The Krebs Cycle of Creativity, by Neri Oxman, MIT Media Lab, January 2016

When Makers Apply to College

MIT’s culture of making continues to expose how real-world projects seldom live within one distinct domain of knowledge. The practice of moving between disciplines and shifting perspectives creates new kinds of creative momentum — a learning ability MIT is looking for within their admissions process.

The growth of project-based learning — particularly in STEM fields — is changing how people think of portfolios. No longer just for the arts, engineers are expected to be able to convey their projects visually, to tell a story, and get others excited about their work. This portfolio is a self-curated collection important artifacts from any field — or across fields — that communicate personal interests, skill-level, curiosity, and commitment.

In August 2013, MIT made news by adding Maker Portfolios as an option within undergraduate application to help identify “technical creativity and skill.” A little over two years later, they published a report, co-authored by Chris Peterson and Hal Abelson, discussing the data gathered during that time period:

“In many respects, the Maker Portfolio has been a resounding success. Over the last two years, more than 2000 students have used it to show us the things they make, from surfboards to solar cells, code to cosplay, prosthetics to particle accelerators. We believe the Maker Portfolio has improved our assessment of these applicants and offers us a competitive advantage over our peers who have not developed the processes to identify and evaluate this kind of talent.”

In a separate survey cited in their public letter to the President Obama, 78% of their undergraduate population reported that MIT’s reputation for being maker-friendly made them more likely to enroll.

In addition to this success, the report goes on share the current gender imbalances they are seeking to improve. MIT’s rigor and openness are a perfect model for how schools can help each other through publicly sharing data and openness with an ongoing thought process.

Various academic associations like AAEEBL and AAC&U are blossoming in their promotion of integrated learning through projects. And the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is helping to institute President Obama’s rally cry to grow a generation of students who are “makers of things, not just consumers of things.” They recommended more universities and colleges consider implementing a Maker Portfolio for admissions as part of a larger effort to expand opportunities for “making” within school campuses. Over 150 schools issued a joint letter to the President committing to this initiative in various ways.

History is full of polymaths who pulled from equally many fields, using each one to fuel the other. A portfolio allows the complete story to be told which is a critical activity for the educational process itself.

Are Portfolios Practical?

In 2013, when MIT announced the maker portfolio, Dr. Dawn Wendell anticipated a common fear among administrators. How practical is it to review portfolios from thousands of applicants? She addressed this question by sharing some of their own numbers. MIT receives about 20,000 applications a year and they budget about 15 minutes per application. They frame the portfolio prompt to be optional and intended for students with exceptional skill. This removes pressure for everyone to submit something, which would just create noise. Of those who submit a portfolio, about 3 minutes is allocated for review — any combination of images, video, code-samples, and narrative to summarize the Maker project. MIT isn’t looking to inspect all the details, but rather a see curated summary of one important project. She likens this to an elevator pitch. If clearly presented, it provides a remarkably efficient summary of that person’s passions and what makes them unique.

Further, technology has enabled this kind of review process to operate efficiently at a large scale. Reviewing thousands of CDs or websites scattered around the web just isn’t feasible. SlideRoom has provided the online system that makes it easy for everyone involved. Applicants can curate a portfolio from a variety of places on the web and schools get a secure online account for quickly reviewing portfolios in a consistent format. SlideRoom is also integrated with larger campus systems, so all data and evaluations can be mapped where needed.

Certainly, looking at a portfolio of someone’s work requires more effort than mechanically organizing them by test score. But if we’re sincerely looking to discover hidden potential for success and encourage new kinds of diversity, portfolios provide a new way forward.