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'Learning Without Barriers': the MIT-Microsoft iCampus connection celebrates innovation

The seven-year, $25 million iCampus partnership between MIT and Microsoft, which has borne fruit across the globe, was celebrated with a symposium at the Tang Center Dec. 1 and 2.

Called "Learning Without Barriers/Technology Without Borders: Celebrating the MIT-Microsoft iCampus Alliance," the symposium brought together industry leaders, educators and government officials to discuss the progress that iCampus has facilitated in educational technology, to reflect on the challenges facing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and to sample the remarkable initiatives that are being undertaken amid a climate of ever-accelerating technological change.

Tom Magnanti, dean of engineering, and Rick Rashid, senior vice president for research at Microsoft, delivered the symposium's opening remarks to a crowd of some 150 participants. Magnanti observed that a national self-examination was underway, as statistics point to a steady decline in the percentage of U.S. students concentrating in engineering and computer science, while elsewhere in the world the numbers are rising. This trend, coupled with the continuing failure to attract talented female and minority students to these fields and to retain those who express early interest, has grave implications for the United States' long-term competitiveness and the ability of the economy's tech sector to grow and thrive. As Rashid commented during the morning panel discussion, "It's reasonable to start thinking about panicking."

But there are also many signs of dynamic innovation in STEM education, including numerous projects sponsored by the iCampus alliance, that show promise of reversing the slide. Rashid noted that "the iCampus program is really a watershed program for us," one that is inspiring Microsoft to be in contact with more and more universities.

'Sage on a stage' no more

The keynote address given by John Seely Brown, formerly chief scientist at Xerox and currently "chief of confusion," according to his web site, was singled out by many as a high point of the symposium. His wide-ranging talk, "Relearning Learning--Applying the Long Tail to Learning," dealt with the difficult job of preparing students for a rapidly evolving world.

With today's markets and technologies mutating at aggressive speeds, Brown said, "It makes no sense to train someone for a career; at most, a career trajectory." The Cartesian model of education, in which knowledge is perceived as a substance to be decanted from the teacher's mind to the students', served the United States well when we were a nation of farmers and factory workers. That model is meaningless in the world that students now face. Rather, Brown believes, we must move toward an "atelier" model of education, in which work is undertaken in an open, shared environment, where students can see each other's work develop from idea to final design, hear the critiques of that work, and learn from each member of the group how he or she incorporates criticism and suggestion.

This of course demands that the educators change as well, that they cease being the "sage on a stage" and become something more like a mentor. Brown cited studies showing that these more socially connected educational environments, when implemented in science and engineering classes, also boost the retention of groups often characterized by large attrition rates, e.g., women and minority students. He noted how technology can be leveraged to tap exciting pools of talent and innovation around the world, and to spark a new culture of teaching and learning.

A discussion followed on the "roles of academia, industry and government in addressing competitiveness through education and technology," moderated by Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness. The panel represented the highest levels of all three sectors: Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow; Diane Jones, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan's 3rd District; Richard Lampman, senior vice president for research at Hewlett-Packard; and Rashid.

There was broad criticism of some of the government's efforts in boosting STEM education, for example, the unevenness of science funding from cycle to cycle and the dismal state of teacher training in these areas. But there was also recognition that the federal government is paying increasing attention to the problem and searching hard for intelligent solutions.

Legos to lasers

In the afternoon session, educators took the floor, presenting creative educational strategies and models from the country's leading universities. Irene Georgakoudi of Tufts' engineering department enthralled the audience with a demonstration of how freshmen in her introductory engineering course use Legos to build lasers. Peter Chen from the University of Michigan showed how he harnessed students' love of music in an introductory computer science class, assigning groups of four students the task of developing a music synthesizer from concept to written specs in a single semester. Shekhar Garde of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute demo'd a musical film he developed, aimed at teaching the concept of atoms and molecules and the three states of matter to 5- to 10-year-olds. (You can view the trailer and read more about the project at

Friday's session closed with an address by MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest, who with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates initiated the iCampus collaboration in 1999, and with reflections by current MIT President Susan Hockfield.

Said Hockfield, "iCampus has launched us on a voyage of discovery … It has allowed people to see an opportunity and run with it." Noting that iCampus had engaged more than 400 faculty and researchers at MIT, she cited such successful projects as iLAB, iGEN, and Visualizing Cultures. While Hockfield conceded that the United States "needs to do a better job of inspiring young people to study science, math and technology," Tufts President Bacow spoke for many when he said, "We should never forget that the higher education system that we have in this country, for all of its failings … is the envy of the rest of the world. We are clearly doing many things right."

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