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Under the Dome

Coming out of the geek closet at MIT’s open house

When my husband and I were dating, my future sister-in-law, a hip woman, warned us that we would breed geeks if we married. Not a surprise, really, since I met my husband at MIT. Now that we have two boys, we’re raising them to be creative and interested in things that challenge the mind. But we don’t read them Make magazine at bedtime. You see, in the pantheon of nerddom, we are but closet geeks. Alumni friends have proudly showed us the first transformer their genius blew when he was four; others have household clocks that require their kids to know binary to get to school on time. We have strived for mainstream geekhood, slowly letting our kids lead the way with their interests: first Legos and K’nex, then Mindstorms. I thought we could delay the hardcore stuff until they were older and somewhat more socially grounded.

innovation center Tricia Wilson Nguyen’s kitchen turned into an electronics lab once her kids got hooked on inventing at MIT’s open house.

Well, that plan went out the window when I decided to take my kindergartner to Under the Dome, the MIT 150 open house in April; Pandora’s box was opened, and life in our house will never be the same again. It was going to be a typical Saturday for us: we had soccer games, birthday parties, and a long list of errands to do. We’d planned to split up the kids and race them between events. But when I saw that a pair of Black Hawk helicopters would be landing in Briggs Field—I have always had a soft spot for any equipment that flies—I decided to set aside an hour for the open house. So I headed into Cambridge with the youngest in tow and a promise of cool copters. I was surprised when I had to park far away. The flood of families with children streaming to Mass. Ave. was perplexing. As we rounded the corner onto Vassar, I saw the experimental flying car and the tents. This was big.

I called my husband and asked him to pull our middle-schooler out of the party early and get him down to MIT as soon as he could. “Skip the game,” I said. “This is way too important to miss!” As he rushed him through the cake and zipped into Boston, the little one and I climbed through the Black Hawks; then I held him up in the air as they took off over our heads. “Do you want to be a pilot now or a mathematician?” I asked. “Definitely a mathematician,” he said.

At the Stata Center, the sheer number of interactive displays stunned us. Solid-state lasers used as artists’ brushes; autonomous flying vehicles; robotic-arm competitions to grab candy; silicon wafer touchy-feelies; more small robots moving around than on the Death Star. The kids wanted more. A quick look at the guide and we were off to Building 2, but we were waylaid by the sight of MIT’s entry into the DARPA autonomous-vehicle competition. My oldest had watched a Nova episode on this and went weak at the knees immediately. Once we pulled him away from the sensors on the truck roof, we were off to lectures on robotics and places you could see robots work. Okay, we took another detour to make silly putty in the materials science department and play with the oscilloscope. The boys began running between buildings, stopping only to marvel at the posters in the Infinite Corridor, advertising unique and crazy Tech activities. Something seemed just right about those posters, like coming home.

Somehow we squeezed in the ship models in the naval-architecture hallway, some polymer muscles, the 2.70 display, water rockets, motorized shopping carts, the solar car, Lego DNA, and blimp races. At dinner that night, my kids sat with paper and pencils, trying to invent a different way to make helium blimps.

Partway through the afternoon, the boys had decided to make a “robotic” arm from their pneumatic Legos; they even chose to forgo a trip to Toscanini’s so they could get started faster, discussing the design all the way home. The experience quickly turned into a lesson on soldering, and for weeks now, my kitchen has not recovered. We have descended as a family upon that fine local institution “You-Do-It” Electronics the way we used to approach the Lego Store! There are now resistors, wire bits, and potentiometers littering the kitchen floor where there were once Matchbox cars. I guess we are raising them right after all—the MIT way.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen ‘90, principal of Fabric Works, lives in a Boston suburb, where she coaches her kids’ FIRST robotics teams.

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