Some in Community Resist ‘Nerd’; Others Embrace It

Students wear circuit boards on their sweatshirts and sing in a cappella groups with names like Logarhythms and Chorallaries. They run a model railroad club. It meets on Saturday nights.

It’s just life as usual at MIT, where math jokes draw appreciative chortles and even frat boys pride themselves on engineering high-tech pranks under the cover of darkness.

But enough with the nerdiness.

Intent on debunking the stereotype of MIT as a haven for geeks, some students have taken it upon themselves to inject unexpected edginess — even sexiness — into a campus scene where problem-set sessions often double as social functions.

A six-minute, student-produced webcast called MIThBusters that is posted on a university site features sorority girls, bare-chested male cheerleaders, and students taking part in athletics and the arts. On the school’s admissions site, some students candidly chronicle their lives in blogs to attract an array of potential applicants by showing how well-rounded they are.

Last year, scantily clad students posed for a calendar to raise money for a scholarship fund, following an equally provocative display of skin in another calendar touting “hot geek girls.”

“Just because we work hard in our classes doesn’t mean we don’t know how to have fun,” said Alberto Mena ’09, a civil engineering major from Miami who is president of the school’s Interfraternity Council. “We throw a lot of parties — with great risk management, might I add.”

The recent efforts are an attempt to “de-nerdify” the world-class science and engineering school without marring its global reputation as an intellectual haven. Still, the approach has drawn criticism from certain circles and spurred a fresh debate over the 147-year-old school’s identity.

Some students and professors say they are reluctant to de-emphasize the institution’s nerdy image. After all, that’s what put MIT on the map.

Others embrace the movement but doubt it will get very far. Even the name of an explicit sex column in the school newspaper riffs on the stereotype — “Talk Nerdy to Me.”

“You’re just surrounded by so many people here who like to be nerds that if you don’t embrace it, you’re ostracized,” said Christine Yu ’11, a former homecoming princess from West Virginia who inserts geek humor and science analogies as often as possible into the weekly column. “In high school, I didn’t really identify with my more nerdy side. MIT has brought it out.”

The political science major with a shopping addiction said she would like to write a fashion column, but concluded her services in that realm would be unwelcomed. “Most people here are so happy in their free, oversized math and science T-shirts,” Yu said. “They like wearing the periodic table to class.”

Some students point out, however, that there is a dorkiness spectrum, and a marked difference between the socially awkward nerd and a cool, hip geek — a term some on campus consider complimentary.

“MIT is absolutely the place where the nerds and geeks of the world come to live together for four years,” Paul Baranay ’11, a biological engineering major, said in the student center en route to meet a friend for a linear algebra problem-set session. “People seem to like the fact that MIT is sort of this nerd farm, this geek reservation. But we don’t just spend all our time in our rooms studying.”

Baranay, a sophomore from Indiana who writes one of the admissions blogs, said his activities reflect interests that students at most universities might cultivate. He belongs to a fraternity, serves on the student government, and edits a student-run research journal.

But other activities feed his inner geek. As a member of the Assassins’ Guild, a live-action role-playing society, he spends weekends acting out scenarios he says are full of drama, espionage, and intrigue, “like pretending you’re a king trying to find an heir, or the captain of a starship trying to find a safe place to land.”

“We’re not normal, and we like it that way,” he said. “To some extent, the world misunderstands us.”

The ground zero of geekiness, some students say, is several blocks away from the main campus, on the first floor of a building adjoining the MIT Museum. That’s where, on a recent night, David M. Lambeth G proudly showed off an expansive model train set that generations of students helped build. The computerized locomotives run through elaborate replicas of city and country settings, with tiny figurines of people and animals.

“It’s really cool,” said the 26-year-old graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics. “You’ve got this little miniature world here with trains moving around, and MIT students can appreciate the complex hand-built electronics that go into powering this thing.”

As governor, treasurer, publicity chair, scenery chair, and car and logo chair of the school’s renowned model railroad club, Lambeth spent a weekend diagnosing and cataloging all the mechanical problems in the railcars.