Empowering the globe to mitigate climate change through MIT courses

MITx and MIT Energy Initiative launch new series in sustainable energy, design, transportation, and policy.

Lauren Rebecca Thacker MIT Open Learning

Avidipto Biswas hoped to work in policy and renewable energy after finishing his master’s degree in international energy affairs, but he wanted to gain more knowledge and experience first. He turned to MITx for a course on sustainable and equitable solutions in urban mobility, calling it “the perfect bridge” between his education and work experience.

“This class is a stepping stone for practitioners starting in the field and looking for hands-on research experience,” he says. “The assignments build upon each other to develop a real-life proposal and promote learning by doing.”

Biswas took “ENE.001x Transformative Living Labs in Urban Climate Action and Transportation Planning,” one of the hundreds of high-quality massive open online courses (MOOCs) adapted from the MIT classroom for learners around the world. A leader in the online learning space since its launch in 2012, the MITx program, part of MIT Open Learning, leverages MIT’s considerable subject matter expertise and drives best practices in emerging digital and scalable learning environments. MITx also offers sequences, or series, of courses that give learners more robust instruction over three to 18 weeks.

The newest MITx sequence, Future Energy Systems, is offered by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). The four-course XSeries launched in September 2023 on the edX platform. But MITEI staff have been building toward this release since the debut of their first MITx course, “Sustainable Building Design,” in 2020. After working with the MITx team to develop three new courses from the ground up, MITEI now offers “Sustainable Energy,” “Energy Economics and Policy,” and “Transformative Living Labs in Urban Climate Action and Transportation Planning.”

“We always knew we wanted to make a program of courses that, together, represent the interdisciplinary nature of energy studies and focus on energy as the lever for mitigating climate change,” says Rowan Elowe, MITEI senior academic administrator.

“XSeries courses are designed to work together as a group,” explains Sarah Davis, MITx project administrator. “When a learner completes the four courses, they should be able to see the connections and have a fuller, deeper understanding of energy and the climate crisis.”

The MITx teams work with MIT faculty to translate their research and on-campus courses into online courses. MOOCs are carefully planned. Courses can include lectures filmed in the MITx studio, contributions from external collaborators, access to a digital library of supplemental learning materials like interactive problem sets, and a discussion board where learners can communicate in real time.

“For our residential and online courses, our goal is for students to consider how they can engage systems thinking to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change, regardless of the profession they have in mind,” says Elowe. “For the MITx series, we took the research, tools, and knowledge at MIT and made it openly accessible for global audiences to expedite the transition to sustainable energy.”

“MITx courses are just as rigorous as on-campus courses, but the people enrolled in them are not full-time students,” Davis says. “By narrowing the focus in these courses, we can maintain the level of academic rigor and make it sustainable. That means there are some concepts that require multiple MITx courses in order to have a strong foundation. In creating a series, we build a path for learners.”

Addressing the greatest scientific and societal challenge of the ages 

The Future Energy System XSeries launched at a moment when MIT is focused on climate change research. In her inaugural address, MIT President Sally Kornbluth said climate change was “the greatest scientific and societal challenge of this or any age” and called upon the MIT community to bring all their expertise to bear on the problem.

The first two courses launched in this XSeries—“Sustainable Energy” and “Energy Economics and Policy”—have enrolled more than 7,000 learners. In addition to the course content, learners have access to discussion boards where they can share ideas and ask questions of teaching assistants (TAs).

“Students in these courses come from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience in the energy sector,” says Elowe, who coordinates and supports TAs across courses. “TAs can point students to additional resources, like a crash course video on thermodynamics, if they are having trouble wrapping their heads around a concept. The courses attract learners who may not be native English speakers, so we are on hand to assist with any issues of translation and ensuring that all learners understand the assignments and expectations.”

Listia Khairunnisa, MITEI graduate education program assistant, adds that being a TA gives her insight into the different motivations people have for enrolling in the courses. “I’m moderating the course on sustainable energy and observing learners who have shifted their careers to focus on energy,” she says. “They enrolled to gain a deeper understanding of renewable energy.”

Testimonials from learners who have enrolled in MITx courses from MITEI since 2020 show that the experience can benefit people at all stages of their careers and across a variety of industries.

Claude Gerstle SB ’68, a climate activist and retired ophthalmologist who enrolled in a class on transportation planning, says, “I’m always looking for ways to make myself useful in the energy transition. This course is so well-organized, and I especially liked the way the homework was arranged and assisted by having templates you could fill in to organize your answers. Peer reviewing each other’s submissions demonstrated the very high-level understanding of the other students.”

Gerstle, who is also an MIT Open Learning supporter, adds that his course project on a cable car linking the New Jersey Palisades with New York City assisted him in preparing for a meeting with his state senator.

Claire Gotham, an executive with years of experience in the energy industry, found that there is always more to learn. “I particularly enjoyed the real work applicability of the course materials and assignments. Even after so many years of being hands-on in the energy space, I learned an enormous amount during the [Sustainable Energy] course that I expect to leverage and build on for years to come.”

Elowe is pleased to see the latest XSeries up and running. “At MITEI, we want to amplify all of the efforts happening here on campus,” he says. “Climate change is an immediate challenge. By making this content available globally we can enable and empower people to better engage with these questions and challenges.”

Davis emphasizes that learners can audit all MITx courses for no fee. “At MITx, we really believe that everyone should be able to have access to these big ideas,” she says. There are no applications, no required prerequisite courses or travel. All learners have to do is hit enroll.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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