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    The future of motorcycles could be hydrogen

    MIT’s Electric Vehicle Team, which has a long record of building and racing innovative electric vehicles, including cars and motorcycles, in international professional-level competitions, is trying something very different this year: The team is building a hydrogen-powered electric motorcycle, using a fuel cell system, as a testbed for new hydrogen-based transportation.

    The motorcycle successfully underwent its first full test-track demonstration in October. It is designed as an open-source platform that should make it possible to swap out and test a variety of different components, and for others to try their own versions based on plans the team is making freely available online.

    Aditya Mehrotra, who is spearheading the project, is a graduate student working with mechanical engineering professor Alex Slocum, the Walter M. May  and A. Hazel May Chair in Emerging Technologies. Mehrotra was studying energy systems and happened to also really like motorcycles, he says, “so we came up with the idea of a hydrogen-powered bike. We did an evaluation study, and we thought that this could actually work. We [decided to] try to build it.”

    Team members say that while battery-powered cars are a boon for the environment, they still face limitations in range and have issues associated with the mining of lithium and resulting emissions. So, the team was interested in exploring hydrogen-powered vehicles as a clean alternative, allowing for vehicles that could be quickly refilled just like gasoline-powered vehicles.

    Unlike past projects by the team, which has been part of MIT since 2005, this vehicle will not be entering races or competitions but will be presented at a variety of conferences. The team, consisting of about a dozen students, has been working on building the prototype since January 2023. In October they presented the bike at the Hydrogen Americas Summit, and in May they will travel to the Netherlands to present it at the World Hydrogen Summit. In addition to the two hydrogen summits, the team plans to show its bike at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month.

    “We’re hoping to use this project as a chance to start conversations around ‘small hydrogen’ systems that could increase demand, which could lead to the development of more infrastructure,” Mehrotra says. “We hope the project can help find new and creative applications for hydrogen.” In addition to these demonstrations and the online information the team will provide, he adds, they are also working toward publishing papers in academic journals describing their project and lessons learned from it, in hopes of making “an impact on the energy industry.”

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    For the love of speed: Building a hydrogen-powered motorcycle

    The motorcycle took shape over the course of the year piece by piece. “We got a couple of industry sponsors to donate components like the fuel cell and a lot of the major components of the system,” he says. They also received support from the MIT Energy Initiative, the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the MIT Edgerton Center.

    Initial tests were conducted on a dynamometer, a kind of instrumented treadmill Mehrotra describes as “basically a mock road.” The vehicle used battery power during its development, until the fuel cell, provided by South Korean company Doosan, could be delivered and installed. The space the group has used to design and build the prototype, the home of the Electric Vehicle Team, is in MIT’s Building N51 and is well set up to do detailed testing of each of the bike’s components as it is developed and integrated.

    Elizabeth Brennan, a senior in mechanical engineering, says she joined the team in January 2023 because she wanted to gain more electrical engineering experience, “and I really fell in love with it.” She says group members “really care and are very excited to be here and work on this bike and believe in the project.”

    Brennan, who is the team’s safety lead, has been learning about the safe handling methods required for the bike’s hydrogen fuel, including the special tanks and connectors needed. The team initially used a commercially available electric motor for the prototype but is now working on an improved version, designed from scratch, she says, “which gives us a lot more flexibility.”

    As part of the project, team members are developing a kind of textbook describing what they did and how they carried out each step in the process of designing and fabricating this hydrogen electric fuel-cell bike. No such motorcycle yet exists as a commercial product, though a few prototypes have been built.

    That kind of guidebook to the process “just doesn’t exist,” Brennan says. She adds that “a lot of the technology development for hydrogen is either done in simulation or is still in the prototype stages, because developing it is expensive, and it’s difficult to test these kinds of systems.” One of the team’s goals for the project is to make everything available as an open-source design, and “we want to provide this bike as a platform for researchers and for education, where researchers can test ideas in both space- and funding-constrained environments.”

    Unlike a design built as a commercial product, Mehrotra says, “our vehicle is fully designed for research, so you can swap components in and out, and get real hardware data on how good your designs are.” That can help people work on implementing their new design ideas and help push the industry forward, he says.

    The few prototypes developed previously by some companies were inefficient and expensive, he says. “So far as we know, we are the first fully open-source, rigorously documented, tested and released-as-a-platform, [fuel cell] motorcycle in the world. No one else has made a motorcycle and tested it to the level that we have, and documented to the point that someone might actually be able to take this and scale it in the future, or use it in research.”

    He adds that “at the moment, this vehicle is affordable for research, but it’s not affordable yet for commercial production because the fuel cell is a very big, expensive component.” Doosan Fuel Cell, which provided the fuel cell for the prototype bike, produces relatively small and lightweight fuel cells mostly for use in drones. The company also produces hydrogen storage and delivery systems.

    The project will continue to evolve, says team member Annika Marschner, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. “It’s sort of an ongoing thing, and as we develop it and make changes, make it a stronger, better bike, it will just continue to grow over the years, hopefully,” she says.

    While the Electric Vehicle Team has until now focused on battery-powered vehicles, Marschner says, “Right now we’re looking at hydrogen because it seems like something that’s been less explored than other technologies for making sustainable transportation. So, it seemed like an exciting thing for us to offer our time and effort to.”

    Making it all work has been a long process. The team is using a frame from a 1999 motorcycle, with many custom-made parts added to support the electric motor, the hydrogen tank, the fuel cell, and the drive train. “Making everything fit in the frame of the bike is definitely something we’ve had to think about a lot because there’s such limited space there. So, it required trying to figure out how to mount things in clever ways so that there are not conflicts,” she says.

