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Edgerton center stages gala for formal opening

The late Professor Harold E. (Doc) Edgerton is gone but definitely not forgotten-a fact attested to by the large and enthusiastic turnout at last week's official opening and dedication of the MIT center that bears his name.

The Edgerton Center is headquartered along Strobe Alley on the fourth floor of Building 4, where he did much of his pioneering work in strobe photography. On Friday afternoon, the hallway and surrounding rooms were packed with dozens of faculty, staff, students and friends of the center, which perpetuates Professor Edgerton's philosophy of giving undergraduates a chance to learn by doing in science. Even the chocolate mousse cake sampled by guests bore his mark-it was crowned by a re-creation of the splashing milk droplet made famous in one of his photographs.

"I know that Harold would be honored to be remembered in this manner, with his style of teaching and method of learning so respected," Professor Edgerton's widow, Esther Edgerton, remarked to the crowd.

Provost Mark Wrighton and Professor Kim Vandiver, professor of ocean engineering and director of the center, also recalled how they were helped and influenced by him early in their careers. "I'd like to have the Edgerton Center be as meaningful a place for students' experiences as it was for me," Professor Vandiver said. Many of the current generation of students displayed and demonstrated projects that they had created at the center. "Please, touch everything," one student urged visitors to the strobe workshop.

The Edgerton Center actually began operating in July 1992, two and a half years after Professor Edgerton's death. With the help of outside consultants hired by the Edgerton Foundation, the foundation's trustees and Professors Vandiver and Paul Penfield, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, came up with a plan for sustaining the tradition of direct student involvement in science and engineering projects at a center to be funded by income from an Edgerton Foundation endowment. At the center, students can participate in seminars in fields including high-speed film and video, electronics and ocean technology, and they can also work independently using the center's shops and materials.

"I see the Edgerton Center as very much in a growth phase right now," Professor Vandiver said after the ceremony, discussing the facility's future. The seven-member staff is experimenting with a variety of seminars and activities to find which are most successful. In the first year of the center, there were three fall Freshman Advisor Seminars offered, in addition to the Strobe Project Lab subject, which has been offered both terms for decades; last fall, that number increased to eight seminars and the Project Lab, with about 100 students enrolled.

This semester, there are about 60 students taking the Project Lab and undergraduate seminars and another 10 doing UROP work and helping out in the lab, Professor Vandiver estimated. Courses taught in 1993-94 include Strobe Project Laboratory, Testing and Evaluation of Mountaineering Equipment, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, Robot Building Cooperative, and You've Got an Idea-Can You Make It Work? Last summer, the center also sponsored an eight-week physics lab for incoming freshmen in the Interphase program.

In the future, Professor Vandiver hopes to build on Professor Edgerton's strong photographic tradition. "I'd like to expand the reputation of the Edgerton Center as the go-to place for general expertise on scientific photography," he said. To achieve that goal, the center hopes to acquire more modern digital equipment and image-processing software with industry grants, he said.

Professor Vandiver also sees roles for the center in K-12 education, in attracting students to MIT and in filling gaps that will probably be created by UROP cutbacks caused by changes in federal funding rules. Strobe Alley is already one of the most popular stops on tours for MIT visitors, and Professor of Physics John King is planning an expanded series of "Corridor Experiments" scientific demonstrations of the type installed in Strobe Alley. "I want the Edgerton Center to be a window on MIT to the outside world so kids can say, `that's neat; I want to go there,'" Professor Vandiver explained.

The center may also become a focus of UROP projects with a different kind of sponsorship-undergraduate projects funded directly by industry rather than through faculty members' grants. There is already interest on the part of industry, Professor Vandiver said; the only hurdles are resolving questions surrounding intellectual property rights and finding enough faculty and staff members willing to supervise the students. Kodak is already sponsoring UROP students who are researching use of high-speed videography, he said.

Students at Friday's reception spoke highly of the Edgerton Center and the work they've been able to do there. "I feel like I could just come here and use stuff that I wouldn't [ordinarily] have access to," said freshman Erin Panttaja, who built a Lego robot with infrared sensors that enabled it to follow an irregular path marked out on a lab bench. Compared to her large lecture classes, the center "is also a lot more friendly. It's not like any of my schoolwork, which is nice," she said.

In another room, senior David Harris ran a demonstration designed around a whimsical Wizard of Oz challenge to build a device that would soak the Wicked Witch with water (thus melting her) exactly 100 seconds after commandos had dashed in to rescue Dorothy. A motion detector, electronic timer and electric squirt gun did the trick.

"It just has such great resources for doing hands-on projects. Anything I can dream of, I can do here at the Edgerton Center," said senior David Harris, who is majoring in EECS and mathematics and who developed two of the center's courses, Introduction to Digital Electronics (unofficially known as 6.007 or License to Hack) and VLSI Chip Design. Recalling Steve Wozniak's garage tinkering that led to his invention of the Apple computer, he added, "We sort of get to follow in the footsteps of our heroes from the past."

A version of this article appeared in the March 9, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 25).

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