Road Trip: MIT

Think of a number ...

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This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it's all about the numbers. Most of the buildings on campus go by their numbers, not by their names, and students get numbers as well (a biology major anywhere else is a "course 7" at MIT). "It does take a while to get used to," says Alice Macdonald, a junior majoring in biological engineering. MIT students even have their own nonstandard unit of length, the smoot, lovingly employed every year to mark the length of the Harvard Bridge, which spans the Charles River linking Cambridge, Mass., to Boston. At MIT, it's just what people do. "I've kind of always been this nerdy kid in school," says Bryan Owens, a senior and a course 2 (mechanical engineering), who will return to MIT as a graduate student in the fall. "I could be nerdy here and still fit in with everyone else."

When students are this interested in numbers, it often spills out of the classroom. In his spare time, Brian Wilt, a senior course 8 (physics), simulates proton collisions for the Large Hadron Collider now under construction at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, to learn how it will respond when the first test is run later this year. "MIT students are building their own culture. We've got something to prove in some ways," says Wilt. MIT students take the competition seriously: The university shares the city of Cambridge with Harvard and has a friendly rivalry with the California Institute of Technology. About 2,800 undergraduates, including Wilt, participate in a research project supervised by a faculty member each year for pay, for credit, or on a volunteer basis through MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the oldest of its kind in the nation.

It can be intimidating to approach MIT's famous faculty members, who currently include seven Nobel Prize winners and eight National Medal of Science recipients. "As a freshman, you are scared of everybody, and you sort of feel like everyone is smarter than you," says Wilt. Get over that fear, though, and MIT's real advantages are apparent: "If you have a question about anything, you have the forefront leader literally two doors away," says Mark Cote, a senior course 2 (mechanical engineering) from the small town of Sanford, Maine. Cote, a triathlete, found his research position at the Center for Sports Innovation as a freshman by responding to a UROP posting seeking a senior to work in the lab, and his enthusiasm for cycling aerodynamics caught the attention of the professor. "People don't come here for prestige," says Cote (pictured above) as he demonstrates a streamlined water bottle he designed and tested in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel. "They come here to really learn."