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Saving Voices
Indigenous Language Initiative helps revive ailing languages
By Katharine Dunn

In the old days, the Lardil people of Mornington Island, Australia, just off the country’s northern coast, knew the stories and traditions of their ancestors. They spread those traditions in Lardil and, on occasion, in Damin, a sacred language reserved for young men’s initiation ceremonies. The Lardil had no words for numbers above “three,” because they weren’t needed; resources were shared and there was no currency. When white people arrived about 90 years ago, Lardil children were placed in schools and forced to speak English. And the culture began to die.

“Growing up Lardil [today], you think being a good person means being as much like a white person as you can,” says Norvin Richards, a professor of linguistics who has been working with the Lardil community for nearly a decade. White people now hold most of the island’s jobs, and poverty and crime are widespread in Lardil communities. Of the 1,200 Lardil on the island, only one or two remain who are fully fluent in the language.

“Language death in [Lardil] communities is the least of their problems,” admits Richards. “But I’m trained in that, so I do what I can.” He returns to the island every year or two, and he’s now finishing a book of traditional stories in Lardil and English. Language plights like the Lardil’s are “playing out in a similar way in communities around the world,” says Richards, who is troubled by this trend not only because he believes oral literatures, like art, are valuable for the unique perspectives they offer on the world, but also because he sees minority-language survival as a human-rights issue. Many languages are endangered because of the political and cultural dominance of other languages (often English). By century’s end, Richards estimates, between half and 90 percent of the world’s languages could disappear.

In response to these concerns, MIT’s linguistics department recently launched the Indigenous Languages Initiative, a two-year master’s program for members of indigenous communities whose languages are dead or dying. The program’s goal is to give native speakers the tools to revive their languages. Stephanie Fielding of the Mohegan tribe in Connecticut, the program’s first student, graduated in May.

Training Native Speakers
Many endangered languages have been studied by linguists at MIT because of Ken Hale, a linguistics professor who died in 2001. Hale, who spoke about 50 languages, traveled to rural communities in countries ranging from Australia to Nicaragua to work on language revival. And starting in the 1960s, he also occasionally brought indigenous speakers to MIT for linguistics training, so they could help their communities revive their ailing native tongues.

Two years ago, this practice was formalized as the Ken Hale Memorial Master’s Program, in which native speakers (or indigenous people committed to learning their languages) study linguistics, learn the skills necessary to run language programs in their communities, and graduate with credentials that will help them win funding for those programs. The idea is that native speakers are more motivated to help their communities and are also more readily accepted by them than “outsider linguists” would be. This is the first program devoted to training native speakers of endangered languages to take over the work of outside linguists. Richards hopes to someday enhance the program with a resource center for linguists that includes dictionaries and educational tools.

Nitana Hicks, who graduates from the master’s program next year, is the second student to come to MIT from the Wampanoag tribe of Mashpee, Cape Cod. In the early 1990s, community members started the Wompanoag Language Reclamation Project to revive their language, which hadn’t been spoken for about a century. They sent Jessie Little Doe Baird, SM ‘00, for linguistics training at MIT, where she worked with Hale and Richards on a Wompanoag book of grammar (which became her thesis) and a dictionary, using 17th-century texts–including a bible translated by a missionary–as references.

Baird now teaches Wompanoag on the cape, where Hicks first learned the language. At MIT Hicks spends a couple of hours a week speaking the language with Richards. When they run up against things they don’t yet know how to say, they refer to living languages that are also part of the Algonquin family for clues.

After she graduates, Hicks plans to return to the cape and teach Wompanoag full time. One of the stipulations of the Wompanoag Language Reclamation Project is that the language must first be taught to any member of the community who wants to learn it before it can be taught to outsiders. Rules like these are well respected by the Indigenous Language Initiative. “I have to bear in mind what I’m trying to do is not make [indigenous people] learn their language and culture but give them choices,” says Richards.

Language death itself is sometimes a matter of choice. Recent graduate Ken Hiraiwa, PhD ‘05, worked on the syntax of Buli, a language of northern Ghana that could disappear because parents no longer want to pass it on to their kids. “If you want a job in the capital, you have to speak Twi or English,” he says. Parents fear that by passing on their native minority languages, they inhibit their children’s ability to speak the majority language properly. But that doesn’t mean they want to give up their languages; Richards says he’s never been in a community that wasn’t interested in saving its native tongue.

But doing so means keeping up with the times. If Lardil is going to survive, says Richards, the Lardil people will need to modernize it somewhat, coming up with words for “corporation,” “car,” “computer,” and, say, “five.”