    Marschner says, “A lot of people don’t really imagine hydrogen energy being something that’s out there being used on the roads, but the technology does exist.” She points out that Toyota and Hyundai have hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the market, and that some hydrogen fuel stations exist, mostly in California, Japan, and some European countries. But getting access to hydrogen, “for your average consumer on the East Coast, is a huge, huge challenge. Infrastructure is definitely the biggest challenge right now to hydrogen vehicles,” she says.

    She sees a bright future for hydrogen as a clean fuel to replace fossil fuels over time. “I think it has a huge amount of potential,” she says. “I think one of the biggest challenges with moving hydrogen energy forward is getting these demonstration projects actually developed and showing that these things can work and that they can work well. So, we’re really excited to bring it along further.” More

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    The science and art of complex systems

    As a high school student, Gosha Geogdzhayev attended Saturday science classes at Columbia University, including one called The Physics of Climate Change. “They showed us a satellite image of the Earth’s atmosphere, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful,’” he recalls. Since then, climate science has been one of his driving interests.

    With the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and the BC3 Climate Grand Challenges project, Geogdzhayev is creating climate model “emulators” in order to localize the large-scale data provided by global climate models (GCMs). As he explains, GCMs can make broad predictions about climate change, but they are not proficient at analyzing impacts in localized areas. However, simpler “emulator” models can learn from GCMs and other data sources to answer specialized questions. The model Geogdzhayev is currently working on will project the frequency of extreme heat events in Nigeria.

    A senior majoring in physics, Geogdzhayev hopes that his current and future research will help reshape the scientific approach to studying climate trends. More accurate predictions of climate conditions could have benefits far beyond scientific analysis, and affect the decisions of policymakers, businesspeople, and truly anyone concerned about climate change.

    “I have this fascination with complex systems, and reducing that complexity and picking it apart,” Geogdzhayev says.

    His pursuit of discovery has led him from Berlin, Germany, to Princeton, New Jersey, with stops in between. He has worked with Transsolar KlimaEngineering, NASA, NOAA, FU Berlin, and MIT, including through the MIT Climate Stability Consortium’s Climate Scholars Program, in research positions that explore climate science in different ways. His projects have involved applications such as severe weather alerts, predictions of late seasonal freezes, and eco-friendly building design. 

    The written word

    Originating even earlier than his passion for climate science is Geogdzhayev’s love of writing. He recently discovered original poetry dating back all the way to middle school. In this poetry he found a coincidental throughline to his current life: “There was one poem about climate, actually. It was so bad,” he says, laughing. “But it was cool to see.”

    As a scientist, Geogdzhayev finds that poetry helps quiet his often busy mind. Writing provides a vehicle to understand himself, and therefore to communicate more effectively with others, which he sees as necessary for success in his field.

    “A lot of good work comes from being able to communicate with other people. And poetry is a way for me to flex those muscles. If I can communicate with myself, and if I can communicate myself to others, that is transferable to science,” he says.

    Since last spring Geogdzhayev has attended poetry workshop classes at Harvard University, which he enjoys partly because it nudges him to explore spaces outside of MIT.

    He has contributed prolifically to platforms on campus as well. Since his first year, he has written as a staff blogger for MIT Admissions, creating posts about his life at MIT for prospective students. He has also written for the yearly fashion publication “Infinite Magazine.”

    Merging both science and writing, a peer-reviewed publication by Geogdzhayev will soon be published in the journal “Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena.” The piece explores the validity of climate statistics under climate change through an abstract mathematical system.

    Leading with heart

    Geogdzhayev enjoys being a collaborator, but also excels in leadership positions. When he first arrived at MIT, his dorm, Burton Conner, was closed for renovation, and he could not access that living community directly. Once his sophomore year arrived however, he was quick to volunteer to streamline the process to get new students involved, and eventually became floor chair for his living community, Burton 1.

    Following the social stagnation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the dorm renovation, he helped rebuild a sense of community for his dorm by planning social events and governmental organization for the floor. He now regards the members of Burton 1 as his closest friends and partners in “general tomfoolery.”

    This sense of leadership is coupled with an affinity for teaching. Geogdzhayev is a peer mentor in the Physics Mentorship Program and taught climate modeling classes to local high school students as a part of SPLASH. He describes these experiences as “very fun” and can imagine himself as a university professor dedicated to both teaching and research.

    Following graduation, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue a PhD in climate science or applied math. “I can see myself working on research for the rest of my life,” he says. More

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    MIT students win Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center sustainability award

    MIT senior Anna Kwon and sophomore Nicole Doering have been recognized by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) for their work as interns last summer. Both students received Jane Matlaw Environmental Champion Awards, which honor leaders and innovators who have catalyzed changes that align with BIDMC’s sustainability goals and foster a healthier future for staff and patients.

    The awards, which were established 25 years ago, had previously only been given to individuals and teams within BIDMC. “This year, given the significant leadership and alignment with our public commitments that Nicole and Anna had over the summer, our Sustainability Award Review Committee determined that we would include a student category of our awards for both a high school student and undergraduates as well,” says Avery Palardy, the climate and sustainability director at BIDMC.

    Kwon and Doering worked at BIDMC through the Social Impact Internship Program, one of many experiential learning opportunities offered by MIT’s Priscilla King Gray Center for Public Service. The program provides funded internships to students interested in working with government agencies, nonprofits, and social ventures.

    Both students conducted work that will help BIDMC meet two commitments to the Department of Health and Human Services Health Sector Climate Pledge: to develop a climate resilience plan for continuous operations by the end of 2023, and to conduct an inventory of its supply chain emissions by the end of 2024.

