MIT INSPIRE: An Authentic Research Experience in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

MIT INSPIRE is a student group that organizes a national research competition for high school students pursuing inquiry in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS). This is the only competition of such scale in the country. Since our first competition in 2015, we have grown to reach over 1700 students nationwide, encompassing 45 states, 75 Title I schools designated to help communities with low income levels, and nearly 1000 mentors and educators. We hope to continue this growth with the support of the Community Service Fund.

This was our third year of the competition. INSPIRE 2017 welcomed over a hundred high school students to MIT’s campus for the final round from April 10-12. In addition to participating in the judging rounds with 50 experts, student finalists heard from such speakers as Dean Agustín Rayo of the School of HASS, who spoke about MIT INSPIRE and its impact on the HASS fields; Prof. Bengt Holmstrom, 2016 Nobel Laureate in Economics and a long-time supporter of MIT INSPIRE, who spoke about innovation; Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who spoke about the importance of the HASS fields in the 21st century; and Ms. Lillian Chin, an MIT senior better known as the “spiciest memelord” for her performance on Jeopardy!, who spoke about the impact that the humanities have had on her technical education. Finalists additionally posed questions of our panelists regarding the role of HASS fields in careers. The panel included Dr. Chris Bourg (Director of MIT Libraries), Dr. Charles Theuer (MIT Alum & CEO of Tracon Pharma), and Mr. Keith Murphy (MIT Alum & CEO of Organovo), and was moderated by Prof. Ed Schiappa (head of MIT Comparative Media Studies).

We are very grateful to the MIT Community Service Fund. Thanks to generous funding from the MIT Community Service Fund, we were delighted to host, for the first time, a mentor development workshop at INSPIRE 2017. During the workshop, educators from across the country discussed how they incorporated MIT INSPIRE into their classroom settings and provided valuable feedback that we hope to incorporate in the years to come.

Thanks to CSF’s support, we were also able to present the $3,000 Lincoln Award based on community choice this year to Jia Zhang from Belmont, Massachusetts for her research project entitled “The Theory of Revolution: Impact of Nationalistic vs. Ethnocentric Revolutionary Rhetoric on the Ethnic Relations of Post-Revolutionary Nations.” Other top projects included “Mitigating Congestion through Map Design: A Case Study of Washington DC Subway,” for which John Xu won the Aristotle Award for best in competition, and “Project Mercury: An Accurate Edge Detection and Character Recognition Tool for Analyzing Ancient Classical Inscriptions,” for which Prathik Naidu won the Mozart Award for most original research. CSF support also enabled travel grants for several underprivileged students and mentors from around the country to attend the final round of the competition at MIT.

INSPIRE 2017’s public viewing session attracted members of MIT’s community as well as community members of Cambridge and Boston. Over 100 votes were cast over the course of the session. During this part of the event, finalists interacted directly with visitors and answered questions about their projects. The next day, finalists spoke to a panel of 50 judges featuring experts from the MIT and Harvard communities.

Through discussion with mentors that attended the mentor development workshop and administrators here at MIT, our team has thought about various ways to expand the competition over the next few years. We hope to expand INSPIRE’s reach to include more students, both from more varied geographical regions and from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. CSF’s support has proven invaluable for this goal by supporting travel grants that enable more students to participate as finalists in MIT INSPIRE. In MIT INSPIRE’s 2018 competition, we hope to continue working with the MIT CSF in our efforts to improve and expand the competition, through support of community engagement with research in the HASS fields and participation of finalists who would otherwise be unable to have such an authentic research experience.