Entering the animal world

On a field trip, Harriet Ritvo and her MIT students went to look at preserved animals on public display, or stored as lab specimens, in collections housed at Harvard University. They encountered hundreds of species, some up close: touching the wings of a pickled bat, the silky fur of a mink, and the sharp claws of a lynx and a lion.

Largely from the MIT School of Engineering, the students were part of a 14-person seminar on history and anthropology known as 21H.380 /21A.411/21H.980 (People and Other Animals). The class explores topics like how ideas about animal intelligence and agency have shifted over time, the human moral obligations to animals, and the limits imposed on the use of animals.

Ritvo, the Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at MIT, and a pioneer in the field of animal-human cultural studies, divides the students’ explorations into units, including the history of hunting, the domestication of livestock, and the exploitation of animal labor.

On this day’s outing, the aim was to “see how dead animals are displayed, and see behind-the-scenes how the displays are produced,” said Ritvo to her class. “We’ll see collections of dead specimens in various forms — stuffed, skins, skeletons.”

Fascinated by preservation

Zachary Bierstedt, an MIT senior in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), took a hands-on approach, jumping at the chance to handle the only mammal capable of sustained flight.  

“I am curious largely about what the preservation process actually does to the specimens,” said Bierstedt, as he lifted a bat, labelled Phylbostomus hastatus panamensis (great spear-nosed bat), from its jar. He spread its expansive wings. He ran a finger along the thick hair on its torso. “I was not expecting it to be so furry,” said Bierstedt.

Access to the normally locked doors of labs and inventory within Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, was facilitated by Mark Omura, a curatorial staff member. He gathered students along a long metal table covered primarily in study skins and detailed the preservation process, explaining the systematic organization of the collection, one of the most extensive in the world.

Moving to a cavernous storage room, he let students examine the additional specimen. Bierstedt lingered by a lion skin to feel its well-preserved claws.

On another stop, MIT senior Alexa Garcia, a biological engineering major, took in the public displays in the Great Mammal Hall, a Victorian-era gallery in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

“We are learning to think about how people have related to other species over time,” said Garcia. She walked by glass cases holding a full-sized giraffe and camels. Hanging from the rafters were large skeletons of a sperm whale, a fin whale, and a right whale. “I find it very useful,” she added, perhaps all too aware of how new technologies developed at MIT, like gene editing, might alter our definition of natural life.

MIT senior Veronica Padron, an AeroAstro major, stopped cold in front of some exhibits, snapping photographs. She zoomed in on a jellyfish in “Sea Creatures in Glass” — and then cried out as a hippo and a zebra rose into view as part of the Tropical Forest area.

Asked about her experience in the class, Padron said: “In most engineering classes, you are told how things work. You apply principles. This class is more about interpreting meaning. We employ a different style of exploration and discussion. It balances us out.”

The field trip wrapped up in the Glass Flowers Exhibit, a collection of models of more than 800 plant species. Students quickly handed Ritvo their final research papers before heading back to MIT. Watching them go, Ritvo said students in science and engineering benefit greatly from the lessons that humanities and social sciences offer. “Students learn a different way of understanding the world.”

Finding a voice

Students say that their reason for taking the course is more than just about knocking out a humanities requirement. “It’s really interesting to think about things from a different perspective,” said senior Matthew Nicolai. “We have to look through various subjectivities — the animal, the human — and contend with ethical issues. I don’t really think that way, so it’s intriguing.”

He and Christian Argenti, both mechanical engineering majors, said they read the course description, and swiftly convinced two additional engineering students in their fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, to take the course with them.

In one class, they had delved into the ethical treatment of animals. A showing of the 1949 French documentary, “Le Sang des Bêtes” (“Blood of the Beasts”), featured the unvarnished butchering of horses, cattle, and sheep at a slaughterhouse.

“There isn’t any attempt to make the killing ambiguous,” Ritvo said about the film. “What does it suggest about how things are perceived differently in different times and places?” Debate had ensued around their MIT seminar table as the scent of hyacinths drifted in from a nearby window overlooking the Charles.

Marcus Urann, a junior studying mechanical engineering, appreciates such moments of dialogue. “You can get lost in the mix in engineering. We have large classes with hours of lectures. In this class, we meet weekly and discuss issues in depth,” he said. “It gives you a way to voice an opinion.”

