Jun 28 2010

How MIT Could Help With A Different Approach to the BP Gulf Crisis

Do you remember the “Let’s Build a Filter” scene from Apollo 13?  It remains – at least in my mind – one of the most heroic engineering scenes in the movies.  The one minute segment with the meat of the scene follows:

Several times over the past week the BP Gulf Crisis has come up in conversation.  The conversations have started in different places (politics, environment, leadership) but in each case quickly cycled toward the concept that the people involved need to try something different.  Now, there might be plenty of orthogonal thinking going on in lots of places around the crisis, but I kept thinking about the scene from Apollo 13 whenever we got to this point.

I’ve always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet.  My friends at Caltech and Stanford will immediately come to defense of their colleagues and I’ll acknowledge that they are also extremely smart, but I’ve always thought the combination of MIT raw material with the four year undergraduate curriculum creates a unique type of thought process.

It’s summertime and classes are out.  It would take a day to identify the top two juniors and seniors from each department.  Why not immediately constitute a team of 25 amazing students, give them access to 100% of the data surrounding the crisis, show them the above movie clip, and tell them to come up with a solution to the problem.  Pay them each $25k for the rest of the summer – this is tiny compared to the amount of money being spent daily on the outside consultants working on solving the problem.

Then, open source all of their thinking.  Have them put their ideas on the web as they evolve.  Get anyone involved who wants to try to help solve the problem.  MIT has long been a leader in using the web for education – most recently with MIT Open Courseware.  MIT and BP already have a longstanding relationship – let’s take it up a level.

If nothing else, this will rally a bunch of smart people to engage in understanding and trying to help with the problem.  In the upside case, there is a small chance that it can come up with a solution to the problem.  And it will have the added benefit of inspiring a new generation of engineers to go after doing heroic things.