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Parag Pathak wins John Bates Clark Medal

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 02:50 PM PDT

MIT Professor Parag Pathak, a market-design expert who has extensively studied education while developing new policy mechanisms used across the U.S., has been awarded the John Bates Clark Medal for 2018, granted annually to the best economist under the age of 40.

The prestigious award, granted by the American Economic Association (AEA), was announced on Friday afternoon.

Among his other accomplishments, the AEA noted in its award statement, Pathak's work has led to "significant improvement in the assignment of students to public schools," while he has also conducted "convincing analyses of different policies designed to improve secondary education. Using innovative and sophisticated empirical and theoretical techniques, he has provided policy advice that has already positively influenced the lives of over 1 million public school students."

Pathak told MIT News on Friday that he was honored to join the list of "amazing scholars" who have won the John Bates Clark Medal in the past, and called the award a tribute to the rise of market-design research generally, within the larger realm of economics.

"This is an award on behalf of the whole subject of market design," said Pathak, who is the Jane Berkowitz Carlton and Dennis William Carlton Professor of Microeconomics in the MIT Department of Economics. "There are many people who are doing great work in this field," he noted.

Pathak also paid tribute to MIT, where he has spent his entire career as a professor.

"This is a phenomenal work environment," said Pathak. He added: "The thing that stands out about MIT is its openness to new ideas and young people," including graduate students who "help keep the department at the forefront" of the profession.

In addition to his research and teaching as a professor in the Department of Economics, Pathak is also a founder and co-director of MIT's School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII), along with his colleagues Josh Angrist and David Autor. Pathak added that it was "a great time to be studying education and inequality," given the importance of those issues in contemporary life.

A substantial portion of Pathak's work has examined the use of school-choice mechanisms in U.S. cities. Many cities have deployed school-choice systems that essentially forced students and families to try to assess which schools would be popular among other students, adding a layer of complicated game theory to the process of picking a school. In the course of studying the issue, since his days as a graduate student, Pathak has helped develop systems that allow students to make more straightforward decisions based on their own substantive rankings, without having to account as fully for the presumed choices of other people.

"Our whole agenda is to try to make these systems strategy-proof," Pathak told MIT News in 2012. "All these methods move in the direction of simplifying the system for students."

In 2005, Boston adopted a new choice mechanism based on research Pathak had been conducting as a PhD student; since then, he has helped design systems in a range of major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Denver, Newark, New Orleans, New York, and Washington.

Pathak's body of work also includes studies about the impact of New York City's "exam schools" on children, the effectiveness of charter schools in Boston, and the impact of school voucher systems, in addition to other empirical research he has conducted.

In addition, Pathak has co-authored papers analyzing market-design mechanisms in other large policy areas, including medicine and housing. 

On Friday, Pathak's colleagues hailed his award.

"Parag's research has made fundamental contributions the field of market design and its application to school choice mechanisms, and the economics of education more generally," said Nancy Rose, head of the Department of Economics, and the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics at MIT. "Parag is extraordinary in not only advancing the theoretical frontiers, but also executing  highly influential and sophisticated empirical research, with results that change the way school districts approach student assignments. Because of his contributions, hundreds of thousands of students in large urban public school systems are more likely to be matched to schools they prefer."

Pathak received his BA summa cum laude in applied mathematics from Harvard University in 2002, and an MS in the subject the same year. He received his PhD in economics from Harvard in 2007, working with Alvin Roth, a professor with whom Pathak has co-authored papers.

In 2008, Pathak joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor. He was awarded tenure in 2011 and became a full professor in 2014. 

MIT faculty, alumni, and former faculty have won multiple Clark Medals over the last decade-plus, including current MIT faculty members Amy Finkelstein (2012), Esther Duflo (2010), and Daron Acemoglu (2005). The award was given in odd-numbered years from its inception in 1947 (when MIT's Paul Samuelson won) through 2009; starting in 2010, the AEA has granted the award annually.

MIT-related recipients this century include current MIT faculty member David Donaldson (2017); Finkelstein; Jonathan Levin PhD '99 (in 2011); Duflo; Emmanuel Saez PhD '99 (in 2009); former MIT professor Susan Athey (in 2007); Acemoglu; Steven Levitt PhD '94 (in 2003); and Matthew Rabin PhD '89 (in 2001).

Other past winners who were either MIT faculty or alumni include Lawrence Klein, Robert Solow, Franklin Fisher, Daniel McFadden, Joseph Stiglitz, Jerry Hausman, Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers.

Rebecca's Café serves up new operating hours

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 11:30 AM PDT

After receiving feedback from diners about its operating hours, Rebecca's Late Night Café in the Pritchett Dining Hall within Walker Memorial (Building 50) is now open from 3 to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. The move is intended to make the café more accessible to community members who are seeking more dining options during the day and evening.