Q&A: On the future of human-centered robotics

Science and technology are essential tools for innovation, and to reap their full potential, we also need to articulate and solve the many aspects of today’s global issues that are rooted in the political, cultural, and economic realities of the human world. With that mission in mind, MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has launched The Human Factor — an ongoing series of stories and interviews that highlight research on the human dimensions of global challenges. Contributors to this series also share ideas for cultivating the multidisciplinary collaborations needed to solve the major civilizational issues of our time.

David Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, researches the intersections of human behavior, technological innovation, and automation. Mindell is the author of five acclaimed books, most recently “Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy” (Viking, 2015). He is also the co-founder of Humatics Corporation, which develops technologies for human-centered automation. SHASS Communications recently asked him to share his thoughts on the relationship of robotics to human activities, and the role of multidisciplinary research in solving complex global issues.

Q: A major theme in recent political discourse has been the perceived impact of robots and automation on the United States labor economy. In your research into the relationship between human activity and robotics, what insights have you gained that inform the future of human jobs, and the direction of technological innovation?

A: In looking at how people have designed, used, and adopted robotics in extreme environments like the deep ocean, aviation, or space, my most recent work shows how robotics and automation carry with them human assumptions about how work gets done, and how technology alters those assumptions. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s Predator drones were originally envisioned as fully autonomous — able to fly without any human assistance. In the end, these drones require hundreds of people to operate.

The new success of robots will depend on how well they situate into human environments. As in chess, the strongest players are often the combinations of human and machine. I increasingly see that the three critical elements are people, robots, and infrastructure — all interdependent.

Q: In your recent book “Our Robots, Ourselves,” you describe the success of a human-centered robotics, and explain why it is the more promising research direction — rather than research that aims for total robotic autonomy. How is your perspective being received by robotic engineers and other technologists, and do you see examples of research projects that are aiming at human-centered robotics?

A: One still hears researchers describe full autonom as the only way to go; often they overlook the multitude of human intentions built into even the most autonomous systems, and the infrastructure that surrounds them. My work describes situated autonomy, where autonomous systems can be highly functional within human environments such as factories or cities. Autonomy as a means of moving through physical environments has made enormous strides in the past ten years. As a means of moving through human environments, we are only just beginning. The new frontier is learning how to design the relationships between people, robots, and infrastructure. We need new sensors, new software, new ways of architecting systems.

Q: What can the study of the history of technology teach us about the future of robotics?

A: The history of technology does not predict the future, but it does offer rich examples of how people build and interact with technology, and how it evolves over time. Some problems just keep coming up over and over again, in new forms in each generation. When the historian notices such patterns, he can begin to ask: Is there some fundamental phenomenon here? If it is fundamental, how is it likely to appear in the next generation? Might the dynamics be altered in unexpected ways by human or technical innovations?

One such pattern is how autonomous systems have been rendered less autonomous when they make their way into real world human environments. Like the Predator drone, future military robots will likely be linked to human commanders and analysts in some ways as well. Rather than eliding those links, designing them to be as robust and effective as possible is a worthy focus for researchers’ attention.

Q: MIT President L. Rafael Reif has said that the solutions to today’s challenges depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world’s political, cultural, and economic realities. What barriers do you see to multidisciplinary, sociotechnical collaborations, and how can we overcome them?

A: I fear that as our technical education and research continues to excel, we are building human perspectives into technologies in ways not visible to our students. All data, for example, is socially inflected, and we are building systems that learn from those data and act in the world. As a colleague from Stanford recently observed, go to Google image search and type in “Grandma” and you’ll see the social bias that can leak into data sets — the top results all appear white and middle class.

Now think of those data sets as bases of decision making for vehicles like cars or trucks, and we become aware of the social and political dimensions that we need to build into systems to serve human needs. For example, should driverless cars adjust their expectations for pedestrian behavior according to the neighborhoods they’re in?

Meanwhile, too much of the humanities has developed islands of specialized discourse that is inaccessible to outsiders. I used to be more optimistic about multidisciplinary collaborations to address these problems. Departments and schools are great for organizing undergraduate majors and graduate education, but the old two-cultures divides remain deeply embedded in the daily practices of how we do our work. I’ve long believed MIT needs a new school to address these synthetic, far-reaching questions and train students to think in entirely new ways.

Interview prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand (series editor), Daniel Evans Pritchard

 

J-WAFS awards $1.4 million in third round of seed grant funding

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its third round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet.

This year, seven new projects will be funded, led by 10 faculty principal investigatorss across seven MIT departments. The winning projects include fertilizer technologies, technologies for water supply, and policy-oriented research addressing the uptake of irrigation technologies in Africa.

