IAP Notebook


News Office staff members sampled some of this year's array of IAP courses. Their reports will continue in the January 28 issue of MIT Tech Talk.

Earth as a jigsaw

Arabia, veering north, is going to collide with the Eurasian landmass, ejecting Turkey to the west like a banana squeezed out of its peel.

But don't worry -- at 30 millimeters a year, it'll take a while for the impact.

In the course on "Physics and the Earth: Why Mountains Rise, Continents Move and the Magnetic Field Reverses," Professor Leigh H. Royden of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences explained that the migration of the 12 huge plates making up the Earth's outer shell is driven by thermal convection within the planet's mantle, the layer below the crust and above the core.

While plate-tectonics motions have probably occurred during most of Earth's four-billion-year history, the plate configuration we see today is the result of the breakup of a single supercontinent about 250 million years ago.

In some places, cold ocean floor is subducted, or pulled down, nearly 3,000 kilometers into the mantle. In other places, hot fluid rock rises and spreads at mid-ocean ridges.

Volcanos and earthquakes are tiny indications of the planet's inner turmoil. But without the heat produced by radioactive decay within its core, "the Earth would have cooled off and solidified a long time ago," making it a cold, dormant planet like Mars, Professor Royden said. Dry land is relatively stable because the low-density, 35-kilometer-thick continental crust floats on the mantle like an iceberg and protects the continental mantle from being subducted.

Because the present oceans are only 200 million years old, Professor Royden said that "to understand the Earth's history, you have to look to the continents."

In her own research, armed with a hammer, sturdy boots and a map, Professor Royden treks through Tibet, looking for faults and other clues about how the Earth was formed.

With the help of sophisticated, highly accurate versions of the GPS (global positioning system), she and her colleagues measure movements in the Earth's crust in real time and compare them to geological observations and to mathematical models that describe how the plates move and the continents deform. This information helps them understand how the Earth came to look as it does.

Deborah Halber

Exploring the final frontier

An emerging field at the interface of neuroscience, physics and engineering is already producing applications such as an implant for controlling the tremors associated with Parkinson's disease, said Dr. Chi-Sang Poon on Monday, Jan. 12 at his IAP talk sponsored by the Department of Biology.

The field -- neuroengineering -- "will thrive throughout the 21st century and beyond," predicted Dr. Poon, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

In "Neuroengineering: The New Frontier in Science and Engineering," Dr. Poon explained that brain science is one of the last frontiers of the life sciences because the brain is very complex and has been difficult to study. Relatively new technologies and approaches, however, are changing that.

Many MIT researchers are involved in neuroengineering projects, Dr. Poon said. For example, Professor John Wyatt of electrical engineering and computer science and the Research Laboratory of Electronics is developing an artificial eye. And SensAble Technologies, an MIT spinoff company, has developed a tactile sensing device so the user can feel a "virtual" object on the computer screen. One potential application: training medical students via virtual surgery.

Dr. Poon's own lab is involved in several neuroengineering projects. One is the design of computer chips for modeling brain systems. "Hopefully we'll use them some day to replicate certain brain systems," he said.

Elizabeth A. Thomson

Education about eating disorders

Breakfast is an important start to any day, and the organizers of this course made sure none of the attendees skipped it. They started off "Eating Disorders and Helpers@MIT" by providing all participants with a nourishing meal. This was followed by 10 presentations with informal group discussions.

The panelists stressed the importance of support from loved ones and the help that non-medical professionals can provide in the identification of and recovery from eating disorders.

A moving presentation was given by Annie, who detailed her own struggles with anorexia. Like many anorexics, she suffered osteoporosis (and a broken leg), hypothermia, an eight-year loss of her menstrual period and other complications resulting from the eating disorder. Now recovered, she said that without the support of her husband, friends and a good doctor, she might not be alive today.

Susan Rushing, a junior in brain and cognitive sciences and a MEDLink in her living group, said increased awareness and education are the most effective means of battling eating disorders on campus. She described some of the creative means she has used to educate members of her living group, including placing information packets in bathrooms, bringing in eating disorder specialists and nutritionists to speak, and establishing a fitness buddy system among the living group residents.

