Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Understanding MIT’s motto – ‘Mens et Manus’

3 minute read

Understanding the unique teaching philosophy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the importance of 'learning by doing'

Having minted some of the world’s best engineers, scientists, technologists and educators, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is well known for its focus on technical education. MIT’s distinguished alumni include 93 Nobel prize winners and luminaries, including Salman Khan, the founder of Kahn Academy, Richard Feynman, the inventor of Quantum Electrodynamics, Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever set foot on the Moon.

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While there are many great universities in the US and around the globe, MIT stands out with its relentless focus on hands-on education, which is well summarized by its motto: “Mens et Manus”, which stands for “Mind and Hand” in Latin. This cryptic motto alludes to the fact that at MIT professors believe that effective technical education needs to include a substantial practical component, such as laboratory sessions, problem sets and independent projects. In effect, MIT stands by the philosophy of “learning by doing”, which was first popularized by American educator John Dewey at the beginning of the 20th century.

While at many universities students spend most of their time reading textbooks and memorizing concepts, MIT students spend the vast majority of their time on problem sets (called “p-sets”) or doing challenging lab work. One never simply learns about algorithms — one is asked to find solutions to algorithmic problems that are never found in textbooks. Rather than solving standard physics problems, MIT students are tasked with problems that take an entire weekend's worth of reflection and thinking to solve. Homework from a robotics class will include technical challenges that no amount of googling can solve – one must think deeply and explore dozens of possibilities before finding the right solution.

Problem sets and lab projects tend to be so challenging that professors usually do not expect students to succeed without collaborating with each other. It is a common saying at MIT that “You cannot graduate from MIT by yourself.” Most students find that working on p-sets and labs with each other is a strong bonding experience that leads to lifelong friendships and unexpected professional connections.

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MIT is not for everyone. MIT tends to push even the most dedicated and hard-working students to their limits. But if you enjoy tough intellectual challenges and want to be constantly nudged to achieve more than you ever thought you were capable of, MIT might be the right fit for you.

Unique among top US colleges, MIT allows every applicant to submit a creative portfolio, which is your chance to demonstrate your passion and strengths in a specific area of engineering, science or technology. At Polygence, we share MIT's teaching philosophy and encourage you to show your initiative and engage in creative projects outside school. If you want any help with that, do let us know! We started Polygence to help students achieve their goals by pursuing extracurricular research projects.