MIT Energy Initiative

New electives augment undergraduate energy curriculum

Students test out in-class lessons on real-world energy challenges

Leda Zimmerman June 1, 2016 MITEI

The first several classes in a wave of new electives for the Energy Studies Minor arrived in fall 2015, updating and expanding content for the undergraduate curriculum in energy science, technology, and policy. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation provided funding for what will eventually be five new classes and new energy components for four existing classes.

These new additions are in large part a response to mounting undergraduate student demand for course-based exposure to energy applications in the private and public sectors as well as hands-on experience in energy technologies and for an energy education that addresses urgent, real-world challenges.

Jessica Torres, a senior majoring in chemical-biological engineering, says she is seeking ways “to help society come up with cleaner alternatives for producing things.” Another senior, Juan Jaramillo, a chemical engineering major, says, “[I’m] driven to learn more about energy because it’s an increasingly important topic in the industries I’m pursuing.”

Cooking up cleaner compounds

Jaramillo and Torres were classmates in the energy module added last fall to 10.28 Chemical-Biological Engineering Laboratory, a core chemical engineering class taught since 2003 by Jean-François Hamel, a research engineer in chemical engineering.

“Students want to be ready to solve the urgent problems of the environmental impacts of traditional energy sources,” says Hamel. “With this in mind, I try to offer innovative, state-of-the-art technology, communication, and software tools, and we teach them how to use these tools for solving real-world problems.”

To meet student interest in bringing energy into the chemical engineering curriculum, Hamel worked to supplement the existing biopharmaceutical-oriented lab projects of 10.28 with a substantive energy project. He found an enthusiastic partner in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a government research entity exploring biologically derived alternatives to petrochemical-based manufacturing compounds.

It is rare for undergraduates to get this kind of opportunity.

Jean-François Hamel, research engineer

For 10.28’s energy module, NREL provided not only microbial strains but also a real-world research problem: optimizing bioprocessing methods for creating muconic acid, a substrate used when manufacturing resins, bioplastics, food additives, and pharmaceuticals. “Bioprocessing is the key word for 10.28,” says Hamel, “and the theme of the course is to teach fundamental principles and elements of this field through different experiments.”

Muconic acid is normally derived from oil, but it can also be produced by fermenting lignin, a biological waste left over from cellulosic ethanol production. Using NREL’s genetically engineered bacterium, Pseudomonas putida, 10.28 students set out “to grow cells, achieve the right levels of product formation, and create value from an energy waste product,” says Hamel.

For the nine students in 10.28 engaged in the energy module (more than one-third of the class), there was an extra dimension of excitement: They were conducting direct real-world research for NREL, which had not yet turned to these specific muconic acid experiments. “It is rare for undergraduates to get this kind of opportunity,” notes Hamel.

“We had to…design the experiment, figure out what and how to test, and then report results,” says Torres. “It was the first time I’d done that in a class.” Adds Jaramillo, “I really liked that I was working in a cutting-edge lab, learning to use bench-top bioreactors to help address an energy-related problem in an environmentally friendly fashion.”

Chemical engineering seniors Jessica Torres (left) and Ruifan Pei work on assembling a bioreactor that uses the genetically engineered bacterium Pseudomonas putida to ferment lignin, a plant waste from cellulosic ethanol, in the process of creating muconic acid. Photo: Justin Knight.

Students also had unusual access to sophisticated software, OSIsoft (courtesy of the OSIsoft company), which monitored their fermentation experiments in real time. “Using the bioreactors and software, which you can’t usually find in a college classroom, was one of the most meaningful aspects of 10.28,” says Jaramillo. “What I learned will be helpful in any industry I end up in.”

Students also benefited from another aspect of the class: formally communicating their research results. 10.28 is one of chemical engineering’s communication-intensive courses, and Hamel provided an opportunity that was simultaneously challenging and rewarding by inviting industry colleagues to observe the class for student presentations.

“I wanted to show industry what my students could do and also give students the benefit of having industry experts engage them and share their experience,” says Hamel. These experts included representatives from Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., which lent the class a $100,000 mass spectrometer.

“I made it clear to students that high-quality presentations would prove very useful in learning how to interview for internships and jobs, as well as in their careers in general,” Hamel says.

It was so good talking to industry professionals and hearing them say we did great job.