    “It was fun — a new challenge for me,” says Kwon, who is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. “I have never done research in sustainability before. I was able to dive into the field of health care from a new angle, deepening my understanding of the complexities of environmental issues within health care.” Her internship involved performing data analysis related to carbon emissions. In addition, she developed actionable recommendations for conducting a comprehensive supply chain inventory.

    “Anna demonstrated unwavering diligence and attention to detail throughout her work to conduct a greenhouse gas inventory of our supply chain,” says Palardy. “She showcased exceptional skills in market research as she investigated best practices and emerging technologies to ensure that we stay at the forefront of sustainable practices. Her keen insights and forward-thinking approach have equipped us with valuable information for shaping our path forward on our sustainability goals.”

    Doering, a chemical engineering major, guided several departments in an internal assessment of best practices, vulnerabilities, and future directions to integrate climate resilience into the medical center’s operations. She has continued to work this fall to help finalize the climate resilience plan, and she has also been analyzing food procurement data to identify ways to reduce BIDMC’s Scope 3 emissions.

    Climate resilience isn’t an area of sustainability that Doering had considered before, but the internship experience has inspired her to continue pursuing other sustainability roles in the future. “I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned from BIDMC, so I’m really glad that my work was helpful to them. It is an honor that they trusted me to work with them on something that will have such a wonderful impact on our community,” she says.

    “The impact of Nicole’s contributions cannot be overstated,” notes Palardy. “From planning and organizing crucial focus groups to crafting our climate resilience plan, she played a pivotal role in shaping our climate resilience strategies for the better. I’m so grateful for the collaborative spirit, passion, and leadership that she brought to our team. She helped to drive innovation in health-care climate resilience that is necessary for us to ensure this continues to be a priority.” More

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    The power of knowledge

    In his early career at MIT, Josh Kuffour’s academic interests spanned mathematics, engineering, and physics. He decided to major in chemical engineering, figuring it would draw on all three areas. Then, he found himself increasingly interested in the mathematical components of his studies and added a second major, applied mathematics.

    Now, with a double major and energy studies minor, Kuffour is still seeking to learn even more. He has made it a goal to take classes from as many different departments as he can before he graduates. So far, he has taken classes from 17 different departments, ranging from Civil and Environmental Engineering to Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences to Linguistics and Philosophy.

    “It’s taught me about valuing different ways of thinking,” he says about this wide-ranging approach to the course catalog. “It’s also taught me to value blending disciplines as a whole. Learning about how other people think about the same problems from different perspectives allows for better solutions to be developed.”

    After graduation, Kuffour plans to pursue a master’s degree at MIT, either in the Technology and Policy Program or in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He intends to make renewable energy, and its role in addressing societal inequalities, the focus of his career after graduating, and eventually plans to become a teacher.

    Serving the public

    Recognizing the power of knowledge, Kuffour says he enjoys helping to educate others “in any way I can.” He is involved with several extracurriculars in which he can be a mentor for both peers and high school students.

    Kuffour has volunteered with the Educational Studies Program since his first semester at MIT. This club runs Splash, “a weekend-long learning extravaganza,” as Kuffour puts it, in which MIT students teach over 400 free classes on a huge variety of topics for local high school students.

    For his peers, Kuffour also participates in the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program (GEL). Here, he teaches first-year GEL students leadership skills that engineers may require in their future careers. In doing this, Kuffour says he develops his own leadership skills as well. He is also working as a teaching assistant for multivariable calculus this semester.

    Kuffour has also served as an advisor for the Concourse learning community; as president of his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi; as a student representative on the HASS requirement subcommittee; and as a publicist for the Reason for God series, which invites the MIT community to discuss the intersections of religion with various facets of human life.

    Renewable energy

    Kuffour’s interest in energy issues has grown and evolved in recent years. He first learned about the ecological condition of the world in the eighth grade after watching the climate change documentary “Earth 2100” in school. Going into high school and college, Kuffour says he started reading books, taking classes, watching documentaries, participating in beach and city clean ups, to learn as much as possible about the environment and      global warming.

    During the summer of 2023, Kuffour worked as an energy and climate analysis intern for the consulting company Keylogic and has continued helping the company shift programming languages to Python for evaluating the economics of different methods of decarbonizing electricity sectors in the U.S. He has also assisted in analyzing trends in U.S. natural gas imports, exports, production, and consumption since the early 2000s.            

    In his time as an undergraduate, Kuffour’s interest in renewable energy has taken on a more justice-focused perspective. He’s learned over the course of his that due to historical inequalities in the U.S., pollution and other environmental problems have disproportionately impacted people of lower economic status and people of color. Since global warming will exacerbate these impacts, Kuffour seeks to address these growing inequalities through his work in energy data analysis.        

    Translating interests into activity

    Kuffour’s pursuit to expand his worldview never rests, even outside of the classroom. In his free time, he enjoys listening to podcasts or watching documentaries on any subject. When attempting to list all his favorite podcasts, he cuts himself off, saying, “This could go on for a while.”

    In 2022, Kuffour participated on a whim with a group of friends in an American Institute of Chemical Engineers competition, where he was tasked with creating a 1-by-1 foot cube that could filter water to specifications provided by the competition. He says it was fun to apply what he was learning at MIT to a project all the way in Arizona. 

    Kuffour enjoys discovering new things with friends as much as on his own. Three years ago, he started an intramural soccer team with friends from the Interphase EDGE program, which attracted many people he had never interacted with before. The team has been playing nearly every week since and Kuffour says the experience has been, “very enriching.”

    Kuffour hopes other students will also seek out knowledge and experiences from a wide range of sources during their undergraduate years. He offers: “Try as many things as possible even if you think you know what you want to do, and appreciate everything life has to offer.” More

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    “Move-in day is kind of like our Superbowl”

    The academic year has officially begun at MIT, and the halls are once again filled with the energy and excitement that only students can bring. But MIT’s campus does not come to life automatically.

