CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The MIT students were stumped, or as stumped as a group of young adults with SAT scores dwarfing the average mortgage payment could be when faced with the question: Is it ever acceptable to dunk?
Quiet settled over the roomful of round tables, where not a backward cap, gum-chomping jaw nor buzzing, bleeping or chirping cellphone was to be seen. A young woman's voice emerged from the back with the answer that etiquette expert Dawn Bryan was hoping to hear:
"Basically, you don't dunk unless it's biscotti."
If you read this while dunking a jelly doughnut into your coffee during breakfast with the boss, well, Charm School is for you, assuming you're enough of a brainiac to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take part in its annual paean to politesse.
Now in its 20th year, the event is voluntary, but to its students and instructors, Charm School may be as beneficial to their future as an A in astrodynamics.
That's especially true in this economy, said Alana Hamlett of MIT's Student Activities and Leadership Office, who oversees the gathering.
"We're giving our students the tools to be productive members of society, to be the whole package," Hamlett said. "It gets them thinking about who they are and what their impact and effect is, whether they're working on a team in an engineering company, or in a small group on a project, or interviewing for a job."
MIT isn't the only science-focused institution to veer into the world of etiquette. Caltech offers Manners 101, "in preparation for the post-Caltech world of business receptions and dinner parties," according to the course description. The several-hour non-credit class, offered a few times each year, runs students through a multi-course meal with a business etiquette consultant.
"We'll serve up some challenging food to eat -- shellfish in the shell, really long pasta, Cornish game hen, you name it," said course instructor Tom Mannion, Caltech's director for student activities. Mannion also leads classes on food and wine pairing, and on cooking, which use students' interest in chemistry and other physical sciences to open their eyes to etiquette issues.
"If you know the basics of wine and food, you're going to be set for life," said Mannion, whose cooking students receive credit and each year produce a dinner for physicist Stephen Hawking.