Jessica Torres, ’16

As a senior interested in an energy career, Torres made the most of her opportunity. “I felt like I knew a lot about the subject, and it was so good talking to industry professionals and hearing them say we did great job.” Eager to leverage the skills and knowledge she gained from 10.28, Torres decided to apply for an internship directly related to bioprocessing. “I got so much out of the class and really became passionate about coming up with cleaner ways of approaching energy and making things.”

“Several students were so fascinated that they have asked to stay with the energy bioprocessing research after the course,” says Hamel. One of them was Jaramillo, who began work in Hamel’s lab on reducing the level of ethanol in wine using yeast as a fermenting agent in bioprocessors. “I will let people know about my experience in the class, which definitely helped me grow as a scientist and professional,” says Jaramillo.

Hamel has extended the NREL research to the spring version of the lab class, 10.26, with two projects from NREL, and he plans to include energy experiments in the classes going forward. He envisions his lab courses as potential additions to the core Energy Studies Minor classes. “I believe the energy module we’ve included opens up the class to deeper discussions,” he says. “We’re thinking more about the planet and climate change, and finding solutions.”

Ethics and energy

Students in search of an elective devoted exclusively to deep discussion of energy and ethics last fall did not have far to look. That’s when Lucas Stanczyk, assistant professor in political science, introduced 17.051 The Ethics of Energy Policy.

Developed in partnership with Nathan Lee SM ’14, a former researcher with the MIT Energy Initiative, the class arose to meet a need: Climate change raises “very big policy problems that face us with important ethical dimensions,” says Stanczyk. And according to Lee, “Nowhere in the MIT curriculum was there an opportunity for students to address these questions directly.”

The class 17.051 attracted interest from schools and departments across MIT: 26 students enrolled, which “is pretty big for… first-time classes at MIT,” says Stanczyk. Through a combination of lectures, seminar-style discussions, and essays, students tackled a range of topics, deploying Stanczyk’s method of first identifying the fundamental ethical assumptions underlying a certain policy assessment framework, then drawing attention to potential questions or problems with the approach.

“We had lively discussions about a bunch of issues,” says Stanczyk. For instance, the class debated what might be reasonable international standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: Should we take into account emissions since the beginning of the industrial age? Should developing nations be asked to make cuts on a par with rich countries, even if this comes at the cost of their ability to provide better lives to hundreds of millions of poor people?

According to Stanczyk, conversation became especially heated when the class considered whether individuals have a strong moral duty to reduce carbon by changing their own life habits. Students strongly defended passionately held positions.

“Many students came to class caring very deeply about some of these topics,” says Stanczyk. But after carefully reasoned arguments, “they began to appreciate the complexity of questions, realizing they needed to rethink or even abandon some of their original background assumptions.”

The class posed challenges for Stanczyk himself. “I had to gain new competencies such as learning the regulatory approaches of the Environmental Protection Agency and other administrative agencies.” For his next pass at 17.051, Stanczyk must have command of the latest political, international, and technical developments in climate and energy policy. “There’s new science demonstrating faster melt rates in Antarctica than previously thought, and [there’s] the possibility that political parties might backtrack on international agreements,” he says.

Stanczyk looks forward to teaching 17.051 again. “It was remarkable and rewarding working with students who on the one hand care deeply about energy policy issues and on the other hand are really in a position to understand and do something serious… about these issues in the course of their careers,” says Stanczyk.

Left to right: Linda Jing ’17, Seraphina Kim ’16, Yoonjeong Kim ’16, and Jacqueline Kuo ’16 discuss their final group project for 15.S42, titled “GreenMIT: Using Collective Intelligence for Change at MIT,” with guest Steven Lanou, deputy director, Office of Sustainability, and Joshua Lehman, class teaching assistant and graduate student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The project involved spurring cross-campus interaction on ways of addressing climate change.

Enabling sustainable buildings

“If we’re going to get where we need to go in climate, we need to engage young people at an early stage in their education,” says Harvey Michaels, lecturer and member of the research faculty in energy strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He developed 15.S42 Energy Management for a Sustainable Future as a way of introducing undergraduates to what he calls the “ecosystem” of building energy management, which he believes can make a dramatic impact on energy use and climate change.

