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The Competitive Spirit

Competition and collaboration intersect at MIT
April 25, 2012

Academic competition can breed stress or resentment. But it can also produce what professor emeritus Woodie Flowers, SM ’68, ME ’71, PhD ’73, calls “gracious professionalism”—behavior that improves all competitors.

The term was coined during the development of a global event that Flowers cofounded: the FIRST Robotics Competition, which engages high-school students, including many who later attend MIT, in a contest to build and test robots. More than 2,000 teams from around the globe competed in the 2011 rounds of FIRST (the acronym denotes “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”).

Flowers believes that when MIT students work together on everything from problem sets to the annual cardboard-boat regatta in the Z Center pool, it prepares them for what they’ll face after graduation—working in teams to solve complex problems.

“Young folks today grow up in a society that chooses to regard humiliation and public embarrassment as a type of entertainment,” he says. “I cannot imagine that most students coming to MIT have a deep background in competing while coöperating.”

“Sitting in a classroom … is dead”

Flowers favors active learning. “Sitting in a classroom and writing down information, in my opinion, is dead,” he says. “You have to be able to compete in the world. Balancing competition with the other pieces needed for understanding self is an important part of what MIT does.”

Starting in the early 1970s, Flowers nurtured the finale of 2.007 (formerly 2.70), Introduction to Design and Manufacturing, into a friendly but fierce competition that has been copied by universities worldwide. For last year’s contest, students designed remote-controlled robots that simulated hacks on models of the Great Dome, Killian Court, and Harvard Stadium.

Laura Matloff ’12, who designed a balloon-­inflating robot, says the course favored camaraderie over competition. “It was an individual competition, which allowed me to use my own ideas,” Matloff says, “but because we’re all working so hard side by side in the lab, it benefited all of us to work together.”

MIT pride is evident in contests pitting the Institute against other schools, such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, whose participants build biological systems and operate them in living cells. A dozen MIT undergraduates spent last summer preparing for the fall competition. While most iGEM teams work with fast-growing bacterial cells, the MIT team used more complex mammalian cells and focused on a novel step toward engineering tissues: autonomous formation of cell patterns. They finished first in the health and medicine track and fourth overall out of 160 teams.

“We’re not reading from a text,” says ­Jonathan Chien ’13, a member of the MIT iGEM team. “We’re experimenting and asking, ‘Why is this working or not working?’ There’s so much creativity involved, you find yourself wanting to learn more.”

Rewarding Competition

Does the competitive spirit change when more than bragging rights are on the line? Not much. Though cash awards from competition victories have launched a startup or advanced an existing business, many students say money, while useful, is not the only goal.

The MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, a yearlong series of contests, lets students try out business ideas in front of their peers and faculty—and potential funders. Since 1990, the competition has led to the founding of some 85 companies that have generated more than 2,500 jobs and received $600 million in venture capital funding.

Hariharan Shankar Rahul ’99, a doctoral candidate in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), was part of a team awarded $5,000 during the competition’s Elevator Pitch Contest, where groups were allowed just one minute each to describe their ideas. MegaMIMO, his winning project, is a Wi-Fi optimization system that boosts connectivity by drawing on multiple wireless access points.

“It was not a cutthroat environment,” Rahul says. “The focus was on the impact of research in the real world. Competitiveness is a not a value that’s overwhelming at MIT. We’re not respected foremost for winning; we’re respected for making significant research contributions.”

Transforming Stress

Do MIT-style contests have a downside?

“MIT students, as a whole, are prone to spread themselves too thin,” says Deepak Mishra, an iGEM advisor and postdoctoral associate in the School of Engineering. “Competitions are concurrent with other activities. There are times when we have to make sure they’re eating, sleeping, and balancing their workload.”

Some students convert the pressure of competition into motivation. “It can get stressful when your project isn’t working or at times when the lab would be really full,” says Matloff. “But you make a goal and find a way to do it.”

Working in a group setting can also help students reach their full potential. Sarah Sprague ’13 was part of a four-person team whose restaurant-finding application for cars, EatOn, won OnStar’s Student Developer Challenge, which included a technology development package valued at $10,000. “At MIT, it’s always a competition within yourself,” says Sprague. “Everyone is as smart as you, if not smarter. We wanted to be in the lab every day and pushed each other to do better.”

Although their MIT studies were decades apart, Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70, says he and his daughter, Sarah ’10, each experienced the competitive spirit that drives students from their first day through graduation. Winston says the Institute challenges students to exceed what they originally see as their best effort and that overcoming academic hurdles creates a sense of achievement.

“It creates a bond that wouldn’t be there if it were easy,” he says. “It’s a strange kind of phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. When you graduate, you know you’ve won and are ready to take on the world.”

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