An ever-increasing number of faculty from across the Institute are deeply invested in addressing critical global challenges in water and food security, and this is reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals. The third J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 38 principal investigators, nearly two-thirds of whom had not submitted proposals to J-WAFS before. Competing for funding were established experts in water and food-related research areas as well as professors who are only recently applying their disciplinary expertise to the world’s water and food challenges. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the departments of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Additional funded principal investigators are from the Department of Chemistry in the School of Science, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

The seven newly funded projects bring the total number of seed research projects supported by J-WAFS to 24 since 2015. J-WAFS Director John Lienhard argues that “we must continue to advance innovations and creative ideas for delivering safe and secure food and clean and renewable water supplies. Through the innovative technologies and collaborations we are supporting with these new research projects, J-WAFS is working to secure the future of our communities, the sustainability of our cities, and the prosperity of our economies in the face of rising population, greater urbanization, and changing climate.” 

Project highlights appear below, followed by a full listing of 2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant-funded projects.

Enhancing crop production with an eye toward sustainability

Enhancing crop production while supporting environmentally sustainable farming practices in developing countries was a theme of several funded projects this year. Two projects are addressing challenges around nitrogen fertilizer.  Nitrogen is required for agricultural productivity, and most nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured using fossil fuels, which has a large carbon footprint. In Africa and other parts of the world, nitrogen fertilizer is not accessible to most farmers due to poor infrastructure for distribution, limiting the crop yields they can achieve. However, in North America and elsewhere, excess fertilizer runoff from farms contributes to water pollution.

Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will develop a solar-powered electrochemical device that can convert nitrogen from air, water, and sunlight into ammonia to be added to soil to promote plant growth. Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering, is pursuing an entirely different path, with the objective of engineering cereal grains that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen the way that legumes do. Once realized, these grains could become self-fertilizing high-yield producers in varied regions across the globe and dramatically reduce the damage to soil health, water supply, and local ecosystems often associated with the use of chemical fertilizer. 

Improving methods for culturing microalgae for food and fuel

Another funded project could significantly contribute to our ability to expand a promising future source of protein and oil, and reduce the energy use associated with its production. Mathias Kolle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, aims to create a new class of multifunctional micro- and nanostructural optical fibers that can more efficiently and effectively transport light and carbon dioxide throughout industrial microalgae cultures.

Microalgae are effective generators of protein-rich biomass that could, if produced on an industrial scale, supplement human nutrition, provide animal feedstock, and serve as biofuel. However, current production methods aren’t economically viable for this scale. Kolle’s microfibers could transform large-scale industrial microalgae production, making microalgae-produced protein and fuel an economically viable, sustainable, and energy efficient option in the future. 

Harvesting water from air

Securing clean drinking water in environments that are water-scarce or polluted is a challenge in many regions of the world. Additionally, agriculture and industrial uses deplete — and contaminate — global supply of freshwater, which increases the demand for alternative means of water gathering. Mircea Dinca, associate professor of chemistry, and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are teaming up to develop a new technology that can be used to harvest water in even the most arid regions of the globe. They will create a passive solar device that can extract clean, fresh water from the air at any range of humidity, using a metal-organic framework (MOF), a specialized porous material. J-WAFS seed funding will support the development of MOFs that can be used for providing water to remote areas, with greatly reduced infrastructure costs.

2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:

“Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa.” PI: Antoine Allanore, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

“Characterizing Extension Policy and Private Irrigation Supply Chain Linkages: Lessons from Senegal.” PIs: Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science in the Sloan School of Management; and Bishwapriya Sanyal, professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning

“Distributed Water Harvesting from Air in Water-Stressed and Remote Areas using Metal-Organic Frameworks.” PIs: Mircea Dinca, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering 

“Electrochemical Nitrogen Fixation for Distributed Fertilizer Production.” PI: Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering

“Evaluation of Fully Synthetic Nitrogen Fixation Pathways, Designed for Plant Mitochondria and Plastids.” PI: Christopher Voigt, professor in the Department of Biological Engineering 

“High-efficiency Chemical-Free Backwash Strategy for Reverse Osmosis Membrane Antifouling.” PIs: Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and John H. Lienhard, V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and J-WAFS 

“Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors.” PI: Mathias Kolle, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

MIT opens its energy-use data to the MIT community

MIT has launched a new website in beta form, making available a broad swath of detailed information about energy use and carbon emissions on campus. This rich resource is available to the Institute’s students, faculty, and staff, for education, research, and decision-making purposes.  