Better Routing
Program aims to give directions as a human would
By Lisa Scanlon

Web sites such as MapQuest are good at getting people from point A to point B, but their instructions are not usually as easy to follow as those given by someone familiar with a particular route. Gary Look, an MIT graduate student in computer science and electrical engineering, set out with his colleagues to create a program that generates more-colloquial–and useful–directions. His software uses landmarks to identify where travelers should turn, to confirm that they are moving in the right direction, and to describe the physical characteristics of their routes. “It gives directions in terms of how people give directions,” Look says.

To test his program, Look built a system that generates walking directions for the second floor and parts of other floors of the Stata Center. The guide generates written directions using a database of paths, places, and landmarks. Its use of landmarks makes directions more concise. Rather than describe every twist and turn along the way or spell out precise distances, for instance, the directions might read, “You will see a lounge on your left; walk toward the lounge.”

Look hopes that by the end of this summer, he will have expanded the guide to cover the entire building. Longer term, he imagines that used in conjunction with Global Positioning System-enabled PDAs, the software could cover entire cities and might even remind people of things to do when they’re in particular areas.

Speaking the Same Language
A Media Lab project makes programming more natural
By Lisa Scanlon

Hugo liu ‘01, Mng ‘02, a doctoral candidate at the Media Lab, remembers a particularly grueling introductory programming class he took as an undergrad: it was “pretty hellish,” he recalls. This was partly because programming languages, he says, are “rigid and unaccommodating to people’s natural input.” Liu, who is interested in cognitive linguistics, wondered whether he could make programming more intuitive by having a computer derive code directly from natural language. The result was an interface, called Metafor, that translates English sentences into fragments of code. For example, noun phrases are interpreted as program objects, and verbs are interpreted as functions. Although Metafor doesn’t produce complete programs, it can be used as a brainstorming tool to teach students how to write better code and to help programmers outline large projects, Liu says.

To use Metafor, programmers simply type in sentences–such as “Pac-Man is a character who loves to run through a maze and eat dots”–that describe the programs they want to write. Metafor parses the sentences into verbs, subjects, and objects and then translates those pieces into series of properties, functions, and if-then rules. By seeing how their sentences translate into code, students learn how to rephrase their statements to result in more-efficient programs, Liu says. In a paper he presented earlier this year, Liu described how Metafor could help beginning and intermediate programmers code faster.

Land of the Lost
Underwater vents may hold clues to what early Earth was like
By Katherine Bourzac

In spring 2003, Alex Bradley descended hundreds of meters into the Atlantic Ocean to explore the mysterious Lost City hydrothermal fields, near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. At Lost City, feathery limestone chimneys up to 60 meters tall stand on rocks forced up from the earth’s mantle, venting gases and minerals dissolved in 90 °C seawater. At this depth, Bradley–an earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences graduate student–could see only as far as the submarine’s lights could reach. “It’s like doing science in a car at night with the headlights on,” he says. Using a robotic arm, he and his colleagues collected pieces of the chimneys in order to study the microbes living inside–which could, Bradley says, yield insights into what early Earth was like.

Bradley was part of the team of scientists from MIT, the University of Washington, and the Woods Hole, MA-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that performed the first major study of the recently discovered Lost City vent system. He and the project’s other MIT collaborator, Roger Summons–a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences–are geobiologists. “We study the interdependence of life and earth processes in order to understand the history of the earth,” explains Summons. An article presenting the expedition’s results appeared in Science in March, and in it, Summons and Bradley describe the microbial communities living in the vents and how their metabolism differs from that of microbes in other vent systems.

At Lost City, life forms must compete for scarce sources of “edible” carbon. At other hydrothermal fields, the crucial element is hydrogen, which the organisms “breathe.” Lost City’s conditions–oxygen is scarce, but methane and hydrogen are abundant–are created by reactions between mantle rocks and seawater and make for an environment that resembles that of early Earth. Astrobiologists suspect that similar conditions may exist on Saturn’s moon Titan, which has been the object of two recent expeditions. “Discovering this [vent] system at the same time as the exploration of Titan is going on” is a fortunate coincidence, Summons says.

The 2003 expedition to Lost City was only the beginning. This summer, a robotic sub will return to the vents, allowing Bradley and his colleagues to continue exploring their unique chemistry and life.

Nonsensical Inventions
The Unuseless Competition finds purpose in bringing together graduate students
By Katharine Dunn

The setting for the first-ever Unuseless Competition was arguably the most “unuseless” aspect of all. The submissions for the April event were exhibited in Frank Gehry’s Stata Center on two uneven mezzanines–a design that, as architecture graduate student and event organizer Luis Berrios-Negron pointed out, required Gehry to add an expensive elevator for the sole purpose of navigating the four feet between the floors. Berrios-Negron awarded Gehry’s elevator an honorable mention in the competition, which was inspired by chindogu, the Japanese art of unuseless invention.

An unuseless invention, according to the practitioners of chindogu, is a tool that may appear to solve a problem but isn’t quite worth using. If a product is so handy that you want to use it all the time, get a patent for it, and sell it, it is not chindogu. Nor is it chindogu if it is explicitly silly or stupid, though the product can be incidentally funny if it creates more problems than it’s worth or solves a problem that doesn’t exist.