    The flurry of activity happening around campus this week was preceded by a lot of hard work by thousands of staff members committed to getting the school year off to a seamless start.

    “Getting MIT ready to welcome new and returning students is a real team effort, and much of the work goes on over the summer or behind the scenes when many students are away from campus,” says Suzy Nelson, vice chancellor and dean for student life. “I’m grateful to all of the staff members in the Division of Student Life and across the Institute whose dedication to their job and exceptional efforts help to make the MIT experience so special from the moment students arrive on campus.”

    Describing all of those efforts would require a book-length article, but here we highlight a few examples of the behind-the-scenes work that ushers in the new academic year.

    Housing and Residential Services

    One might think the team responsible for housing at MIT gets a break in June and July when undergraduates leave for the summer. But the housing team stays busy year-round. Summer months offer openings for renovations, planning, and events like summer programs and conferences (some of which provide housing). In fact, team members say the planning alone is nearly a year-round job.

    “We start planning for students coming back in May because first-year students are confirming attendance and starting to indicate their preferences for where they want to live, and housing works really closely with student leaders in each of the undergrad residences because our student leaders are very involved with room assignments,” explains Rich Hilton, associate dean and director for residential services and operations. “On the graduate side, grads typically move in Aug. 1, and departing grad students move out at the end of July, or sometimes earlier, so in those early summer months there’s a lot of transitioning happening.”

    Of course, move-in day for undergraduates and the subsequent Welcome Week are an important time for the Housing and Residential Services team to help the MIT community’s newest members settle in.

    “Move-in day is kind of like our Superbowl,” Hilton says. “All the summer projects we work on are to prepare and maintain the residence halls for new and returning students to be living in the residence halls. The ramp-up involves making sure the residences are refreshed and ready, and the welcome efforts include providing moving bins, materials, and moving assistance. For students who have never been to campus before, residential staff are often the first people they meet, so we want to put a really good impression out there. We pull out all the stops to make sure that welcome efforts are top-notch.”

    Hilton says the atmosphere is always special on move in day.

    “The students are a wonderful motivation,” Hilton says. “It’s great seeing the new students come in with their families. Students are coming from all corners of the world, from different backgrounds, and more often than not the parents are just beaming with pride, so being able to greet them and even reassure them if needed is really rewarding.”

    In all, MIT Housing and Residential Services employs more than 200 people focused on assignments, maintenance, cleaning, residential security, and more, to make living on campus as enjoyable as possible.

    “Housing truly is 24/7, 365,” Hilton says. “Our team members are on campus keeping our residents safe and happy and serving them 24 hours a day. They’re here rain or shine, and it’s nice to keep them in mind.”

    Dining

    MIT Dining works with students to offer healthy, affordable, and culturally meaningful food in environments that promote social connections, sustainability, and innovation. The department oversees nine different third-party contractors to provide services across 20+ locations — and MIT’s own dining staff consists of just two people: Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes and Assistant Director of Dining Operations Heather Ryall.

    Typical summer months provide an opportunity for the small team to look at food trends, work with dieticians and food allergy specialists, review menus, and explore ways to improve operations. This summer was even busier thanks to renovations at the Stratton Student Center and Maseeh Hall and the introduction of new food stations in CommonWealth Kitchen and at Forbes Café.

    In August, MIT Dining makes sure it has established open lines of communication with new student leaders and other groups around campus

    “We interact with a lot of student groups this time of year,” Hayes says. “It’s exciting to start with a new group of students and get feedback, collaborating and sharing ideas. It reminds us of what we’re here for: students. If things are working, that’s great! If they’re not working, let’s collaborate and figure out what can we do better — let’s make it a pset [problem set]. What are we not doing that we should be? I’ve been lucky in that students at MIT are really engaged.”

    “August is when everyone wants to get together and make sure we’re starting off on the right foot,” Hayes says. “That two-way flow of information is what it’s all about, and it’s really strong here.”

    Some dining locations stay open through the summer to support grad students, faculty and staff, but residential dining halls shut down. By August, some international students and athletes begin moving back to campus. Then Welcome Week begins for first-year students. Then pretty much everyone else returns over Labor Day Weekend.

    “In a way, you go from almost zero to 100,” Hayes says.

    This academic year, DSL will undertake a thorough review of the residence hall dining program, gathering student and community input on enhancements. This follows a similar review of campus retail dining operations completed in December 2022.

    Student Support and Wellbeing

    The Student Support and Wellbeing team, co-led by Associate Dean and Senior Director Jimmy Doan, offers a slate of resources to make it easy for students to seek help if they need it, and to encourage students to take care of themselves throughout their time at MIT. The team also coordinates with faculty, staff, and student groups across the Institute to foster an environment where students’ sense of belonging and well-being is prioritized.

    Ahead of the new school year, team members have been sharing with faculty best practices for fostering student well-being in the classroom and labs, including presenting workshops to new faculty members to inform them of resources to use when they’re concerned about students.

    They have also been connecting with student leaders so they can help their peers prioritize well-being. “Come early August, we’re facilitating a lot of trainings and gearing up for new student orientation programs.” Doan says. “We’re working with a lot of student leaders this time of year. We know students learn as much from each other as they do from us.”

    New student orientation offers a chance to provide a week’s worth of programming to incoming first-year students. In one of those sessions, Dear Future Me, older students share their perspectives on prioritizing well-being and accessing support at MIT.

    “We try to normalize students getting help at MIT when they need it,” Doan says. “Starting from day one of orientation we tell them getting help is for everybody.”