The January 7 forum, sponsored by MIT Medical, was organized and moderated by Dr. Margaret Ross, a psychiatrist from MIT Medical's Mental Health Services and physician liaison to the Health Education Service. Other panelists included physician Bethany Block; athletics trainer Kathy Davis; Tracy Desovich, MIT student health educator; Assistant Professor Mayrene Earle of physical education; housemaster Carol Orme-Johnson; Lisa Pearl, an eating disorder specialist; and Lynn Roberson, coordinator of programs and support for women in the Dean's Office.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist

When Stephen A. Ross wanted to pick up some Digital Equipment Corp. stock in the 1960s, his stockbroker referred him to "a guy in New Jersey" who had some options for sale.

What was once a very unscientific transaction -- the trading of derivatives and other financial instruments such as stocks and bonds -- has become a highly specialized process firmly rooted in mathematics and science. In fact, this $65-trillion-a-year venture has become so predictable that it's more engineering than science, said Dr. Ross, the Fischer Black Professor of Management at the Sloan School, in "Wall Street Rocket Science" on January 12.

This is part of the reason that Wall Street is snapping up MIT math, engineering and science majors in droves. About 25 years ago, then-MIT professors Robert Merton, Myron Scholes (both 1997 Nobel laureates) and Fischer Black were responsible for creating a mathematical model to determine how much to pay today for a stock option that will mature in the future.

The formula turned out to be unexpectedly straightforward. Furthermore, "you don't have to know if people like the stock or not," Professor Ross said. "Because the level of precision is so high, this has passed from a science to engineering." It's now called financial engineering, and it's used for everything from determining executive compensation to setting government policy.

Deborah Halber

Top tech teachers talk turkey

What makes a good teacher? Three MIT faculty members talked turkey at "Better Teaching@ MIT," a January 6 IAP session about what qualities work in the classroom. Among them: spontaneity, humility, gaining students' trust and willingness to encourage students' own development rather than insisting on re-creating the teacher's own approach to problems.

Following an introduction by Lori Breslow, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School, the trio described their own experiences as beginning and seasoned teachers. Margery Resnick, associate professor of foreign languages and literature and a MacVicar Fellow, contrasted the knee-knocking fear of her first teaching job -- "I was scared I didn't know enough" -- with her current experience as "someone who really loves to teach." What happened in between? Willingness to be observed and critiqued, which she still values as a primary tool for teacher development.

Professor Resnick offered both a paradox and a challenge to students of excellence in teaching. First, to learn the most about good teaching, go to a class where you don't know the subject, she advised. "Knowing what the teacher is talking about can distract you," she said. "Teaching is an art. Ask what is the beauty in this field, the oddity that drew me in?"

Dr. Peter Dourmashkin, a lecturer in the Experimental Study Group, opened the topic of "engaging students in prerequisite subjects where they might not want to be" and went on to address the issue of trust directly. "In order to get your students to trust you, they have to see that you are genuinely interested in your course," he said.

"How can we instill a love of learning? Find something you love in any course. Change the curriculum to bring yourself to the subject. If students see the teacher wants to be there, they will be there," he said.

Professor Steven Pinker of brain and cognitive sciences also offered a paradox to teachers. To achieve an atmosphere of spontaneity and discovery, "be prepared. Choreograph everything. Remember what Dolly Parton said: 'You wouldn't believe how much it costs to look this cheap.'"

Professor Pinker also recommended that teachers be careful to distinguish graduate from undergraduate education; that they be willing to question authority, including their own; that they take course evaluations (kind of) seriously; and lastly, that nontenured faculty not be too hard on themselves.

Sarah H. Wright

Teaching student teamwork

Teamwork -- when and how to teach it -- was the focus of the second session in the "Better Teaching@MIT" series for new teachers, seasoned teachers and teachers-to-be.

"Teams are very much in vogue. But I advise you not to use teams unless you have a real task for them to do," said Deborah Ancona, associate professor of management at the Sloan School. She also told teachers to be aware of the culture in which they taught. "How well a team works depends on whether the culture is pro- or anti-teamwork," she said.

