Energy orientation introduces freshmen to low-carbon technologies on campus and in the region

Chelsey Meyer    ·    September 20, 2016    ·    MITEI

In one of the last weeks before the official start of classes, twenty-five incoming MIT freshmen learned about their new undergraduate home—both on- and off-campus—in a pre-orientation program with a special focus on energy that ran from August 24 to 28. The MIT Energy Initiative-led program, called Discover Energy: Learn, Think, Apply (DELTA-FPOP), was designed as an interactive introduction to topics from wind energy to nuclear power and climate policy—with group bonding activities throughout the week.

Students began the program by exploring the MIT campus on a scavenger hunt to find campus landmarks and sustainable energy features such as solar-powered trash compactors. That afternoon, they built their own direct-current motors in an activity led by Steven Leeb, a professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s a small project,” said freshman Melissa Meloche, “but it’s the first time you get to do engineering.” Meloche, who grew up with a nuclear power plant visible through the windows of her home in Germany, developed her interest in energy amid her country’s debates about nuclear power. The DC Motor lab was one of her first “hands-on opportunities.”

The next day, the group learned about how wind turbine blades are tested to improve technology development from George Blagdon, a senior engineer at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown. On a tour of the immense facility, students saw prototype turbine blades, learned about the technology used to test their integrity, and peered into the interior of an old blade outside the building.

The students lunched together in the town of Hull before learning about the wind energy project there from two of the people who have helped make the project a success: community clean energy leader Andrew Stern took students inside the wind turbine to see the controls at the tower’s base, and Panos Tokadjian, operations manager at Hull Wind, answered student questions about the technology and its impact on the town.

Another technology the students learned about was nuclear fission. They visited MIT’s own nuclear research reactor, which is unique in the U.S. for involving students in development and implementation of nuclear engineering experimental programs.

The pre-orientation program also included two energy policy exercises: an activity led by five MIT alumni prompting students to consider emissions problems specific to Germany, and another led by Antje Danielson, MITEI education Director, that made use of a simulator where students adjusted details such as carbon tax or land use to see how these small changes would impact CO2 emissions overall.

These collaborative exercises encouraged the group to think about how they as MIT students can help solve the world’s energy and climate challenges.

Students were enthusiastic about their energy pre-orientation experience. Eden Bensaid, a freshman from Israel, said, “The program felt really balanced between being with friends and learning new things.”

For freshman Hamed Mounla, talking with faculty and fellow students during the program confirmed what had originally attracted him to MIT: “I was drawn to the people and the vibe and how excited everyone was about what they were doing.”

MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) academic coordinator Ann Greaney-Williams said, “We hope the pre-orientation program is just the first of many opportunities the class of 2020 will have to explore energy with us at MITEI, whether it’s through our Energy Studies Minor, an undergraduate summer research project, or other involvement with our programs and events.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

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