    One office where nearly 80 percent of undergraduate students seek out help before they graduate is Student Support Services, more commonly known as “S3” or “S-Cubed.” The staff in S3 are preparing for the start of the year by revamping their virtual drop-in hours for students, which students can access from the S3 website.

    “We want the ways that students reach out for help to be as accessible as possible,” Doan says. More

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    Putting public service into practice

    Salomé Otero ’23 doesn’t mince words about the social impact internship she had in 2022. “It was transformational for me,” she says.

    Otero, who majored in management with a concentration in education, always felt that education would play some role in her career path after MIT, but she wasn’t sure how. That all changed her junior year, when she got an email from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) about an internship at The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides education and technology training for justice-impacted individuals.

    Otero applied and was selected as a web curriculum and re-entry intern at The Last Mile the summer between her junior and senior year — an eye-opening experience that cemented her post-graduation plans. “You hear some amazing stories, like this person was incarcerated before the iPhone had come out. Now he’s a software developer,” she explains. “And for me, the idea of using computer science education for good appealed to me on many fronts. But even if I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work at The Last Mile, the fact that I saw a job description for this role and learned that companies have the resources to make a difference … I didn’t know that there were people and organizations dedicating their time and energy into this.”

    She was so inspired that, when she returned for her senior year, Otero found work at two education labs at MIT, completed another social impact internship over Independent Activities Period (IAP) at G{Code}, an education nonprofit that provides computer science education to women and nonbinary people of color, and decided to apply to graduate school. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I would not be pursuing a PhD in education policy right now if it weren’t for the PKG Center,” she says. She will begin her doctorate this fall.

    Otero’s experience doesn’t surprise Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Center. “MIT students are deeply concerned about the world’s most challenging problems,” she says. “And social impact internships are an incredible way for them to leverage their unique talents and skills to help create meaningful change while broadening their perspectives and discovering potential career paths.”

    “There’s a lot more out there”

    Founded 35 years ago, the PKG Center offers a robust portfolio of experiential learning programs broadly focused on four themes: climate change, health equity, racial justice, and tech for social good. The Center’s Social Impact Internship Program provides funded internships to students interested in working with government agencies, nonprofits, and social ventures. Students reap rich rewards from these experiences, including learning ways to make social change, informing their academic journey and career path, and gaining valuable professional skills.

    “It was a really good learning opportunity,” says Juliet Liao ’23, a graduate of MIT’s Naval ROTC program who commissioned as a submarine officer in June. She completed a social impact internship with the World Wildlife Fund, where she researched greenhouse gas emissions related to the salmon industry. “I haven’t had much exposure to what work outside of the Navy looks like and what I’m interested in working on. And I really liked the science-based approach to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Amina Abdalla, a rising junior in biological engineering, arrived at MIT with a strong interest in health care and determined to go to medical school. But her internship at MassHealth, the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program provider for the state of Massachusetts, broadened her understanding of the complexity of the health care system and introduced her to many career options that she didn’t know existed.

    “They did coffee chats between interns and various people who work in MassHealth, such as doctors, lawyers, policy advocates, and consultants. There’s a lot more out there that one can do with the degree that they get and the knowledge they gain. It just depends on your interests, and I came away from that really excited,” she says. The experience inspired her to take a class in health policy before she graduates. “I know I want to be a doctor and I have a lot of interest in science in general, but if I could do some kind of public sector impact with that knowledge, I would definitely be interested in doing that.”

    Social impact internships also provide an opportunity for students to hone their analytical, technical, and people skills. Selma Sharaf ’22 worked on developing a first-ever climate action plan for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. She conducted research and stakeholder interviews with nonprofits; sustainability directors at similar colleges; local utility companies; and faculty, staff, and students at Bennett.

    “Our external outreach efforts with certain organizations allowed me to practice having conversations about energy justice and climate issues with people who aren’t already in this space. I learned how useful it can be to not only discuss the overall issues of climate change and carbon emissions, but to also zoom in on more relatable personal-level impacts,” she says. Sharaf is currently working in clean energy consulting and plans to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program this fall.

    Working with “all stars”

    Organizations that partner with the PKG Center are often constrained by limited technical and financial resources. Since the program is funded by the PKG Center, these internships help expand their organizational capacity and broaden their impact; MIT students can take on projects that might not otherwise get done, and they also bring fresh skills and ideas to the organization — and the zeal to pursue those ideas.

    Emily Moberg ’11, PhD ’16 got involved with the social impact internship programs in 2020. Moberg, who is the director of Scope 3 Carbon Measurement and Mitigation at the World Wildlife Fund, has worked with 20 MIT students since then, including Liao. The body of work that Liao and several other interns completed has been published in the form of 10 briefs onmitigating greenhouse gas emissions from key commodities, such as soy, beef, coffee, and palm oil.

    “Social impact interns bring technical skills, deep curiosity, and tenacity,” Moberg says. “I’ve worked with students across many majors, including computer and materials science; all of them bring a new, fresh perspective to our problems and often sophisticated quantitative ability. Their presence often helps us to investigate new ideas or expand a project. In some cases, interns have proposed new projects and ideas themselves. The support from the PKG Center for us to host these interns has been critical, especially for these new explorations.”

    Anne Carrington Hayes, associate professor and executive director of the Global Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies program at Bennett College, calls the MIT interns she’s worked with since 2021 “all stars.” The work Sharaf and three other students performed has culminated in a draft climate action plan that will inform campus renovations and other measures that will be implemented at the college in the coming years.

    “They have been foundational in helping me to research, frame, collect data, and engage with our students and the community around issues of environmental justice and sustainability, particularly from the lens of what would be impactful and meaningful for women of color at Bennett College,” she says.