Michaels has launched his own energy efficiency and smart grid startups and has supported MIT graduates in spawning their own energy management businesses. “[The MIT graduates] told me they would have benefited as undergraduates from a course focused on current practice and emerging opportunities in the field,” he says. Having had to turn away undergraduates from his graduate-level energy management courses at MIT Sloan, Michaels says he “heard the need.”

With 15.S42, he set out to create a foundational class for undergraduates touching on all dimensions of the demand side of energy in the built environment, including technology, services, analytics, and policy applied to improving efficiency.

In designing and teaching the class, Michaels recruited a group of complementary talents, including MIT Sloan management professors John Sterman and Thomas Malone (principal investigator of the Climate CoLab); Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering; and Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering, vice president for Open Learning, and director of the Office of Digital Learning. Michaels also gained vital assistance from graduate students, including class teaching assistant Joshua Lehman of MIT Sloan, who was co-president of the MIT Energy Club in the 2015–2016 academic year.

At an outdoor session in November 2015, special guest Ben Bixby, director of energy products at Nest Labs, addresses the 15.S42 class while instructor Harvey Michaels looks on. Photo: Joshua Lehman G.

“I was really excited to hear about the course,” says Lehman. “I’d felt for a long time that people were too focused on supply-side solutions to reducing the carbon intensity of our economy, like solar and wind power.” For Lehman, who majored in environmental science at Brown University, energy demand management is at least as important. “Getting students interested in the demand side seems a powerful way to build awareness of this other path to sustainability.”

The class last fall rolled out in stages: a “boot camp” that provided primers on such topics as building energy management technologies and innovations, grid economics, and energy markets; visits from experts and leaders in the energy management field; and research leading to group projects and presentations.

“It’s such a big part of our lives, but before this class I didn’t know anything about the grid, how utility companies worked, or how people got their energy,” says senior Jacqueline Kuo of mechanical engineering. Kuo was one of 15 students from a range of majors who enrolled in 15.S42—her first energy class. “I got a really good overview of where our energy comes from.”

Student encounters with energy management professionals took place both at MIT and on field trips to such companies as Boston’s EnerNOC, which makes software to help commercial end-users save on energy in their buildings. As Michaels intended, the burden of learning during these interactions fell on the students. “Someone from Google/Nest came to class with a big presentation on their smart thermostat technology and business, and I said, ‘Don’t lecture,’” he recalls. “Students do the research and have to interview you.”

It’s such a big part of our lives, but before this class I didn’t know anything about the grid, how utility companies worked, or how people got their energy.

Jacqueline Kuo, ’16

The class took advantage of current events to focus on policy. One assignment asked students to write a letter to MIT President L. Rafael Reif (not intended for delivery) in response to the Institute’s just-released climate action plan. “We had a lot of discussions in reaction to what was happening at MIT and in the climate change talks in Paris,” says Kuo. “We learned a lot from each other, and the class felt really relevant.”

For final projects, Michaels drove home the real-world applications of energy management. Students could choose either to devise an energy management-based policy for limiting worldwide temperature increases to 2°C or to propose strategies for improving energy use on campus by applying such techniques as new building technologies, retrofits, behavior tools, building analytics, and GIS data maps of the school’s carbon footprint.

Students presented their plans to representatives from MIT’s Department of Facilities and Office of Sustainability, and from KGS Buildings, a firm with MIT roots that is responsible for analyzing school energy usage.

“I wanted to give undergraduates some understanding and a level of excitement about energy management,” says Michaels, who would like to situate a future version of 15.S42 in the Energy Studies Minor or in a potential environment and sustainability minor. “Some students want to work in this field after graduation, and I hope my class gave them ideas for improving the field once they’re in it.”

15.S42 has already proved a valuable stepping-stone for Kuo, who landed a job during January’s Independent Activities Period with an engineering firm. “It was great because I had just taken a class on buildings and energy, and then I was applying all these tools for using energy more efficiently as a climate engineering intern,” she says. “More classes like this should happen at MIT.”

For more details about the development of 17.051 The Ethics of Energy Policy, see Morals matter: New class explores energy and ethics. The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) created and administers the interdisciplinary Energy Studies Minor for undergraduates. The faculty-led Energy Minor Oversight Committee of MITEI’s Energy Education Task Force provides institutional leadership for the development and support of the energy studies curriculum.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today

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