The café, which until recently was a staple of nearby Kendall Square for decades, launched in February to "nothing but positive" feedback according to Mark Hayes, director of campus dining. The Division of Student Life (DSL) has been working with faculty and students for the last two years on enhancing food and dining at MIT, and when a survey suggested the need for more dining options on the east side of campus, DSL teamed with students to assess the type of eatery that would offer the right mix of products at the right price point. "We put a small committee together to meet with students to understand what food on the east side of campus means to them," said Naomi Carton, associate dean of residential life and dining. "And one of the things they kept saying was they really liked when Rebecca's was in Kendall."

As development of the café got underway, undergraduate and graduate students from across east campus participated in review meetings to help select furniture for the space and even curate the menu. The mix of menu items was shaped by students during a series of tastings, Carton noted. "Rebecca's came in with tables and tables of food, and students got to taste what they liked."

"It's not possible to overstate how important Naomi and the rest of the DSL team have been in listening to student concerns and working with students," said Jerry Wang, one of the graduate students who participated in the development of the café.

The resulting menu includes noodle and quinoa bowls and meal boxes, which are offered within their requested price range of $3 to $8, as well as tea, coffee, and other delicious café snacks. "They have a great mix of really nice, made-to-order, highly nutritious dishes," said Hayes.

Wang agreed and said, "I'm very encouraged and excited about the increase in healthy options around campus."

Rebecca's Café is part of an ongoing pilot program, and Hayes was quick to dispel rumors that circulated recently suggesting that the café is closing before the end of the academic year. "Students were under the misapprehension that everybody's going to come back from spring break and Rebecca's would be closed," he said. "But we think the adjustment in hours will help make it a regular destination during the later afternoon and evening."

In addition to the changed hours, DSL has started programming musical performances in the space, the first being singer/songwriter Paola Cisneros. The Undergraduate Association has also started discussions on programming for the café, including concerts and study breaks. In addition, there will be a series of free cooking demos with Rebecca's Café chef Tony Cascino to teach quick and easy recipes from their menu. The demos will be hosted in Pritchett Café on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. on April 5, 12, and 19.

To share comments or feedback on Rebecca's or anything related to MIT dining, please email foodstuff@mit.edu.

Center for Environmental Health Sciences selects 2018 poster winners

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 11:10 AM PDT

The Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) at MIT held its annual poster session on April 10 in the lobby of Building 13. The session highlighted the work of the environmental health research communities of MIT and some of its peer institutions. Over 50 posters were presented from the science and engineering laboratories affiliated with CEHS, the MIT Superfund Research Program, and the Department of Biological Engineering. As an experiment, this year the new MIT Superfund Research Program joined with CEHS in the poster session. The national Superfund program focuses on chemicals and local environments that are the most heavily contaminated by environmental pollution.

The CEHS has an overall mission to study the biological effects of exposure to environmental agents in order to understand, and predict, how such exposures affect human health. Moreover, by uncovering the chemical, biochemical, and genetic bases for environmental disease, sometimes researchers are able to leverage that understanding to delay or even prevent the development of disease in human populations. To that end, the center brings together 44 MIT members from a total of 11 MIT departments (in both the School of Science and the School of Engineering) plus one faculty member from the Broad Institute.

This year's CEHS cash prizes are awarded in two categories, graduate students and postdocs. For each category, the prize for first-place is $1,000, second-place prize is $500, and the third-place prize is $200 plus CEHS memorabilia. The cash prizes were made possible by the Myriam Marcelle Znaty Research Fund, which was established over 30 years ago to support the research of young scientists at MIT. 

Undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and research staff presented the results of their research at MIT's Building 13.

Anna I. Ponomarenko from Professor Matthew Shoulders' lab won first place in the graduate student category. Ponomarenko presented her work on the "Host Chaperones Potentiate a Pathogenic Influenza Nucleoprotein Variant." She shared this prize with her co-authors, Angela Phillips and Kenny Chen. In second place is George L. Sun from Professor Angela Belcher's lab, who presented his work on "Using Yeast to Remediate Heavy Metals from Contaminated Waters and Soils." Third place went to Lauren Stopfer, from Professor Forest White's lab; Stopfer presented her work on "Treatment-Modulated Antigens: A Quantitative Approach to Identify Changes in MHC Peptide Repertoires."

In the postdoc category, first place went to Helene Angot from Professor Noelle Selin's lab, who presented on "Toxic Pollutants: From Worldwide Atmospheric Emissions to Impacts on Maine Tribal Areas." Angot's poster is also a joint Superfund Research Program poster. Second place went to Ben Crawford, from Professor Jesse Kroll's lab, who presented his work on "Building a Low-Cost, Community-based Sensor Network in Hawai'i to Measure Volcanic Air Pollution." And the third place prize went to Mary Andorfer, from Professor Catherine Drennan's lab, who presented her work on "Taming Radical Enzymes through Directed Evolution and Structural Analysis." 

Rock music helps students and educators explore engineering

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 10:10 AM PDT

As far as chance encounters go, the meeting between AnnMarie Thomas '01 and Damian Kulash, the lead singer for the rock band OK Go, could not have gone better. Thomas and Kulash first met at a coffee shop after a TED conference and later on a flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, where Thomas shared details on her research group, the Playful Learning Lab, which helps PK-12 students and educators create fun, hands-on engineering projects.

