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News from campus.

Biology’s Million-Dollar Boon

MIT’s undergraduate biology curriculum is getting a creative upgrade, thanks to biology professor Graham Walker. He is one of 20 U.S. educators to receive a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Awarded last fall, the grants support improvements in undergraduate science education.

Walker hopes to enrich students’ learning experiences. He will use take-home experiments, such as testing household products to identify carcinogens, to get students more involved in learning. Also, he will add such online enhancements as video clips and interactive Web sites to aid students. “What’s motivating me is to see if I can capture the interest of the students and engage them in the subject,” says Walker, who teaches introductory biology and microbial physiology.

To implement his ideas, Walker will invest some of the award money in people. He plans to create an education group-similar to a research group-comprising undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs, who will meet regularly to discuss curriculum improvement.

Money has never before been available on this scale for curriculum development, Walker notes. This is the first year the grants have been given. Peter Bruns, the Hughes Institute’s vice president for grants and special programs, says, “I expect success because Graham is taking the strategy he knows for research and applying it to education development.”

Supersecure Data

Researchers at the Center for Bits and Atoms have developed a new way to secure digital information. Their approach could lead to cheaper, more tamper-resistant encryption systems.

The technique, developed as a PhD project by Ravikanth Pappu, SM ‘95, PhD ‘01, involves shining a laser beam through a nickel-size patch of clear epoxy filled with hundreds of tiny glass spheres. The beam scatters off the spheres in a complex pattern that, like a digital photo, is stored as a huge string of bits. Small changes in the laser’s angle or the arrangement of the spheres produce completely distinctive bit strings that can be used as “keys.” Hacking a pattern is virtually impossible because the information needed to duplicate a particular key depends on the laser’s position and the material’s structure.

Pappu devised the strategy in collaboration with Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms, and PhD candidates Benjamin Recht, SM ‘02, and Jason Taylor, SM ‘02. As cofounder of a startup called ThingMagic, Pappu says the challenge now is to identify the right market for the system and to package the technology. “Assuming a well-posed problem and a customer,” he says, “new systems could be available in as little as a year.”

Pledged to a New System

No one knew what to expect when the reformed rush plan went into effect last fall. Many feared that requiring freshmen to live on campus and rescheduling rush three weeks into the semester might curtail recruitment. But when the dust had settled, administrators and Interfraternity Council members were calling rush a success.

By November, 294 freshman men had accepted bids to fraternities. And although the number of pledges was down from the previous year’s 330, it was almost twice what David Rogers, director of the fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups, had anticipated.

Rogers also had expected that some houses would not attract any new members. In fact, three houses did not, and seven of the 31 fraternities and independent living groups received fewer than half the pledges they had hoped would join. But Rogers says his office will help these groups attract pledges throughout the year.

MIT has earmarked up to $1.5 million over three years to compensate fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups for lost income resulting from a decrease in pledges due to the reforms.

Because freshmen are required to remain in the dorms, fraternities are now encouraged to recruit throughout the year. Also, a second formal rush will take place in the spring.

Josh Yardley ‘04, last year’s Interfraternity Council recruitment chair, hopes that having pledges live in the dormitories among students who are not pledging will be a blessing in disguise. “They are walking advertisements for our houses,” he says.

Playful Inventing

James McLurkin ‘94 always has entertained himself by making gadgets. Last fall his whimsical innovations were featured in Invention at Play, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. He even graced the exhibit’s ads. “It’s a bit surreal,” McLurkin says. “You walk into the subway, and there I am.” The display highlighted his creation of 12 robotic ants, whose feelerlike sensors help them navigate.

The ants were the first of several robot groups McLurkin has worked on since his undergraduate days. As a PhD candidate in computer science and researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Lab, he is developing software that gives robot swarms the brainpower to divide responsibilities for accomplishing a goal. Last fall, for example, he programmed 40 commercial robots to perform as an orchestra. The group made a collective decision about how to split a song into parts, determining which robot would play which instrument on its sound chip. Next, McLurkin will teach the robots to move in formation and train them to be a marching band. “It’s difficult to imagine how I could have more fun and still have a job,” he says.

Invention at Play also features alumnus Akhil Madhani, SM ‘91, PhD ‘98, and showcases his invention of a surgical robot that performs such delicate tasks as tying a suture. The exhibit will appear at Boston’s Museum of Science through April.

Taken by Storm

MIT students aren’t trained in weather forecasting, yet for the second consecutive year, a team led by lecturer Lodovica Illari has won the National Collegiate Weather Forecasting Contest. Last year’s 10-member group from the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate provided the most accurate temperature and precipitation predictions for various U.S. locations. They beat 37 teams from top meteorological programs, including the host, the Pennsylvania State University.

“Our smaller size is an advantage,” says graduate student Rob Korty. The larger programs, whose squads include some 40 members, are too big to communicate efficiently. Also, members of some teams take part only because participation is a course requirement. Illari’s group-mostly graduate students and postdocs-signed on for fun.

In the competition, each team chooses at least eight of 13 possible locations for its forecasts and spends two weeks on each of its sites. Teams are ranked on the basis of how closely their estimates match the actual weather in the chosen locations. The winner receives a plaque and, more important, bragging rights.

Course Materials Go Live

OpenCourseWare unveiled its pilot Web site without fanfare last September, but during its first week live, users from 177 countries and every continent, including Antarctica, visited the site. Thousands of e-mails praised the online course materials, which were assembled from 32 classes in 17 academic departments and the Sloan School of Management. By the end of the first month, the site (ocw.mit.edu) had logged 39 million hits-45 percent originated in the United States, and 26 percent could be traced to other countries.

“People are excited about the depth and breadth and quality of the material,” says Anne Margulies, executive director of OpenCourseWare. Although she cautions that the project is still in the discovery phase and that there is yet much to learn about making course information available on the Internet, the site has been hailed by users as “the big bang of the knowledge universe” and the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Aiming ultimately to have materials from all MIT undergraduate and graduate courses online, the project’s directors hope the initiative will have 100 percent faculty participation by 2007. By next fall the materials from hundreds of classes will be available for the site’s official launch.

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