Seminar challenges with systems approach to climate change

Leda Zimmerman Correspondent    ·    January 19, 2012    ·    MITEI

In the fall of 2010, Leah Stokes walked into Energy Systems and Climate Change Mitigation (ESD.124) on the first day the graduate seminar was offered. “The class seemed perfect for me,” says this Ph.D. student in Environmental Policy and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, “so I had to take it.  I ended up loving it.” While no novice to the complex questions involved in transforming a carbon-centric world, Stokes, a 2010-2011 Siemens Energy Fellow, credits ESD.124 instructor Jessika Trancik, Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems, with “getting me thinking in a different way.”

Stokes and other students describe an ambitious class that encompasses the multidimensional challenges entailed in tackling climate change. “Professor Trancik frames the problem in terms of multiple impacts,” says first year graduate student Morgan Edwards. “She shows how we can make choices in different areas to reduce emissions…She puts it all together as one picture.”  Trancik acknowledges this “distinctive feature” of ESD.124. “I combine a focus on technologies with a broader quantitative picture,” she says, which means “working across scales and at different levels of abstraction.” By semester’s end, Trancik says, students acquire “a comprehensive, integrated framework for comparing different energy supply technologies to one another, and the capacity to compare these energy technologies to climate change mitigation goals.”

Quantitative and analytical tools are central to ESD.124. Through lectures and problem sets, students learn statistical methods and models as they study such topics as carbon intensity, water scarcity, and the change in performance of technologies over time. Trancik situates these subjects in the context of larger questions:  how energy systems now and in the future may contribute to climate change, and which technologies might best meet actual greenhouse gas targets. Trancik is also intent on giving students insight into research methodology, so she asks them to pore over journal articles with a critical eye, and present their findings to classroom peers.  Says Trancik, “I’m a big proponent not just of reading articles but of understanding how researchers find their results, and questioning those results.”

In their final projects, students deploy newly sharpened analytical and quantitative skills in original research. With Trancik’s assistance, students devise “discrete research questions” and select appropriate methods for seeking answers.  Edwards, who took ESD.124 last fall, focused on the lifetimes of bio-based jet fuel emissions versus those produced by conventional jet fuels, and explored how “the timing and composition of emissions is important in terms of meeting climate goals.” Stokes analyzed the carbon budget for a planet where temperatures are limited to an increase of 2°C. “I had to determine the mix of energy systems to make that target,” says Stokes. With Trancik’s guidance, Stokes showed “step by step what was required to decarbonize the energy system,” and how to “grapple with uncertainty in forecasting” over a timescale of 60-plus years. Trancik says her students don’t “want solutions handed to them,” and sometimes produce work that leads to publishable articles. Other ESD.124 projects deepen into continued research (Edwards now works in Trancik’s lab).

Trancik, with her heterogeneous background in materials science, energy modeling, complex systems, and U.N. sustainable development practice, brings something unique to the classroom, say students. “Her approach ties technological understanding of innovation and systems to policy understanding of the scale of the problem,” says Stokes. “She is ultimately an engineer but quite adept in communicating to a policy audience. She empowers other people to bring what they know to the table, and can draw out their best qualities.” From Edwards’ perspective, Trancik “really motivates students to see where we are now, and what needs to be done to change the climate’s trajectory — that it is an ambitious and difficult thing we’re setting out on, but definitely possible.”

Trancik says that while she teaches “standard tools and concepts,” she also tries to “help students see new connections.”  She looks forward to extending this approach to her new spring course, Mapping and Evaluating New Energy Technologies (ESD.125). Teaching at MIT, she says, is both “uplifting and a great privilege,” because of “students who can pose very challenging questions and who have the ability – and want  – to solve difficult problems. I’m thankful for that every day.”

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