    Balancing supply and demand

    Bassett says that the social impact internship program has grown exponentially in the past few years. Before the pandemic, the program served five students from summer 2019 to spring 2020; it now serves about 125 students per year. Over that time, funding has become a significant limiting factor; demand for internships was three times the number of available internships in summer 2022, and five times the supply during IAP 2023.

    “MIT students have no shortage of opportunities available to them in the private sector, yet students are seeking social impact internships because they want to apply their skills to issues that they care about,” says Julie Uva, the PKG Center’s program administrator for social impact internships and employment. “We want to ensure every student who wants a social impact internship can access that experience.”

    MIT has taken note of this financial shortfall: the Task Force 2021 report recommended fundraising to alleviate the under-supply of social impact experiential learning opportunities (ELOs), and MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan called on the Institute to make a climate or clean-energy ELOs available to every undergraduate who wants one. As a result, the Office of Experiential Learning is working with Resource Development to raise new funding to support many more opportunities, which would be available to students not only through the PKG Center but also other offices and programs, such as MIT D-Lab, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programs, MISTI, and the Environmental Solutions Initiative, among others.

    That’s welcome news to Salomé Otero. She’s familiar with the Institute’s fundraising efforts, having worked as one of the Alumni Association’s Tech Callers. Now, as an alumna herself and a former social impact intern, she has an appreciation for the power of philanthropy.

    “MIT is ahead of the game compared to so many universities, in so many ways,” she says. “But if they want to continue to do that in the most impactful way possible, I think investing in ideas and missions like the PKG Center is the way to go. So when that call comes, I’ll tell whoever is working that night shift, ‘Yeah, I’ll donate to the PKG Center.’” More

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    A welcome new pipeline for students invested in clean energy

    Akarsh Aurora aspired “to be around people who are actually making the global energy transition happen,” he says. Sam Packman sought to “align his theoretical and computational interests to a clean energy project” with tangible impacts. Lauryn Kortman says she “really liked the idea of an in-depth research experience focused on an amazing energy source.”

    These three MIT students found what they wanted in the Fusion Undergraduate Scholars (FUSars) program launched by the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) to make meaningful fusion energy research accessible to undergraduates. Aurora, Kortman, and Packman are members of a cohort of 10 for the program’s inaugural run, which began spring semester 2023.

    FUSars operates like a high-wattage UROP (MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program). The program requires a student commitment of 10 to 12 hours weekly on a research project during the course of an academic year, as well as participation in a for-credit seminar providing professional development, communication, and wellness support. Through this class and with the mentorship of graduate students, postdocs, and research scientist advisors, students craft a publication-ready journal submission summarizing their research. Scholars who complete the entire year and submit a manuscript for review will receive double the ordinary UROP stipend — a payment that can reach $9,000.

    “The opportunity just jumped out at me,” says Packman. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” adds Aurora.

    Building a workforce

    “I kept hearing from students wanting to get into fusion, but they were very frustrated because there just wasn’t a pipeline for them to work at the PSFC,” says Michael Short, Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and associate director of the PSFC. The PSFC bustles with research projects run by scientists and postdocs. But since the PSFC isn’t a university department with educational obligations, it does not have the regular machinery in place to integrate undergraduate researchers.

    This poses a problem not just for students but for the field of fusion energy, which holds the prospect of unlimited, carbon-free electricity. There are promising advances afoot: MIT and one of its partners, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, are developing a prototype for a compact commercial fusion energy reactor. The start of a fusion energy industry will require a steady infusion of skilled talent.

    “We have to think about the workforce needs of fusion in the future and how to train that workforce,” says Rachel Shulman, who runs the FUSars program and co-instructs the FUSars class with Short. “Energy education needs to be thinking right now about what’s coming after solar, and that’s fusion.”

    Short, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at MIT, was himself the beneficiary of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) at the PSFC. As a faculty member, he has become deeply engaged in building transformative research experiences for undergraduates. With FUSars, he hopes to give students a springboard into the field — with an eye to developing a diverse, highly trained, and zealous employee pool for a future fusion industry.

    Taking a deep dive

    Although these are early days for this initial group of FUSars, there is already a shared sense of purpose and enthusiasm. Chosen from 32 applicants in a whirlwind selection process — the program first convened in early February after crafting the experience over Independent Activities Period — the students arrived with detailed research proposals and personal goals.

    Aurora, a first-year majoring in mechanical engineering and artificial intelligence, became fixed on fusion while still in high school. Today he is investigating methods for increasing the availability, known as capacity factor, of fusion reactors. “This is key to the commercialization of fusion energy,” he says.

    Packman, a first-year planning on a math and physics double major, is developing approaches to help simplify the computations involved in designing the complex geometries of solenoid induction heaters in fusion reactors. “This project is more immersive than my last UROP, and requires more time, but I know what I’m doing here and how this fits into the broader goals of fusion science,” he says. “It’s cool that our project is going to lead to a tool that will actually be used.”

    To accommodate the demands of their research projects, Shulman and Short discouraged students from taking on large academic loads.

    Kortman, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering with a concentration in mechanical engineering, was eager to make room in her schedule for her project, which concerns the effects of radiation damage on superconducting magnets. A shorter research experience with the PSFC during the pandemic fired her determination to delve deeper and invest more time in fusion.

    “It is very appealing and motivating to join people who have been working on this problem for decades, just as breakthroughs are coming through,” she says. “What I’m doing feels like it might be directly applicable to the development of an actual fusion reactor.”

    Camaraderie and support

    In the FUSar program, students aim to seize a sizeable stake in a multipronged research enterprise. “Here, if you have any hypotheses, you really get to pursue those because at the end of the day, the paper you write is yours,” says Aurora. “You can take ownership of what sort of discovery you’re making.”

