President Charles M. Vest exhorted freshmen at the Residence/Orientation convocation last Thursday to "work together, learn together and grow together" as he described the challenges and rewards awaiting them at MIT.
After assuring the new students that they were not admitted by mistake ("a thought that is harbored at one time or another by virtually every MIT student and president," he said), President Vest described MIT as a community of learning with a "vital, organic system of teaching, research and scholarship in which everyone participates. Education at MIT does not consist of professors simply passing on known facts to students."
Hallmarks of that system include learning by doing and hands-on education through such programs as UROP and Team Works, president Vest said. As an example of the level of important scientific activity afforded to undergraduates, he noted that Jennifer Mills, a junior in physics, had written much of the computer code used to translate numerical data from the Hubble Space Telescope into the visual images of the recent collision between the Shoemaker-Levy comet and Jupiter (see story, page 1).
MIT students will be well equipped to work on solving the myriad challenges facing the world today, President Vest said, but he advised the freshmen to make much of that work collaborative rather than solitary. "Most contemporary problems require multidisciplinary teamwork because they are complex and many-faceted," he said. Quoting Edna St. Vincent Millay, he added,
Upon this gifted age in its dark hour
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts.
They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill is daily spun
But there exists no loom to wave them into fabric.
"This is your challenge: You must be the weavers of scientific, technological, social and artistic fabrics, and not simply the generators of showers of facts," President Vest said.
Professor Alan Guth of physics added some of his own impressions of MIT as well as a quick lesson in the origin of the universe. He cited the Institute's "tremendous level of intellectual excitement. For anyone who loves to learn, there's really no better place than MIT, whether you're a student or on the faculty."
Professor Guth told the new arrivals to ask questions and learn from the talents of their fellow students, and he also cautioned them about disappointment in going from the top of their high school classes to the high-powered MIT environment. "We've had our math department working on this for decades, but no matter how they figure it, it always turns out that the average MIT student is in the middle of the class," he quipped. "If you're in the middle of the class at MIT, you're doing very well. The important thing here is not to worry about your competition with other students; you're here to learn."
Vijay Sankaran, president of the Undergraduate Association, echoed Professor Guth's sentiment, urging freshmen to seek help when they need it. "In general, people don't bite and are more than happy to help out. We all survive by working together."
Arthur Smith, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, suggested that students make considered choices about their academic and social lives while keeping consequences in mind, since students have a responsibility for their own well-being. He added the dean's office to the list of resources where students in need of help could turn before kicking off Project MOYA by doing a "trust fall" off the Kresge stage into the arms of upperclassmen. "Be a doer-don't just sit and listen," he said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 3).