GRADUATE STUDENTS at the MIT Media Lab are “expected to hit the ground running,” says David Small, an alumnus of the institution and a current faculty member. The program, which Small describes as a “convergence of design technology and communications,” is highly selective, but accepted students’ tuition costs are fully funded. Twenty-five faculty members work as principal investigators (P.I.) of a project, each leading a team of four to six graduate students. Small’s research project, “Design Ecology,” examines how people’s interactions with technology can be tracked and how display screens, for example, can be made to be aware of a person’s presence and adapt to changes in the environment.
Students attend two classes per term in addition to working on their final thesis, which usually develops out of the P.I.-led research project. “The unique thing about the Media Lab is the demo culture. It’s not enough for students to propose ideas. Students not only must be conceptual, but they need to have skills to realize those concepts in a demonstrable form,” says Small. With the attitude of “learning by doing,” the Media Lab encourages cross-pollination among research groups. “I’m working in the same building as those doing robotics, looking at social computing, and working on smart limbs. It’s a very exciting, hothouse environment where everything is kind of intensified,” says Small.