Think engineering and other science and technology- related fields and what comes to mind? The Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) — touted to be a league above any other technological university. However, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are close on MIT’s heels and hold their own because they have excellent research and laboratory facilities. So what distinguishes these institutes and makes them the most sought-after technological institutes in the world? Read on to find out...
Undergraduates involved in research
MIT has a solid undergraduate research programme, called the UROP (http://web.mit.edu/UROP/). “The best part is that students get paid for doing research,” says Asilata Bapat, an alumnus from MIT whose major was mathematics with computer science. Bapat says that in engineering, the research is generally part of a larger project for which a student needs to work directly under his/her supervisor. A student needs to work for 10 hours per week for 10-11 weeks in one term. It pays approximately $1,000 as per minimum wage.
“We fund approximately 250 students in all of the disciplines to participate in undergraduate research each year,” says Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Students at CMU need to submit proposals and a faculty committee reviews the proposals and decides whom they can fund.
The research programme is open to all students at Carnegie Mellon in all of the disciplines, including engineering, business, arts and humanities, sciences, computer science. Every year in May at CMU, over 450 students make presentations at Meeting of the Minds, a campus-wide research symposium.
Research at California Institute of Technology is exciting as it provides various research centres. Under the SURF programme (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships), students need to work under the guidance of seasoned research mentors from mid-June till August and then present a paper and give an oral presentation. There is also a summer programme for students from outside of Caltech who want to pursue research at Caltech. Study across disciplines
At Carnegie Mellon, while students typically enrol in one of these seven schools/colleges — Carnegie Institute of Technology, College of Fine Arts, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tepper School of Business, H John Heinz III College, Mellon College of Science and School of Computer Science, they still have the opportunity to study in other disciplines and in different departments. “The distributive requirements in CMU are such that a degree in any major gives an overarching view of most academic disciplines,” says Aakriti Gupta who is pursuing a BS (dual degree) in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. Gupta got the opportunity to study a writing course and world history simultaneously.
MIT offers a lot of inter-disciplinary study. The best-known is probably the MIT Media Lab which carries out research on any "cool ideas" stemming from many different fields, and consequently employs people in many different departments.
MIT also offers nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and natural language processing and bioengineering. There is also a large Computational Biology group, the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and the Technology group, a Cancer Research Centre and a brain and cognitive science department. Bapat was required to take eight humanities classes apart from her core subjects. “I took one class on writing, one on introduction to western music, one on Shakespeare, and 5 on German: each of the 4 levels of German offered, plus a class on German films. So German was my ‘concentration’,” explains Bapat.
At the California Institute of Technology, inter-disciplinary subjects are restricted to science and technology- related fields such as biochemistry, applied physics, geobiology and astrobiology.
While being enrolled as a full-time student, international students are authorised to work only on campus as part-time employees. Bapat, a mathematics student, was hired by professors to work as a grader or a TA (Teaching Assistant) for a course that she had previously completed and had done well in. Bapat did two jobs in her four years at MIT- one as a math teacher tutoring students for the SAT and another grading papers for a class in mathematics and computer science.“At CMU, we can get research assistant jobs wherein we assist on going projects; also work on campus as desk attendants etc,” says Gupta. “The minimum wage is $7.5/ hour and the maximum number of hours we can work while being full time students is $20/week.”
Science and technology
“The best brains go to MIT,” says Akhlil Daswani, founder of Oncourse Global Consultancy, a firm that has been providing counselling and guidance facilities for studying abroad for a year now. While the various backgrounds and experiences of different students at MIT coupled with the support of their alumni gives the institute an edge over other institutes. Carnegie Mellon in known to have the best computer engineering programme. “California Institute of Technology is an excellent school too with very innovative and creative projects going on there,” adds Daswani.
An exciting student life
MIT has the Independent Activities Period (IAP), which is spread over the month of January. During this time, students are free to participate in various different activities organised across campus; mostly non-academic. Students can also teach classes on off-beat subjects that they have expertise in.
Activities range from robotics competitions and programming competitions where participants speed-solve integral calculus problems, art and craft classes, cooking classes, sports, computer software and hardware classes, theatre, bridge tournaments, etc. There are also some academic classes. One major event that MIT is really into is the annual “MIT Mystery Hunt” which happens in IAP. This is a 2-3 day long competition where the organisers give out puzzle clues and teams solve them to uncover more puzzles. It’s a big event and people fly in to Boston from all over the country to participate.
Carnegie Mellon is known for its various traditions that date back to the early days of its 100-year history. There are buggy races and a spring carnival. The highlight of the campus is The Fence, which is the most painted object on campus. The fence frequently displays witty or poignant messages, but is just as often used to advertise upcoming events or recent accomplishments.
Caltech has the Beckman Auditorium which has at least one cultural event held there per month. National level dance competitions, theatre artists and groups come to perform here and students at Caltech have access to all of these events. Caltech is only very high on sports with 28 contests organised for the soccer, volleyball and water polo teams for the fall of 2011.
Applying for financial aid
At Carnegie Mellon, approximately 56% of last year's first-year students (U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens only) received aid; the average financial aid package was $32,747 (of which the average grants were $23,555) for the four years of undergraduate study. Carnegie Mellon follows a need-blind admission policy, which means they don't admit students based on their family's ability to pay for their education. There are various Carnegie Mellon funds and grants that do not have to be paid back. The university advises that you apply for aid as soon as possible after January 1.
With respect to MIT, Bapat says that the institute first admits all eligible students irrespective of financial conditions. After that they fund each student as much money as necessary, based on their parents' income. “MIT gave a large estimate for my living expenses cost which covered almost all of my fee. However, since I worked part time, my parents did not have to pay at all,” says Bapat. Remember to apply for financial aid for before February 15. Caltech offers a Federal Penn Grant programme wherein students need to apply for the grant and the financial aid office decides the amount that will be given to the student during his/her undergraduate study. There is also an academic competitiveness grant. For another grant, called the Cal Grant, the application deadline is in the first week of March. You can also download a financial aid form from their website and submit it by the first week of February.
Asilata Bapat Studied at MIT with a major in mathematics and computer science: The most unique feature is that most of the campus buildings are connected internally. So if I entered one campus building, I could get to most other buildings via internal passages or tunnels. This is especially great during the severe winters in Boston.
Aakriti Gupta BS (dual degree) from Carnegie Institute of Technology, CMU:
I am getting to do a lot at CMU. I am a teaching assistant for a class in physics for engineers. I am involved with two research projects and am a member of clubs such as Engineers Without Borders, which currently has a number of humanitarian and philanthropic projects going
on in areas of sustainable energy etc.
MIT: Shantanurao Laxmanrao Kirloskar, founder of Kirloskar Group; Aditya Birla
Carnegie Mellon: Vinod Khosla, co-founder, Sun Microsystems Venture Capitalist. Co-Founder: Sun Microsystems
Caltech: Arati Prabhakar, former director, National Institute of Standards and Technology