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My year volunteering at the MIT Museum

“It’s a woman.”

“No, it’s a tiger!”

My brother and I would argue about what we were seeing as Margaret Benyon’s Tigirl changed each time we shook our heads. At least once a year as we were growing up, our grandparents took us to the MIT Museum, where our favorite exhibits included the holography collection, Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures (we loved the wishbone), and the strobe-light photography of Doc Edgerton, SM ‘27, ScD ‘31 (the bullet going through the apple never ceased to amaze us). And visiting gave my grandfather, Harvey Steinberg ‘54, then chairman of the museum advisory board, a chance to share his MIT stories with us.

Fast-forward a few years. I was taking a year off after my sophomore year at MIT and needed something to do. My grandfather suggested that I might be able to help out at the museum, which had just opened its Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery. So I ended up volunteering there several days a week from October to August.

I started by doing behind-the-scenes work, compiling research on new exhibits and assembling supplies for workshops. But at the Friday After Thanksgiving (FAT) Chain Reaction, I got my first chance to interact with the public. FAT teams make Rube Goldberg-­inspired machines that are started by a pulled string and end up pulling the string of the next machine. One of the coolest parts for me was getting to meet the event’s MC, Arthur Ganson, the creator of the awesome kinetic sculptures at the museum. I built a link in the chain myself that year (with some help from my brother) and have gone back every year since.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, we began preparing for the Rube Goldberg Competition for middle-school students that the MIT Museum cohosts each April at the Fay School in Southborough, MA. We spent much of December ordering supplies and assembling kits; in January, we trained teachers from each participating school. As an MIT student mentor (each team gets one), I visited my team at their school and helped them plan. Although each team got the same task and the same materials, when I saw the machines in action in April, I was impressed by how different and creative each approach was.

That spring, I disassembled my first computer as part of the museum’s “take-apart” event during the annual Cambridge Science Festival. I also got the job of playing with some recently obtained Lego MindStorms kits. Each kit contained basic Lego pieces, sensors, and a cable to connect the base to a computer so it could be programmed. Once I familiarized myself with the parts and the software, I helped write the curriculum for the initial MindStorms workshop, which the museum now offers regularly to school groups. (Fun fact: MindStorms’ programmable bricks were developed at the MIT Media Lab.)

My summer at the museum was a ton of fun! We had a rotating schedule of drop-in activities: visitors could try out Lego ­MindStorms, inexpensive XO computers from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a giant tornado machine, and activities in the DNA Learning Lab. In creating the OLPC demo, we visited the project’s headquarters in Kendall Square and took apart a laptop (and put it back together correctly). It was a blast to play with cool stuff all day.

When it was time for me to return to school that fall, I wanted to share the museum with the rest of the MIT Community (free with MIT ID!). The night of registration day, we had a big party with ice cream, music filled with bad science puns, and construction projects involving toothpicks and Dots candy.

As a student again, I still visited the museum frequently to escape the stress of the semester. For the 2008 Cambridge Science Festival, I took a break from working on my 2.007 robot to stand at the museum’s booth for an hour and explain what a phenakistoscope is (it’s an early animation device based on the principle of persistence of vision). I then helped families make their own. And during IAP 2009, I helped create a giant geodesic dome, first in Lobby 13 and then again in the MIT Museum. It was large enough to lie in!

Volunteering at the museum gave me great opportunities to develop my skills at working with the public and explaining technical information. The place I visited regularly growing up is now filled with many more memories.

Melissa Kaufman ‘09, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in June, will enter the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island this fall.

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