Michael D. Dixon was an awed high school junior from the south side of Chicago when he came to MIT to participate in the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program in 1983.
Five years later, he marched onto Killian Court to receive the S.B. in physics.
Dixon, now a science teacher at Jeremiah Burke High School in Boston, has inspired his star student, Omar Trochez, to participate in the rigorous six-week summer program for underrepresented minorities. Trochez is the 10th Boston public school student among the 1,340 from coast to coast who have participated in the 28-year-old program, including 64 in this summer's session, which started on June 20. The first sessions took place in 1975.
As a result of participating in the then three-week summer program, Dixon said, "I was able to see that an as urban African-American male, I was able to compete with students at MIT. It gave me the confidence to go back to high school and to get the respect of some teachers who I felt were somewhat less supportive of a black male going off to MIT.
"MITES gave me a small taste of Tech, but primarily it opened the door to MIT as well as my perspective of what I could accomplish. After that summer, I knew I didn't want to go anywhere else."
Dixon introduced Trochez to MIT when he brought a group of Burke students to the 6.270 LEGO competition during the Independent Activities Period (IAP) last January. They also toured the campus, visiting the Edgerton Center and peeking into Room 6-120. Trochez, the only junior officer on the Burke robotic team, instantly identified with the atmosphere and the attitudes, particularly with the participants in the competition.
"The people were working together and really getting along," he said. "It was exciting." Energized by that experience and encouraged by Dixon, Trochez applied for MITE 2S (the program's name was changed with the addition of the word "entrepreneurship" in 1997) and was accepted. "I knew it was very competitive and that hardly any city kids get in from Boston," he said.
According to MITE 2S director Karl W. Reid (S.B. 1984, S.M.), around 74 percent of MITE 2S participants apply for admission to MIT. Of those, approximately 93 percent are accepted and 52 percent actually enroll. "All of them go to the best schools in the country, and 80 to 90 percent wind up majoring in engineering and science," he said.
Trochez, whose best subject is "math by far," dreams of joining that select group by majoring in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. He hopes MITE 2S is the first step.
Dixon identified Trochez as a possible MITE 2S candidate when he critiqued Trochez's freshman science project on black holes.
"Being an astrophysics guy myself, I grilled him," Dixon recalled. "He didn't forget my attention to his project, and came to me the next year looking for places to get dry ice for his latest science project--a cloud chamber. I hounded him about it, but he didn't finish that project, though he did keep in touch.
"This year, when he found out I was teaching an advanced precalculus class, he insisted on taking the course. He dragged me down to his guidance counselor to make sure he was put in my class. This showed me that he was MITE 2S material. Since then, he has consistently been near or at the top of his class, and he has constantly been in my room, before during and after classes."
Dixon warned Trochez that MITE 2S would be scientific boot camp.
"I told him that it may very well be one of the hardest summer programs in the world ... not just for people of color but for anyone," he said. "I told him that the competition is steep, that group interaction is vital for success, and that sleep was optional and he may have to catch up on his sleep after the program. I reminded him that he will represent our school, and even our area, at the program. I also told him that he has to check in with me at least weekly, and that he can call me any time when he's feeling overwhelmed. He knows I'll support him the best I can."
If it weren't for MITES, Dixon probably would have attended the University of Illinois and his life would have been profoundly different. He fell in love at MIT (he and his wife, the former Crystal C. Lawson, who received the S.B. in 1990, have three children) and found a career in education.
MIT challenged him "mentally, physically and even spiritually," said Dixon, who received the Ph.D. in education from Boston College last month. "MIT directed me to education but also opened doors that have helped me support students of all backgrounds, but especially students of color in ways I would not have done otherwise."
He reserves judgment on whether he would advise Trochez to attend MIT.
"I can only answer that question after MITE 2S," Dixon said. "If he feels good about his experience, then yes, he should matriculate. But if he feels a less pressured place would be better suited for him, well then, great. As a teacher, what's best for the student always has to take priority over what looks good for teachers or schools on paper."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 17, 2002.