    Enabling students to make the most of their research experiences requires abundant support — and not just for the students. “We have a whole separate set of programming on mentoring the mentors, where we go over topics with postdocs like how to teach someone to write a research paper, rather than write it for them, and how to help a student through difficulties,” Shulman says.

    The weekly student seminar, taught primarily by Short and Shulman, covers pragmatic matters essential to becoming a successful researcher — topics not always addressed directly or in the kind of detail that makes a difference. Topics include how to collaborate with lab mates, deal with a supervisor, find material in the MIT libraries, produce effective and persuasive research abstracts, and take time for self-care.

    Kortman believes camaraderie will help the cohort through an intense year. “This is a tight-knit community that will be great for keeping us all motivated when we run into research issues,” she says. “Meeting weekly to see what other students are able to accomplish will encourage me in my own project.”

    The seminar offerings have already attracted five additional participants outside the FUSars cohort. Adria Peterkin, a second-year graduate student in nuclear science and engineering, is sitting in to solidify her skills in scientific writing.

    “I wanted a structured class to help me get good at abstracts and communicating with different audiences,” says Peterkin, who is investigating radiation’s impact on the molten salt used in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors. “There’s a lot of assumed knowledge coming in as a PhD student, and a program like FUSars is really useful to help level out that playing field, regardless of your background.”

    Fusion research for all

    Short would like FUSars to cast a wide net, capturing the interest of MIT undergraduates no matter their backgrounds or financial means. One way he hopes to achieve this end is with the support of private donors, who make possible premium stipends for fusion scholars.

    “Many of our students are economically disadvantaged, on financial aid or supporting family back home, and need work that pays more than $15 an hour,” he says. This generous stipend may be critical, he says, to “flipping students from something else to fusion.”

    Although this first FUSars class is composed of science and engineering students, Short envisions a cohort eventually drawn from the broad spectrum of MIT disciplines. “Fusion is not a nuclear-focused discipline anymore — it’s no longer just plasma physics and radiation,” he says. “We’re trying to make a power plant now, and it’s an all hands-on-deck kind of thing, involving policy and economics and other subjects.”

    Although many are just getting started on their academic journeys, FUSar students believe this year will give them a strong push toward potential energy careers. “Fusion is the future of the energy transition and how we’re going to defeat climate change,” says Aurora. “I joined the program for a deep dive into the field, to help me decide whether I should invest the rest of my life to it.” More

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    MIT engineering students take on the heat of Miami

    Think back to the last time you had to wait for a bus. How miserable were you? If you were in Boston, your experience might have included punishing wind and icy sleet — or, more recently, a punch of pollen straight to the sinuses. But in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where the effects of climate change are both drastic and intensifying, commuters have to contend with an entirely different set of challenges: blistering temperatures and scorching humidity, making long stints waiting in the sun nearly unbearable.

    One of Miami’s most urgent transportation needs is shared by car-clogged Boston: coaxing citizens to use the municipal bus network, rather than the emissions-heavy individual vehicles currently contributing to climate change. But buses can be a tough sell in a sunny city where humidity hovers between 60 and 80 percent year-round. 

    Enter MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the MIT Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center. The result of close collaboration between the two organizations, class 6.900 (Engineering For Impact) challenges EECS students to apply their engineering savvy to real-world problems beyond the MIT campus.

    This spring semester, the real-world problem was heat. 

    Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works Chief Innovation Officer Carlos Cruz-Casas explains: “We often talk about the city we want to live in, about how the proper mix of public transportation, on-demand transit, and other mobility solutions, such as e-bikes and e-scooters, could help our community live a car-light life. However, none of this will be achievable if the riders are not comfortable when doing so.” 

    “When people think of South Florida and climate change, they often think of sea level rise,” says Juan Felipe Visser, deputy director of equity and engagement within the Office of the Mayor in Miami-Dade. “But heat really is the silent killer. So the focus of this class, on heat at bus stops, is very apt.” With little tree cover to give relief at some of the hottest stops, Miami-Dade commuters cluster in tiny patches of shade behind bus stops, sometimes giving up when the heat becomes unbearable. 

    A more conventional electrical engineering course might use temperature monitoring as an abstract example, building sample monitors in isolation and grading them as a merely academic exercise. But Professor Joel Volman, EECS faculty head of electrical engineering, and Joe Steinmeyer, senior lecturer in EECS, had something more impactful in mind.

    “Miami-Dade has a large population of people who are living in poverty, undocumented, or who are otherwise marginalized,” says Voldman. “Waiting, sometimes for a very long time, in scorching heat for the bus is just one aspect of how a city population can be underserved, but by measuring patterns in how many people are waiting for a bus, how long they wait, and in what conditions, we can begin to see where services are not keeping up with demand.”

    Only after that gap is quantified can the work of city and transportation planners begin, Cruz-Casas explains: “We needed to quantify the time riders are exposed to extreme heat and prioritize improvements, including on-time performance improvements, increasing service frequency, or looking to enhance the tree canopy near the bus stop.” 

    Quantifying that time — and the subjective experience of the wait — proved tricky, however. With over 7,500 bus stops along 101 bus routes, Miami-Dade’s transportation network presents a considerable data-collection challenge. A network of physical temperature monitors could be useful, but only if it were carefully calibrated to meet the budgetary, environmental, privacy, and implementation requirements of the city. But how do you work with city officials — not to mention all of bus-riding Miami — from over 2,000 miles away? 

    This is where the PKG Center comes in. “We are a hub and a connector and facilitator of best practices,” explains Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the center, who worked with Voldman and Steinmeyer to find a municipal partner organization for the course. “We bring knowledge of current pedagogy around community-engaged learning, which includes: help with framing a partnership that centers community-identified concerns and is mutually beneficial; identifying and learning from a community partner; talking through ways to build in opportunities for student learners to reflect on power dynamics, reciprocity, systems thinking, long-term planning, continuity, ethics, all the types of things that come up with this kind of shared project.”

