketplace, of the movement,” said Solve Executive Director Alex Amouyel during Solve at MIT. “And to truly realize the vision of Solve, we need you to continue the charge.”

Felice Frankel: Creating images to explain science concepts

Producing images powerful enough to be selected for the covers of major research journals is nothing new for Felice Frankel: She’s being doing it for decades with great success. But now, she’s extending that approach, using a growing arsenal of visual tools and techniques as she works with scientists and engineers to develop imagery that illustrates their concepts.

Frankel, a research scientist in MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, has helped to produce images that in the last few months have graced the covers of Nature, Nature Materials, and Environmental Science, among others. Some of her work is also featured in the exhibit “Images of Discovery: Communicating science through photography,” running at the MIT Museum through this August.

Frankel started her career in science and then turned to photographing architecture and landscapes, publishing a few books along the way. She started working with MIT scientists to improve their visual communications back in the ’90s. She’s been expanding her work ever since, both developing new ways of communicating ideas visually and teaching techniques for doing so.

Her latest work has involved combining a variety of photographic images into photo-illustrations that help to explain a process better than individual photos could. The latest journal covers have been examples of this approach. “I take pieces of photos I’ve already made and put them together as an illustration,” she says.

The cover image she created for the April 20 issue of Nature is a perfect example of this process. The research being illustrated involved using graphene as a kind of “copy machine” for nanopatterned thin sheets, for electronics applications. Instead of using just photographic images of the patterned surfaces, which wouldn’t have conveyed much information about the process, or a stand-alone diagram that wouldn’t have seemed as real, she combined the two elements into a single illustration.

It took many steps to produce the image elements and combine them effectively, but the result is a montage that clearly embodies the key elements of the process: the graphene surface and the thin sheets picking up patterns from that surface, one after another. And by mimicking the appearance of a copying machine with copies flying off from it, the final image conveys the active process of cranking out many identical copies from a single surface.

The process of creating the image involved many discussions and iterations among Frankel, the researcher, and the creative director at Nature, she recalls. The creative director “saw the potential” even from early sketches of the proposed design, Frankel says, and helped to refine the design into something that both the researcher and the journal’s editors could agree on.

“Every situation is different,” Frankel says. But the common thread is “helping to bring attention to important work,” by creating images that combine important concepts with an eye-catching design that can attract readers who might otherwise have overlooked the paper or related news coverage. She says the heads of several MIT departments have been encouraging their younger researchers to seek out her assistance, to help them gain attention for their work while their careers are getting off the ground.

“I first collaborated with Felice as a junior faculty member, and some of the core images that she worked on with us ended up being cover articles with meaningful impact over the years,” says Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “I have encouraged my own research group members, and now faculty members and the students and postdocs in our department, to take part in the workshops and courses that she offers to teach others about the key issues of communicating science through images.”

Frankel “is one of the hidden jewels at MIT,” says Anette “Peko” Hosoi, a professor and associate department head of mechanical engineering. “She has a deep understanding of the importance of visual communication and a true talent for bringing scientific concepts to life. I constantly call on her for advice, and she has fundamentally changed the way I think about my research.”

Another example of Frankel’s recent work, which also involved combining multiple photos into a single illustration, was a cover for the June issue of Nature Materials, for a paper that described how certain cells respond to biomaterials. The resulting image was, in essence, “a complete metaphor.” Although it depicted something that did not exist, it clearly conveyed the effect being described in the paper: a technique that prevents macrophages, a type of white blood cells that act as a kind of molecular garbage collector, from creating unwanted deposits around devices implanted in the body such as pacemakers.

To produce that cover, Frankel combined a backround image from the researchers’ lab, depicting normal cells in a growth medium, along with a foreground image depicting a macrophage, which Frankel found after an online search and then manipulated after purchasing rights to the image. The combination suggested the interactions described in the research, even though those interactions had not been directly imaged.

When she sits down with researchers to discuss images for their work, Frankel says, “I encourage them to come up with metaphors” that can help to show the essence of their work in ways that a simple photographic image might not. “Thinking about coming up with metaphors is also a means of clarification” that can help the researchers describe what they’ve done more clearly to people outside their own discipline.

Besides working one-on-one with researchers, Frankel has also led several workshops and developed an online edX class to convey her ideas about how to use visual imagery to enhance scientific understanding. The tutorials are also available on Open CourseWare.

Frankel “has done a fabulous job in helping our researchers to deliver their research graphically,” says Gang Chen, head of the department of mechanical engineering. “She is creative and resourceful, and is a delight to work with.”

In her direct work with the researchers, Frankel urges them to “tell me the salient facts,” and then they can work together on “designing an image to represent the fundamental aspects of what the research is about.” And, she says, “it’s another way for the researchers to clarify in their own minds” the key points they need to communicate.

Bitcoin study: Period of exclusivity encourages early adopters

Giving early adopters the first access to new technologies can help diffuse those technologies among the masses. A notable example is Google’s rollout of Gmail: In 2004, about 1,000 select users were given exclusive access and told to invite others. This campaign was so successful that at one point before the email service went mainstream Gmail invites were selling for more than $150 on eBay.

But what if early adopters are, in contrast, denied access at the initial stage of a rollout? That could greatly stifle broader diffusion, according to a unique new study by MIT researchers that examines adoption rates of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin among MIT students.

In 2014, the MIT Bitcoin Project offered all incoming freshman access to $100 worth of bitcoins. MIT Sloan School of Management professors Christian Catalini and Catherine Tucker saw this as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to study the role of early adopters in spreading technology in a controlled environment, says Catalini, who is the Fred Kayne Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship. Tucker is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management.

