The trajectory of innovation at MIT went outside the lab this year with the grand opening of the International House for Global Leadership, or iHouse, on Sept. 4.
The new residence, located within New House, an MIT dormitory at 471 Memorial Drive, is geared toward students committed to international development and global leadership.
Twenty-one students from countries including Peru, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and the U.S. will occupy iHouse this year, supporting one another's international interests and attending courses and talks on development.
Like many innovations at MIT, the new living-learning group began with an individual vision and was produced with the support and collaboration of Institute faculty, staff and alumni.
It all started when Raja Bobbili, now a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, had the idea to launch a living community with a global purpose back in 2005.
"I envisioned a house that would develop leaders, develop a strong community and create a positive impact in the world," Bobbili said.
"By learning in iHouse, students will understand other countries' problems and have the skills to act on those problems. By living there, they will support each other with the same kind of kinship ties that exist in other areas of MIT," he said.
Faculty, administrators and alumni got involved right away, with guidance and leadership from New House housemasters Sandra and Wesley Harris, professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
Bish Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning and chair of the faculty, focused on the learning component of the initiative, offering a seminar on international development to iHouse residents.
Sanyal, who also directs the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS), has encouraged SPURS fellows--mid-career professionals largely from developing countries--to work with iHouse students.
Diane Davis, professor of political sociology and head of the International Development Group (IDG) within urban studies and planning, will also support iHouse's learning side with courses and lectures.
Sally Susnowitz, director of the MIT Public Service Center, described iHouse as a new model of residential life, one the PSC has supported as part of the Institute-wide International Development Initiative.
"Living in the context of international issues and actively working on them in collaboration with people living down the hall is bound to expand conceptual, communication and leadership capacities," Susnowitz said.
MIT alumni also support iHouse. The 484 Phi Alpha Foundation, which funds public service projects at MIT and in the local East Cambridge neighhorhood, has donated $50,000 over two years to iHouse for staffing, speakers, stipends and grants.
Carl King (SB 1965), head of the 484 Foundation's Gift Committee, was inspired to support iHouse when he heard student presentations on such projects as turning corncobs into charcoal to make cheap fuel and transforming bicycles into ambulances for communities without access to health care, he said.
"These students were doing things that would create tremendous benefit in the developing world," King said. "The opportunity to assist iHouse was an ideal way for us to continue to focus on MIT and also spread our wings and go international."
Bobbili acknowledged that iHouse is still a work in progress, full of challenges and promise. But the journey to its grand opening has already provided a pleasant surprise, he said.
"We knew anything was possible. But we never expected we would have so much interest, both within and outside the community," he said, noting that iHouse received the highest number of applications of any cultural house. "Within the house, one just has to visit to see the amount of interest and passion there is already."
In keeping with the principles, even the dinner menu at iHouse will reflect global diversity.
"Pizza will not be standard anymore," Bobbili said. "We hope we can cross boundaries from Chinese, Indian and Thai food to Cambodian, Ethiopian or Mongolian. After all, iHouse is there to be innovative."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 2007 (download PDF).