The rollout of this central data “dashboard,” called Energize_MIT, is the latest in a series of steps implementing the goals and commitments set out in MIT’s 2015 Plan for Action on Climate Change. The site offers a single web-based entry point to a centralized pool of data, which will improve collaboration across operational and departmental groups.

The site provides two kinds of information. First, a set of interactive graphic visualizations depicts information such as campus-wide and building-by-building details about use of electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, steam, and chilled water, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use. And second, datasets can be downloaded and used to drill down into details of energy use, including some as fine-grained as energy-use measurements in 15-minute increments.

Energize_MIT was developed as the first detailed campus sustainability data dashboard available to the MIT community, providing comprehensive information on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, as called for in the climate action plan that President L. Rafael Reif and the senior officers released in October 2015. The plan called for the creation of “an open data platform for campus energy use,” in order “to provide faculty, staff, and students with a useful resource for research and intelligent decision-making.”

“Energize_MIT is an invaluable tool not just for helping us to better understand and manage campus energy use, but also for engaging the MIT community in finding ways to reduce our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “This is an important part of MIT’s climate action plan. I am grateful to the members of the Energize_MIT team for their hard work in bringing this platform online.”

The new platform is expected to grow and evolve over time, and users are encouraged to make suggestions for improvements, including the addition of new features or types of data, explains Derek Wietsma, a senior data analyst in MIT’s Office of Sustainability, who was part of the team that developed the new platform.

The data displayed through this system can be valuable for a wide variety of research projects but should also be useful in the day-to-day operations of the campus, Wietsma says. For example, the dashboard can help to identify buildings with the largest total and per-square-foot energy usage, and to examine energy trends over time as the Institute moves toward its carbon reduction goal.

The team that developed the website decided to provide two levels of information, to maximize its usefulness to a variety of potential users within the Institute. The site, which requires MIT certificates for access, provides the visualizations, including interactive graphics, charts, and campus maps, as a more “user friendly” introduction to the data, while the downloadable datasets provide the full raw data to enable students or researchers to create their own visualizations or carry out analysis. These datasets are also expected to be useful for classroom education projects.

Already, some faculty members are starting to use this data, for example to help test new ways of analyzing and modeling buildings’ energy use. This work represents one answer to the climate action plan’s call for ways to use the MIT campus as a “living laboratory” for energy and climate research.

“The new data hub is an excellent initiative,” says associate professor of architecture Christoph Reinhart, “that will empower groups from across MIT to better understand how our campus operates and to propose a plethora of interventions to make our lives more comfortable and productive as well as to enhance our buildings’ resource efficiency.”

Reinhart says he and his students are using the platform to develop and test their building energy models, as a way of helping owners of existing buildings to decide which kinds of changes and upgrades will produce the most effective reductions in carbon emissions.

Energy-use data in various categories will be available through the website on a building-by-building and month-by-month basis, and in some cases down to finer scales, depending on the kind of monitoring equipment available in a given building. Over time, more information will continue to be added, and the selection of datasets will largely be driven by community feedback and operational and research needs.

The new data hub “is a great tool to explore building energy data,” says Mark Mullins, senior energy efficiency engineer with the MIT Department of Facilities. “It allows me to understand building performance at the monthly, daily, and hourly level. I can compare performance of different buildings to help me identify ways to save energy, and evaluate performance over time after energy efficiency measures are installed.”

Improving building management and efficiency through data is an evolving trend on campus and industry-wide. As campus buildings become equipped with better data-producing instrumentation, Energize_MIT can help aggregate, synthesize, and provide that information to the students, researchers, and staff.  

Over time, the website will expand to encompass not just the main campus but also nearby MIT-leased buildings and the solar plant in North Carolina that was built through an MIT-led power purchase agreement.

The site is intended as the first step of a much broader package of information and resources regarding MIT’s sustainability — including information on transportation, water, waste, and other kinds of data — that is to be launched later this year.

“The goal is to consolidate all these different datasets,” Wietsma says, “to provide a centralized point as a basis for understanding and analytics.”

Eric Schmidt visits MIT to discuss computing, artificial intelligence, and the future of technology

When Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt started programming in 1969 at the age of 14, there was no explicit title for what he was doing. “I was just a nerd,” he says.

