D-Lab moves online, without compromising on impact

It’s not a typical sentence you’d find on a class schedule, but on April 2, the first action item for one MIT course read: “Check in on each other’s health and well-being.” The revised schedule was for Susan Murcott and Julie Simpson’s spring D-Lab class EC.719 / EC.789 (Water, Climate Change, and Health), just one of hundreds of classes at MIT that had to change course after the novel coronavirus sparked a campus-wide shutdown.

D-Lab at home

The dust had only begun to settle two weeks later, after a week of canceled classes followed by the established spring break, when students and professors reconvened in their new virtual classrooms. In Murcott and Simpson’s three-hour, once-a-week D-Lab class, the 20 students had completed only half of the subject’s 12 classes before the campus shut down. Those who could attend the six remaining classes would do so remotely for the first time in the five-year history of the class.

Typically, students would have gathered at D-Lab, an international design and development center next to the MIT Museum on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within the center, D-Lab provides project-based and hands-on learning for undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with international non-governmental organizations, governments, and industry. Many of the projects involve design solutions in low-income countries around the world. Murcott, an MIT lecturer who has worked with low-income populations for over 30 years in 25 countries, including Nepal and Ghana, was a natural fit to teach the class.

Murcott’s background is in civil and environmental engineering, wastewater management, and climate. Her co-teacher, Research Engineer Julie Simpson of the Sea Grant College Program, has a PhD in coastal and marine ecology and a strong climate background. “It’s typical to find courses in climate change and energy, climate change and policy, or maybe climate change and human behavior,” Murcott says. But when she first began planning her D-Lab subject, there were no classes one could find anywhere in the world that married climate change and water. 

Murcott and Simpson refer to the class as transdisciplinary. “[Transdisciplinary] is about having as broad a sample of humanity as you can teaching and learning together on the topics that you care about,” Murcott says. But transdisciplinary also means attracting a wide range of students from various walks of life, studying a variety of subjects. This spring, Murcott and Simpson’s class had undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals from MIT, Wellesley College, and Harvard University, studying architecture, chemistry, mechanical engineering, biochemistry, microbiology, computer science, math, food and agriculture, law, and public health, plus a Knight Science Journalism at MIT Fellow.

After campus closed, these students scattered to locations across the country and the world, including France, Hong Kong, Rwanda, and South Korea. Student Sun Kim sent a five-page document with pictures to the class after returning to her home in South Korea, detailing her arrival in a Covid-19 world. Kim was tested in the airport after landing, given free room and board in a nearby hotel until she received her result (a “negative” result came back within eight hours), and quarantined in her parents’ house for two weeks, just in case she had picked up the virus during her travels. “I have been enjoying my Zoom classes during the wee hours of the night and sleeping during the day — ignoring the sunlight and pretending I am still in the U.S.,” Kim wrote.

Future generation climate action plans

Usually, the class has three or four field trips over the course of the semester, to places like the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, home of the longest climate record in the United States, and the Charles River Dam Infrastructure, which helps control flooding along Memorial Drive. With these physical trips closed off during the pandemic, Murcott and Simpson had to find new virtual spaces in which to convene. Four student teams took part in a climate change simulation using a program developed by Climate Interactive called En-ROADS, in which they were challenged to create scenarios that aimed for a limit of 1.5 degree Celsius global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Each team developed unique scenarios and managed to reach that target by adjusting energy options, agricultural and land-use practices, economic levers, and policy options.

The teams then used their En-ROADS scenario planning findings to evaluate the climate action plans of Cambridge, Boston, and Massachusetts, with virtual visits from experts on the plans. They also evaluated MIT’s climate plan, which was written in 2015 and which will be updated by the end of this year. Students found that MIT has one of the least-ambitious targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions compared to other institutions that the D-Lab class reviewed. Teams of students were then challenged to improve upon what MIT had done to date by coming up with their own future generation climate action plans. “I wanted them to find their voice,” says Murcott. As the co-chair of MIT’s Water Sustainability Working Group, an official committee designated to come up with a water plan for MIT, Murcott and Simpson are now working with a subset of eight students from the class over the summer, together with the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Office of Sustainability, and the Office of the Vice President for Research, to collaborate on a new water and climate action plan.

Final projects

The spring 2020 D-Lab final presentations were as diverse as the students’ fields of study. Over two Zoom sessions, teams and individual students presented a total of eight final projects.

The first project aimed to lower the number of Covid-19 transmissions among Cambridge residents and update access to food programs in light of the pandemic. At the time of the presentation, Massachusetts had the third-highest reported number of cases of the new coronavirus. Students reviewed what was already being done in Cambridge and expanded on that with recommendations such as an assistive phone line for sick residents, an N95 mask exchange program, increased transportation for medical care, and lodging options for positive cases to prevent household transmission. Another team working on the Covid-19 project presented their recommendations to update the city’s food policy. They suggested programs to increase awareness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) through municipal mailings, help vendors at farmers markets enroll in SNAP/EBT so that users could purchase local produce and goods, and promote local community gardens to help with future food security.

Another project proposed an extensive rainwater harvesting project for the Memorial Drive dormitories, which also have a high photovoltaic potential, in which the nearby MIT recreational fields would benefit from self-sufficient rainwater irrigation driven by a solar-powered pump. Another student developed a machine learning method to count and detect river herrings that migrate into Boston each year by training a computer program to identify the fish using existing cameras installed by fish ladders. 

Student Lowry Yankwich wrote a long-form science journalism piece about the effect of climate change on local fisheries, and a team of three students created a six-unit climate change course called “Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century” for upper-high-school to first-year college students

Two global water projects were presented. In the first, student Ade Dapo-Famodu’s study compared a newly manufactured water test, the ECC Vial, to other leading global products that measure two major indicators of contaminated water: E. coli and coliforms. The second global water project was the Butaro Water Project team with Carene Umubyeyi and Naomi Lutz. Their project is a collaboration between faculty and students at MIT, Tufts University, University of Rwanda and University of Global Health Equity in Butaro, a small district in the northern part of Rwanda, where a number of villages lack access to safe drinking water.

The end is just the beginning

For many, the D-Lab projects aren’t just a semester-long endeavor. It’s typical for some D-Lab term projects to turn into either a January Independent Activities Period or a summer research or field project. Of the 20 students in the class, 10 are continuing to work on their term projects over the summer. Umubyeyi is Rwandan. Having returned home after the MIT shutdown, she will be coordinating the team’s design and construction of the village water system over the summer, with technical support from her teammate, Lutz, remotely from Illinois.

The Future Generations Climate Action Planning process resulted in five students eager to take the D-Lab class work forward. They will be working with Jim Gomes, senior advisor in the Office of the Vice President, who is responsible for coordination MIT’s 2020 Climate Action Plan, together with one other student intern, Grace Moore.

The six-unit online course for teens, Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, is being taught by Clara Gervaise-Volaire and Gabby Cazares and will be live through July 3. Continued policy work on Covid-19 will continue with contacts in the Cambridge City Council. Finally, Lowry will be sending out his full-length article for publication and starting his next piece.  

“Students have done so well in the face of the MIT shutdown and coronavirus pandemic challenge,” says Murcott. “Scattered around the country and around the world, they have come together through this online D-Lab class to embrace MIT’s mission of ‘creating a better world.’ In the process, they have deepened themselves and are actively serving others in the process. What could be better in these hard times?”