"The common theme in our lab is a mix of technology, fun, and STEAM education," Thomas says, referring to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. "We're constantly asking: 'How can we make education engaging for students and teachers?'"

Kulash was keenly interested, especially since OK Go's unique, one-take music videos have gained fame for incorporating engineering elements. The band's 2010 video, "This Too Shall Pass," created with the help of Media Lab graduates, features a complex Rube Goldberg machine and accumulated more than 58 million views on YouTube.

Thomas and Kulash remained in touch and brainstormed ways to collaborate. The end result is the OK Go Sandbox, a joint effort between the band, the lab, and the engineering departments at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Thomas is an associate professor.

The OK Go Sandbox is an online portal that uses the band's videos as starting points to explore various STEAM concepts. Each video is accompanied by a series of activities and challenges designed to analyze the video with a problem-solving lens. The challenges for "This Too Shall Pass" focus on simple machines and their role in complex structures.

"We want to give teachers whatever tools they need to connect the joy, wonder, and fun in our videos to the underlying concepts that their students are learning," Kulash says on the Sandbox site.

Each challenge is heavily influenced by students and educators who have to accompany the challenge video shoots and share their expertise and feedback.

"Every time we film a challenge or activity, there is a teacher on set," Thomas says. "We don't know the best way to frame these activities — only the students and teachers really do."

The Playful Learning Lab was created in 2009, the same year that Minnesota added an engineering curriculum to its state-wide K-12 standards. The lab's other projects include Circus Engineering, which explores equations of motion for circus aerial acts, and a weekly after-school engineering program for deaf middle school students that recreated the Angry Birds video game using plastic balls and cardboard boxes.

Thomas says her hands-on approach to teaching is thanks in large part to her MIT education, especially Professor Emeritus Woodie Flowers SM '68, SM '71, PhD '73.

"Woodie Flowers' course 2.007 [Design and Manufacturing] was utterly life changing for me," says Thomas, who majored in ocean engineering (now a part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering) while at MIT. "He had an amazing way of getting you to learn by doing. Before that course, I was afraid to build things. After 2.007, it was 'Eureka! I know it can do it.'"

This story was originally posted on the Slice of MIT blog.

Institute for Data, Systems, and Society to launch new MicroMasters and PhD programs

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 09:00 AM PDT

The MIT Statistics and Data Science Center (SDSC), a part of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), announced two new academic programs today: the MicroMasters program in Statistics and Data Science, and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Statistics, both beginning in the fall.

The MicroMasters program, currently under development by MIT faculty, will be offered online through edX. "Digital technologies are enabling us to bring MIT's data science curriculum to learners around the world regardless of their location or socioeconomic status," says Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma.

The curriculum includes foundational knowledge of data science methods and tools, a deep dive into probability and statistics, and opportunities to learn, implement, and experiment with data analysis techniques and machine learning algorithms.

"The demand for data scientists is growing rapidly," says Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal. "This new program increases the supply of professionals who are masters of the data science of today, and who have the foundational understanding needed to keep on top of the data science of tomorrow."

"The MicroMasters program precisely addresses the unmet educational demand of working professionals who are trying to train themselves in statistics and data science in a rigorous manner without leaving their day job and without compromising on quality," adds Devavrat Shah, MIT professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) who is both director of SDSC and a core faculty member of IDSS.

Learners obtain the MITx MicroMasters credential by completing online courses and a proctored test. "The MicroMasters will bring MIT's rigorous, high-quality curricula and hands-on learning approach to learners around the world — at scale," says Rajagopal. "For those who wish to advance their careers, the MITx MicroMasters will be a valuable professional credential. They will also be eligible to accelerate their completion of a PhD degree at MIT — or a master's degree elsewhere."

The program will launch in the fall, with enrollments opening June 5. Prospective students and interested institutions can sign up for updates from MITx. "This program embodies the IDSS vision of education in statistics and data science," says IDSS Director Munther Dahleh, professor and associate department head of EECS. "We expect many universities to adopt this program as the basis for a masters program in data science."

This fall SDSC and IDSS will also launch the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Statistics (IDPS). IDPS is designed for students currently enrolled in a participating MIT doctoral program who wish to develop their understanding of 21st century statistics, using concepts of computation and data analysis as well as elements of classical statistics and probability within their chosen field of study.

IDPS students will take core classes in probability and statistics, as well as computation and data analysis courses that vary by home department. Participating departments include Aeronautics and Astronautics, Economics, Mathematics, and Political Science as well as IDSS's own doctoral program in Social and Engineering Systems. Students' dissertation research will use statistical methods in a substantial way.

The announcement of both new programs was made by Shah during opening remarks of SDSC's annual Statistics and Data Science conference, which brought academic leaders, industry innovators, and rising stars in the fields of statistics and data science to MIT's campus.