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04/03/2005 Archived Entry: "An MIT grad reflects on losing a contest to high-school illegal immigrants"

AN MIT GRAD WROTE to reflect on his alma mater losing a robotics contest to a bunch of illegal immigrant kids from an Arizona high school (the topic of one of yesterday's blog entries).

Seems to me that his observations apply not only to MIT, but to any established institution, including a certain one currently sqatting on the banks of the Potomac. While I can understand this grad's sadness, I also see plenty of room for hope, as long as the scrappy underdog has room to dig and chew his way past obstacles. Thus does the new and vibrant replace the stodgy and dying.

I'll now step aside and let my MIT correspondent have the floor:

It's a good story, and despite my long, numerous, and on-going associations with MIT I am not sorry, or surprised, to see them lose.

It seems pretty lopsided: a bunch of ESL illegal immigrants versus the nation's best and brightest, with the smart kids
having 14 times the money and the considerable resources of the nation's top engineering school at their disposal.

But look at the final scores.

You can download them here (pdf file).

Final Ranking Explorer Class

Carl Hayden High School
Engineering: 53.17 out of 80
Technical report: 20.25 out of 25
Team display: 13.5 out of 15
Mission: 32 of 110

Engineering: 44.67 out of 80
Technical report: 17 out of 25
Team display: 8 out of 15
Mission 48 of 110

Carl Hayden barely beat MIT 118.92 to 117.67. Had MIT managed to score 2 points higher in presentations, they would have won.

MIT made the more capable machine. They should have, they had more money, more people, sophisticated resources like a towing tank, a school and faculty dedicated to Ocean Engineering, and very probably more technical talent.

But MIT blew it bigtime on presentation. They scored only 53% of the display points versus Hayden's 90%, and 68% on the technical report versus Hayden's 81%. Most embarrassing of all, they lost in engineering as well.

You can see pictures of the teams and their machines here:



Sadly, this is both old news and new, bad news for MIT.

Old news: MIT kids have never been good at writing. MIT knows about this problem, has known about it for at least 30 years. But it refuses to change or adapt, and willfully refuses to recognize the absolute necessity of good communications skills for a successful career in modern engineering. I've complained about this problem in face-to-face meetings with deans from the schools of engineering and science. I paid top dollar for a first-rate education only to find gaping holes in what I knew, and needed to know, in order to be an effective engineer. MIT still has not addressed this issue, as the embarrassing scores in this contest demonstrates. Nothing changes.

The new, bad news is that MIT's education is increasingly worth less in the modern workplace. It has not always been that way. I have been offered a job on the strength of my MIT class ring. I was at a job fair not long after I graduated. A major defense firm talked to me, but the HR guy said that there did not appear to be a match, and I agreed. An older, grey-haired man walked out of the booth, introduced himself as the vice president of engineering and told me "I noticed your MIT ring. You MIT guys never seem to fit our job descriptions. But every time we hire one of you, you do extremely well in the company. You can have a job if you want it." I ultimately declined, as I decided didn't want to work at killing people, but that was the kind of power an MIT education had in 1980.

No more. MIT no longer graduates engineers with solid, practical skills that are of immediate and lasting value to employers. Part of it is political correctness, part of it is arrogance and lack of innovation that comes from being #1 for too long, part of it is due to a long-term drift away from practical arts in favor of theoretical exercise. MIT used to be a great engineering school; today MIT is a good school for pre-medicine or pre-law or those pursuing a career in laboratory science, but not for practicing engineers in a competitive global marketplace.

MIT graduates engineers that are innocent of markets and market economics. They have almost no experience in making presentations or defending their ideas. They have no idea what it costs to make a product, or sell it, or support it, or repair it. Their teamwork training, if any, comes from ghastly artificial scenarios concocted by people who have never worked in a for-profit firm. They are trained to solve contrived puzzles with carefully limited and well-defined resources, rather than to create innovative solutions by combining the incredibly vast array of existing products and technologies in new and useful ways to make things that people want to buy.

MIT graduates tend to re-invent things that other people have already been building and refining for years. This was demonstrated in the ROV competition: The photos on the MIT web site shows 2 or 3 kinds of motors, with custom shrouds and other unique hardware. The Hayden kids used electric trolling motors for fishing. Their motors look better, they worked very well, and most importantly of all, this choice let the Hayden kids spend a greater fraction of their precious time on building and testing and learning to pilot their robot, rather than learning about motors and propellers. They took advantage of the modern division of labor and expertise in a way the MIT students are not taught to understand.

Those MIT kids in the ROV competition knew enough, and had enough resources, to build the more capable machine. But they didn't know enough to prepare to win the competition. The underwater contest was less than half the total score. This is exactly how it works in real life. The old saying about building a better mousetrap is pure nonsense. It takes sales, marketing, manufacturing, finance, and lots of hard work to make any company, any product, any enterprise successful. MIT no longer teaches its students about anything other than machines, and what it teaches is mostly theory, rather than practical knowledge about how to design, build, judge, sell, and improve them.

In contrast, the Carl Hayden kids had to be extremely creative due to their limited resources. Necessity is a mother. They couldn't just throw money at the problems, they had to figure out cheap ways to build what they needed. Just like the Japanese engineers who made the Toyota Prius (after American engineers insisted hybrid cars could only improve mileage by 12%), or the Chinese engineers who can design a product until it is so easy to manufacture that illiterate peasants straight off the farm can build it rapidly and correctly. So the Carl Hayden kids won on the engineering, theirs was the more creative, more daring, and more innovative design.

MIT made up for its lack of creativity by winning more of the mission contests.

Losing badly on technical writing and presentation to a bunch of high school kids who speak English as a second language is the real story here. It is a sign of what is to come. I'm not taking anything away from the kids who won. They worked hard, they did the better job, and they deserved to win. But I hope that none of them goes to MIT; they can almost certainly do better for themselves nearly anywhere else. That makes me sad.

Posted by Claire @ 08:25 PM CST

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