During the rollout, the researchers randomly delayed giving half the students their bitcoin allotment by a couple of weeks. Students who were identified as early adopters of Bitcoin, but whose payment was delayed, cashed out their balance and abandoned the technology at nearly twice the rate of early adopters who received their payment earlier. The early adopters who cashed out also influenced those around them to do the same in high numbers.

Cash-out rates among early adopters were also amplified in dorms, especially smaller dorms where the delayed or non-delayed status of students would be more well-known, indicating that early adopters need to feel like they are part of an exclusive group in order to stick with new technologies.

Published today in Science, the paper is the first to examine what happens when natural early adopters (NEAs) are purposely denied first, exclusive access to new technologies, Catalini says. “When you study new technologies, how fast and in what ways [they] diffuse through society, you never get to see what would have happened if things had unfolded differently,” he says.

Creating two “parallel universes”

Of the 4,494 MIT freshmen offered access to Bitcoin, about 3,100 joined the researchers’ experiment. Those students had five days to sign up on a waiting list, complete a survey, and create a digital wallet.

The researchers first identified which students exhibited natural early adopter (NEA) traits compared to the other students, whom they refer to as natural late adopters (NLAs). They classified as NEAs the first 25 percent of students who signed up to the waiting list, all within the first 24 hours. Surveys showed that those NEAs were also more likely to be top computer programmers, to have built mobile apps, and to use peer-to-peer payment apps, among other identifiers. These characteristics align with popular definitions of early adopters, who generally possess advanced technical skills that help them start using new technologies.

Bitcoins were distributed a few weeks after the signups. But the researchers randomly delayed distribution of the bitcoins to 50 percent of the students, both NEAs and NLAs, by another two weeks. They then tracked all Bitcoin transactions through the blockchain — the digital ledger used by Bitcoin — and through the students’ digital wallets.

Randomly delaying access created two “parallel universes,” Catalini says, in which to study the S-Curve — the measure of the speed of adoption of innovation in societies. “In one universe, we ended up seeding Bitcoin in the optimal way, by giving it first to early adopters and later to everybody else. In the other parallel universe, the opposite was likely to happen,” he says.

Findings were surprising. The two-week cash-out rate of the NEAs who received their bitcoins late rose to 18 percent, well over the non-delayed NEA cash-out rate of 11 percent. “That people, on all accounts, who were supposed to be NEAs of Bitcoin would abandon it was surprising to us,” Catalini says.

Both groups of late adopters, on the other hand, showed cash-out rates of roughly 10 percent, suggesting they were indifferent to the delay.

The cost and value of exclusivity

The researchers then studied the underlying mechanism of high cash-out rates by comparing behaviors of students living off campus to those in dorms, which function as social clusters.

In dorms, where it was likely more noticeable which students had received their bitcoins on time, delayed early adopters were 4.3 times more likely to cash out than non-delayed late adopters. Moreover, in smaller dorms, where students are even more aware of each other, or in dorms where NEAs are rarer, cash-out rates among delayed NEAs rose sharply again over their peers. Off campus, however, there was no measurable difference in cash-out rates among early and late adopters, delayed or not.

“When you take students out of the social environment — where comparisons are made and people are aware of each other receiving versus not receiving Bitcoin — we do not see that [cash-out] activity,” Catalini says.

This points to NEAs finding some value — monetary or socially — in having exclusive access to new technologies, the researchers write: “Our results highlight a novel, understudied mechanism through which NEAs might obstruct further diffusion if they refuse to adopt because their desire to feel unique is challenged or the consumption value they derive from early, exclusive access is reduced.”

But this behavior also has a “spillover” effect, where NLAs were more likely to drop Bitcoin if NEAs did — possibly because late adopters rely on early adopters to learn about new technologies, Catalini says. After 225 days, the researchers found dorms with an above-the-median share of delayed NEAs had 45 percent fewer active Bitcoin users.

“That’s a large difference,” Catalini says. “This behavior by early adopters, where you see them abandon Bitcoin, seems to have repercussions on everyone else.”

Noting the MIT study’s idiosyncratic setting, Catalini says the results offer a couple of key insights for tech firms. Identifying NEAs before going to market may be valuable, instead of relying on people lining up outside of the store. Firms could then fulfill the NEAs’ need to feel exclusive and capitalize on their potential to encourage wider adoption.

“In settings where the decision to adopt is a social decision, where comparisons or conversations are taking place in communities and when there is uncertainty about the value of an innovation, it can be important for firms to take advantage of early adopters, as they do create this positive effect of others,” Catalini says. “But that comes with a cost, which is exclusivity.”

Avi Goldfarb, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, says the study’s results are “interesting and surprising” and “the method is novel” in tracking a type of “what-if?” scenario of diffusion. “Diffusion research has suffered because it is difficult to know what would have happened [had] a new product not appeared,” he says. “Unlike many other areas of research where experiments have taken off, research on new product adoption and diffusion has been limited to observational data. So, a key part of the long-term impact of this paper on the field is to show how to embed experimental design into research on diffusion.”

Moreover, Goldfarb adds, “it does all this in the fascinating context of Bitcoin. We still do not know much about how people will use cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. This paper helps us understand some of the challenges of launching such a currency, even without a technology-savvy population.”

Tucker points out that the Bitcoin experiment proved to be a boon to the majority of MIT undergraduates. More than 50 percent held on to their bitcoins, possibly hoping for the price to increase further, Tucker says. The $100 in Bitcoin they were given in 2014 is now worth more than $700. Many MIT students have also started experimenting and building novel apps in this space.

The researchers are currently working on another paper based on the study that examines the decision students made in terms of securing the privacy of their online transactions.

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