MHS to MIT

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Sofi Peterson spends time in Malibu during her summer vacation. 

Sofi Peterson, 20, is home in Malibu for summer vacation. She sits cross-legged on the family sofa and talks excitedly about the joy of mechanical engineering. 

Peterson knew she wanted to be an engineer when she became the first and only girl from Malibu High School (MHS) to get into the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but she was not sure which major to choose in the school of engineering.

“I was thinking maybe environmental or chemical engineering but I fell in love with the mechanical side,” she said. “The classes were so interesting. MHS had given me enough credits that I was able to get out of some of the classes that all freshmen have to take so I could explore the classes available.”

Peterson went to Point Dume Marine Science School before Malibu Middle and High schools. She wanted to be a writer when she was little, as she was better at writing and reading than math. It was not until eighth grade that she considered pursuing Science Technology Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) after her science teacher, Mr. Murphy, who no longer teaches at MHS, told Peterson she was good at science.

“Mr. Murphy was amazing,” Peterson said. “He told me I should consider going into science. At the time at MHS there weren’t many high-level science classes. I was in the advanced math pathway that started in sixth grade and went all the way up through high school.”

Peterson explained that MHS did not offer advanced chemistry or college-level biology, but it did offer a complete version of advance placement physics which, at some schools, gives college credit. 

“Now the class has so few people in it that they are considering cutting it, which means students will only get half what they need for college,” Peterson said. “That makes it tough to explore S.T.E.M. at college level. If I was at MHS now I don’t know if I’d have got into MIT. And it would have been so much more difficult to go through freshman year.”

One of the reasons Peterson applied to MIT was that it is almost evenly split between girls and boys, so she has made many like-minded friends there. 

“I live off campus in Boston in a co-ed fraternity,” Peterson explained. “We’re not very exciting. There’s no partying. We do have fun sometimes, maybe twice per semester.”

Peterson said she works a 70-80 hour schedule, including weekends.

“Much of the work is collaborative so you’re working alongside your peers,” she said. “My friends are in my classes. We do have a good time laughing and joking while doing this really hard homework.”

The last semester was especially exciting for Peterson because she and her 200 classmates got to build a robot from scratch.

“It was fantastic. At the end, we competed against each other in a competition, all our robots trying to accomplish tasks faster than every one else. My robot — I named it The Catapult — did OK, not amazing. It was a large tube connected to a base that would pick up wooden balls and chuck them behind me.”

Peterson has enjoyed spending time back in Malibu with her parents Paul and Mindy and her brother, Lars. Her dream job, many years down the line, is to run a small engineering company doing something impactful for the world. One thing Peterson is certain of is there will be no more studying after MIT.

Before heading back to Boston, Peterson will speak before the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District School Board to urge them not to cut the Calc D/E class in the math pathway. It will be the principal’s decision, based on only seven students applying for next year’s class, but Peterson hopes the board might be able to exert influence.

Peterson blames the low numbers on poor scheduling, as students have to choose between calculus and Spanish, which is more popular. Peterson believes if the class were rescheduled, enrollment would be higher. She also explained that seven students is not a small class. The numbers have always been between three and 10, she said.

“The math pathway has been such a beacon of pride for MHS and stands out on the resumes of students who have done it,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t make sense to stop the calculus class. That would be cutting off the head of the entire math pathway.”

Peterson’s brother, Lars, is a freshman at MHS. He went to a meeting for a new robotics club that didn’t exist when his sister was there.

“Lars was the only boy. All the other ninth graders were girls. Isn’t that amazing?”