    Through a series of brainstorming conversations, Bassett helped Voldman and Steinmeyer structure a well-defined project plan, as Cruz-Casas weighed in on the county’s needed technical specifications (including affordability, privacy protection, and implementability).

    “This course brings together a lot of subject area experts,” says Voldman. “We brought in guest lecturers, including Abby Berenson from the Sloan Leadership Center, to talk about working in teams; engineers from BOSE to talk about product design, certification, and environmental resistance; the co-founder and head of engineering from MIT spinout Butlr to talk about their low-power occupancy sensor; Tony Hu from MIT IDM [Integrated Design and Management] to talk about industrial design; and Katrina LaCurts from EECS to talk about communications and networking.”

    With the support of two generous donations and a gift of software from Altium, 6.900 developed into a hands-on exercise in hardware/software product development with a tangible goal in sight: build a better bus monitor.

    The challenges involved in this undertaking became apparent as soon as the 6.900 students began designing their monitors. “The most challenging requirement to meet was that the monitor be able to count how many people were waiting — and for how long they’d been standing there — while still maintaining privacy,” says Fabian Velazquez ’23 a recent EECS graduate. The task was complicated by commuters’ natural tendency to stand where the shade goes — whether beneath a tree or awning or snaking against a nearby wall in a line — rather than directly next to the bus sign or inside the bus shelter. “Accurately measuring people count with a camera — the most straightforward choice — is already quite difficult since you have to incorporate machine learning to identify which objects in frame are people. Maintaining privacy added an extra layer of constraint … since there is no guarantee the collected data wouldn’t be vulnerable.”

    As the groups weighed various privacy-preserving options, including lidar, radar, and thermal imaging, the class realized that Wi-Fi “sniffers,” which count the number of Wi-Fi enabled signals in the immediate area, were their best option to count waiting passengers. “We were all excited and ready for this amazing, answer-to-all-our-problems radar sensor to count people,” says Velasquez. “That component was extremely complex, however, and the complexity would have ultimately made my team use a lot of time and resources to integrate with our system. We also had a short time-to-market for this system we developed. We made the trade-off of complexity for robustness.” 

    The weather also posed its own set of challenges. “Environmental conditions were big factors on the structure and design of our devices,” says Yong Yan (Crystal) Liang, a rising junior majoring in EECS. “We incorporated humidity and temperature sensors into our data to show the weather at individual stops. Additionally, we also considered how our enclosure may be affected by extreme heat or potential hurricanes.”

    The heat variable proved problematic in multiple ways. “People detection was especially difficult, for in the Miami heat, thermal cameras may not be able to distinguish human body temperature from the surrounding air temperature, and the glare of the sun off of other surfaces in the area makes most forms of imaging very buggy,” says Katherine Mohr ’23. “My team had considered using mmWave sensors to get around these constraints, but we found the processing to be too difficult, and (like the rest of the class), we decided to only move forward with Wi-Fi/BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] sniffers.”

    The most valuable component of the new class may well have been the students’ exposure to real-world hardware/software engineering product development, where limitations on time and budget always exist, and where client requests must be carefully considered.  “Having an actual client to work with forced us to learn how to turn their wants into more specific technical specifications,” says Mohr. “We chose deliverables each week to complete by Friday, prioritizing tasks which would get us to a minimum viable product, as well as tasks that would require extra manufacturing time, like designing the printed-circuit board and enclosure.”

    Play video

    Joel Voldman, who co-designed 6.900 (Engineering For Impact) with Joe Steinmeyer and MIT’s Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center, describes how the course allowed students help develop systems for the public good. Voldman is the winner of the 2023 Teaching with Digital Technology Award, which is co-sponsored by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. Video: MIT Open Learning

    Crystal Liang counted her conversations with city representatives as among her most valuable 6.900 experiences. “We generated a lot of questions and were able to communicate with the community leaders of this project from Miami-Dade, who made time to answer all of them and gave us ideas from the goals they were trying to achieve,” she reports. “This project gave me a new perspective on problem-solving because it taught me to see things from the community members’ point of view.” Some of those community leaders, including Marta Viciedo, co-founder of Transit Alliance Miami, joined the class’s final session on May 16 to review the students’ proposed solutions. 

    The students’ thoughtful approach paid off when it was time to present the heat monitors to the class’s client. In a group conference call with Miami-Dade officials toward the end of the semester, the student teams shared their findings and the prototypes they’d created, along with videos of the devices at work. Juan Felipe Visser was among those in attendance. “This is a lot of work,” he told the students following their presentation. “So first of all, thank you for doing that, and for presenting to us. I love the concept. I took the bus this morning, as I do every morning, and was battered by the sun and the heat. So I personally appreciated the focus.” 

    Cruz-Casas agreed: “I am pleasantly surprised by the diverse approach the students are taking. We presented a challenge, and they have responded to it and managed to think beyond the problem at hand. I’m very optimistic about how the outcomes of this project will have a long-lasting impact for our community. At a minimum, I’m thinking that the more awareness we raise about this topic, the more opportunities we have to have the brightest minds seeking for a solution.”

    The creators of 6.900 agree, and hope that their class helps more MIT engineers to broaden their perspective on the meaning and application of their work. 

    “We are really excited about students applying their skills within a real-world, complex environment that will impact real people,” says Bassett. “We are excited that they are learning that it’s not just the design of technology that matters, but that climate; environment and built environment; and issues around socioeconomics, race, and equity, all come into play. There are layers and layers to the creation and deployment of technology in a demographically diverse multilingual community that is at the epicenter of climate change.” More