Many students at MIT hope to “deliver a patent, to invent something, to become rich and famous through the idea of invention,” says Berrios-Negron. “I wanted people to get rewarded for doing something that in real life you wouldn’t get rewarded for.” The competition, which was sponsored in part by a Graduate Student Life Grant and open to all graduate students, also brought together students from different departments, which doesn’t happen enough at MIT, says Berrios-Negron.

The submissions from the five finalist teams include HairyBike, a suit covered in long hair that a cyclist wears to create a safety zone; Boomerun, a stick that doesn’t come back (a time-saver compared with the traditional boomerang); the Catsup Crapper, a bottle of ketchup that walks up to your plate to “excrete a pleasant mound of condiment”; and the Will-Powered Chair, which moves an inch away from the table for every ounce of food the user eats. “We haven’t figured out yet how we’ll build it. But we will,” says David Hu ‘01, an applied-math doctoral candidate who, with his roommate Brian Chan ‘02, SM ‘04, a mechanical-engineering graduate student, submitted 10 ideas to the competition.

The finalists of the Unuseless Competition were each given $100 to build prototypes of their inventions, which they presented for judging by audience members at an awards ball in May.

Curbing Student Alcohol Abuse
Program gets results
By Kathryn Beaumont

While many universities require that students caught violating alcohol policies undergo counseling, MIT has taken a more active approach by reaching out to at-risk students before their drinking becomes a problem. This novel program has lowered campus drinking rates and received a national education grant that will allow it to accommodate more participants.

Initiated in 2001, the Screening and Brief Intervention program asks freshmen to voluntarily complete an online alcohol-use questionnaire. Based on their responses, students may be referred to counselors for two 50-minute sessions, with a follow-up survey six months later.

Students were invited to sign up for the intervention portion of the program if they reported drinking more than four or five drinks per occasion (commonly called binge drinking) or if they said their drinking had had certain specific consequences in the previous 30 days. These consequences included academic issues, such as missed classes; interpersonal problems; or experiences of blackouts. Students who did not complete the questionnaire can voluntarily sign up for the program or be referred by residence staff or academic counselors.

No student who has gone through the program has subsequently been cited for an alcohol and drug policy violation, says Danny Trujillo, associate dean for alcohol education and community development. And the six-month follow-up report on students who had been through the program showed a 40 percent decrease in binge drinking, compared with a 60 percent increase among students who didn’t participate.

MIT received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Models on College Campuses office for the 2004-2005 academic year, which allowed the program to expand its evaluation by offering the questionnaires to varsity athletes as well as to freshmen.

Food for Thought
A new dining option on campus
By Courtney Humphries

A new student-designed cafe aims to bring a little social interaction and health consciousness to the culture of grab-and-go eating at MIT. The Steam Cafe, located on the fourth floor of Building 7, emphasizes nutritious food and customer feedback on its menu.

The cafe is the brainchild of architecture graduate student Scott Francisco, who wanted to bring the concepts of open-source software–in which programmers share and build on each other’s ideas–to food service on campus. He and fellow architecture grad student Nick Senske, both of whom are part of the student research group Culture Lab, have worked to make eating at MIT a meaningful experience rather than a chore performed between bouts of work.

For the Steam Cafe, that means giving customers a stake in the menu and a connection to the space. The menu changes based on customer feedback and the submission of recipes to the cafe’s website ( The space, designed and built by student volunteers, also maximizes opportunities for interaction, with benches that are shared between tables and a computer connected to a large plasma display. “It’s about architecture being able to catalyze change,” Francisco says, rather than design for its own sake.

The Steam Cafe is also uniquely focused on nutrition. The menu is based on brown rice and other whole grains, with healthy vegetarian and meat entrees, as well as soups, salads, and beverages. Customers weary of supersized meals will also welcome the choice of three portion sizes.

The students won support for the project from the administration and from the Office of Campus Dining and its corporate partner, Sodexho, which operates the cafe. James Gubata, operations director for Sodexho at MIT, helped bring the project to fruition and now plans the cafe menus, guided by feedback from customers. He believes that the cafe’s innovations can serve as a model for other sites. For Gubata, it was important to show that healthier food can be cost effective: during the first two months of operation, sales in the space–previously occupied by the Dome Cafe–more than doubled.

Dancing Days
Students flock to the MIT Open Ballroom Dance Competition
By Catherine Nichols

“Yes, it’s totally goofy. Sometimes, yes, people are over the top,” says Johnna Powell, a graduate student in electrical engineering. “There’s so much beauty in it, it goes beyond whatever fluff there is.” Powell is talking about ballroom dancing at MIT, a phenomenon that began with the founding of a student club 30 years ago. Fifteen years ago, a group within the club began its own competitive ballroom dance team, which now has nearly 80 members from among the MIT community. One of the team’s most important events is the MIT Open Ballroom Dance Competition. For the past nine years, the annual event has drawn teams from colleges around the region, making it one of the oldest and largest in American collegiate ballroom dance.