Professor Ancona addressed some of the challenges to teamwork at MIT. First, the "maintenance functions," such as supporting individual members of the team, tend to "go out the window as term pressures mount, and doing the least possible work for each commitment" becomes the harried norm for students. Second, "at Sloan, there is ambivalence about assuming leadership -- a fear of 'taking over' causes people to withdraw," she said.

Professor of Chemical Engineering Clark K. Colton gave a history and description of the "hands-on, water-on-the-floor" team projects in lab subjects 10.26 and 10.27. He was followed by Charles E. Leiserson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Bonnie Burrell, a lecturer in chemical engineering.

"Like so many things at MIT, we don't give you any time for it, but you're expected to know how to do it," Professor Colton said of teamwork. He also noted that the culture of MIT had changed in recent years, from the "non-emotional" engineers' training (meaning that teamwork proceeded coolly and impersonally) to the current emphasis on diversity. "Teamwork is about feelings. Issues of gender and ethnicity have to come in," he said.

Professor Colton also advised teachers to encourage students to sign up for the writing practicum in whatever field they taught. "It's the best thing a student can do," he said. His courses require both individual and team writing skills.

Sarah H. Wright

Foreign road hazards

The Bangladeshi bus couldn't hold another passenger. People filled every inch of space and were even perched on packages strapped to the roof.

Rattletrap vehicles like this bus pose a far greater threat to travelers in developing countries than cholera, according to Dr. Leigh M. Firn of the MIT Medical Center in his January 8 IAP course, "Travel in Good Health."

Most people who seek Dr. Firn's advice before heading to unusual destinations are worried about catching an exotic disease. But topping the list of dangers, even above that of diarrhea that strikes more than 50 percent of travelers, are accidents involving motor vehicles and boats in countries that don't have the safety consciousness of the United States, Dr. Firn said.

Even malaria, although endemic and spreading in certain locations, is far down on the list of possible health woes for travelers to areas such as Latin America and Africa. Cholera is so rare it isn't worth worrying about or getting vaccinated against, he said.

Nevertheless, prevention is the best route, Dr. Firn told his audience. Common sense and precautions such as drinking only bottled water, using insect repellent and eating only food cooked over high heat should result in a trouble-free trip, he said.

Deborah Halber

Upcoming sessions on work and careers

The Personnel Department and the Human Resource Practices Development (HRPD) team have organized a series of IAP sessions that focus on career development, new ways of working, and initiatives developed over the past year to support the changing needs of MIT's workforce.

The series begins on Tuesday, Jan. 20 with a lecture entitled "Current Trends in the Workplace" by Thomas Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management. His talk will cover external forces that organizations face and the skills that are likely to be the most valued in the next century.

There will also be panel discussions by MIT community members working in areas that have undergone changes; classes on resumes, interviewing and understanding personal work styles; a presentation of services offered by the Performance Consulting and Training team; and several discussions about changes under development by the HRPD team.

Professor Lotte Bailyn, the T Wilson Professor in Management and chair of the faculty, will discuss her research on integrating the demands of work with other life issues on Wednesday, Jan. 28. Joan F. Rice, vice president for human resources, will conclude the series on Friday, Jan. 30.

Each employee on campus was sent a flyer with details about the sessions, for which no registration is required. Anyone who wants more information may e-mail the team at people@mit.edu or call Peter Narbonne at x8-8321. The series is also published in the IAP guide and the HRPD team web site at http://web.mit.edu/reeng/www/hrpd.

Peter J. Narbonne
HRPD Team

Biblical proportions

The small room in which "Making Time for God" is held offers a wide view of the realm of the spirit. At one recent session, participants read, contemplated and shared their experiences with stories from the Bible, including the binding of Isaac and the healing of Naman. The discussions included both awareness of human limitations and moments of hilarity. The group meets Monday and Wednesday mornings at 9am until January 28 (except January 19) in Building W11, with Episcopal chaplain Jane Gould as guide.

Sarah H. Wright

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 14, 1998.


Topics: Earth and atmospheric sciences, Economics, Health sciences and technology, Neuroscience

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