In April, some 560 dancers flocked to MIT to join the competition. The women resembled tropical birds, decked out in brightly colored outfits, glitter makeup, and long false eyelashes. Some wore tops no bigger than napkins. Their partners typically wore only black, but their shirts were cut down to their navels or were open at the back. The entire display was sexy, graceful, outrageous–characteristics not typically associated with the Institute. So why did this sport take root in MIT’s culture?

Powell, who decided to come to MIT after seeing its competitive dance team, offers one explanation: “It’s the only place at MIT where there’s a disproportionate number of females to males… Maybe you started just to meet people and learn a few dance steps and feel more confident, but then you get sucked up into this competitive mood.”

Ballroom dance might have changed MIT, but MIT has changed ballroom dance, too. As an undergraduate, Eric Nielsen ‘00 wrote the registration software program for the competition’s website. It was so efficient that collegiate ballroom competitions around the region now use it.

Perhaps less predictably, MIT students also excel at dancing. Nielsen says that he’s noticed that MIT students fare well at the beginner levels of competition, tend to do less well at intermediate stages, and win again at advanced levels. This year, MIT students won the competition overall. Beginners are judged on their posture and simple technical mastery of the steps, and there, Nielsen thinks MIT has an edge. He explains: “We have coaches who know how to explain dancing in terms that make sense to people who are studying physics and engineering.” At intermediate levels, ballroom dancers are judged on their showmanship and flair. Nielsen admits that “showmanship comes hard to a lot of MIT people.” Advanced dancers are the stubborn, hardworking ones who learn to correct their weaknesses–a classic MIT characteristic, Nielsen says.

Whether it’s about glitter and barely-there costumes, or forces operating on bodies in motion, or athleticism, competition, and the joy of winning, ballroom dancing is clearly entrenched in MIT’s culture. At the MIT competition, during the first heat of the Intermediate Latin, the dancers in the gym had big cha-cha smiles, but their eyes showed as much focus and determination as any athlete’s. Students wrapped in team jackets watched from the bleachers, catcalling and yelling encouragement to their teammates.

MIT Declares a Major
The class of 2008 is about to change the world of biology
By Tracy Staedter

This fall, MIT undergraduates will get to do something that none of their predecessors has done before: declare a major in biological engineering. It may not sound like a big deal, but nearly 30 years have passed since the Institute introduced an entirely new major–linguistics and philosophy–into its curriculum. And biological engineering is so cutting edge that adequate textbooks don’t even exist. “We’re doing something that is truly historical,” says Douglas Lauffenburger, the director of the Biological Engineering Division. Students of the new discipline will tinker under the molecular hood of life, trying to understand the functioning of DNA, proteins, and other cellular components and designing and building entirely new materials, drugs, electronics, or even organisms.

More than a dozen years ago, an ad hoc committee came together to discuss the need for a curriculum that married biology with engineering. Out of those discussions, an undergraduate minor in biomedical engineering arose in 1995, and it is now one of the most popular minors at MIT. But for all the useful applications of biomedical engineering–robotic surgery, brain-machine interfaces, noninvasive imaging, and new ways to analyze heart signals to diagnose disease–it was not making use of the latest advances in molecular and cellular biology. So in 1999, the Institute launched a PhD program in biological engineering. On the heels of that program’s success, a formal committee convened to talk about how to translate the graduate curriculum into an undergraduate course.

That major was approved in February. Students will take basic science classes, like organic chemistry, genetics, and cell biology, alongside nine more-specialized classes, like statistical thermodynamics of biomolecular systems and biomolecular kinetics and cell dynamics. When they graduate, they will have far different skills than biomedical engineers do. Whereas biomedical engineers may figure out how to replace injured organs with artificial ones, says Lauffenburger, biological engineers will figure out how to reprogram the cells in a damaged organ in order to return it to its healthy state. But the potential applications of biological engineering extend far beyond medicine. Once scientists understand how life’s machinery works, they could, say, arrange biological molecules to develop new materials or reprogram DNA to produce new organisms.

Since the program is so new, some professors will have to come up with their own teaching materials, based on research literature or their own experiences in the lab. But they shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. For the first five years, MIT will limit enrollment in the program–admitting only 20 students in the first year. “We want to start small and really get it right and not be overwhelmed,” says Linda Griffith, chair of the Biological Engineering Division’s undergraduate-program committee. Feedback from the students will help Lauffenburger and Griffith adjust the coursework over time. But industry and other academic institutions will certainly have their eyes on that history-making first class.

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