But now computer science has fundamentally transformed fields like transportation, health care and education, and also provoked many new questions. What will artificial intelligence (AI) be like in 10 years? How will it impact tomorrow’s jobs? What’s next for autonomous cars?

These topics were all on the table on May 3, when the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) hosted Schmidt for a conversation with CSAIL Director Daniela Rus at the Kirsch Auditorium in the Stata Center.

Schmidt discussed his early days as a computer science PhD at the University of California at Berkeley, where he looked up to MIT researchers like Michael Dertouzos. At Bell Labs he coded UNIX’s lexical-analysis program Lex before moving on to executive roles at Sun Microsystems, Novell, and finally Google, where he served as CEO from 2001 to 2011. In his current role as executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Schmidt focuses on Alphabet’s external matters, advising Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other senior leadership on business and policy.

Speaking with Rus on the topic of health care, Schmidt said that doing a better job of leveraging data will enable doctors to improve how they make decisions.

“Hospitals have enormous amounts of data, which is inaccessible to anyone except for themselves,” he said. “These [machine learning] techniques allow you to take all of that information, sum it all together, and actually produce outcomes.”

Schmidt also cited Google’s ongoing work in self-driving vehicles, including last week’s launch of 500 cars in Arizona, and addressed the issue of how technology will impact jobs in different fields.

“The economic folks would say that you can see the job that’s lost, but you very seldom can see the job that’s created,” said Schmidt. “While there will be a tremendous dislocation of jobs — and I’m not denying that — I think that, in aggregate, there will be more jobs.”  

Rus also asked Schmidt about his opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts to limit the number of H1B visas that U.S. tech companies can offer to high-skilled foreign workers.

“At Google we want the best people in the world, regardless of sex, race, country, or what-have-you,” said Schmidt. “Stupid government policies that restrict us from giving us a fair chance of getting those people are antithetical to our mission [and] the things we serve.”

Schmidt ended the conversation by imploring students to take the skills they’ve learned and use them to work on the world’s toughest problems.

“There’s nothing more exciting than that feeling of inventing something new,” he said. “You as scientists should identify those areas and run at them as hard as you can.”

In his introduction of Schmidt, MIT President L. Rafael Reif applauded him for his leadership on issues like innovation and sustainability, including his support of MIT’s Inclusive Innovation Competition, which awards prizes to organizations that focus on improving economic opportunity for low-income communities.

“Eric embodies what we at MIT call ‘making a better world,’” said Reif. “As AI and machine learning become more sophisticated and increase the potential for automation, the concept of ‘inclusive innovation’ has never been more critical. I am grateful to Eric for his support of the competition and for his partnership on an issue that matters deeply to us at MIT.”

The talk was co-sponsored by CSAIL and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT announces 2017-18 class of fellows

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has announced that 10 elite science journalists from four countries have been selected as fellows for the 2017-18 academic year. The KSJ@MIT fellow program, entering its 35th year, brings a selection of the world’s finest journalists to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an academic year of study, intellectual growth, and exploration at MIT, Harvard University, and other institutions in greater Boston.

KSJ@MIT, supported by a generous endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is recognized around the world as the premier mid-career fellowship program for science writers, editors, and multimedia journalists and as publisher of the award-winning magazine, Undark. Since its founding in 1983, it has hosted more than 300 fellows representing media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Le Monde, CNN to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

With support from the program, fellows pursue an academic year of independent study, augmented by twice-weekly science-focused seminars taught by some of the world’s leading scientists and storytellers, as well as a variety of rotating, skills-focused master classes and workshops. The goal: fostering real professional growth among the world’s small but essential community of journalists covering science and technology, and encouraging them to pursue that mission, first and foremost, in the public interest.  

The 2017-18 class of KSJ fellows: 

Teresa Carr is a senior content editor for Consumer Reports and an award-winning investigative reporter. Her stories focus on consumer and public health issues; recently she has been investigating the pharmaceutical industry with a particular emphasis on the costs of pain management and addiction. Last year, she received the Folio Award for her articles on American’s antibiotic crisis and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Magazine Journalism.

Caty Enders is the series editor for The Guardian’s U.S. edition, based in New York, where she edits features, analysis, and multimedia projects on the environment, health, and technology. She has been the supervising producer for The Guardian’s recently launched U.S. podcast program. She previously worked as managing online editor for Outside magazine and as a freelance radio producer and writer for outlets ranging from “All Things Considered” to Esquire.

Sujata Gupta is a freelance journalist based in Vermont, whose writing focuses on issues related to food, ecology, and health. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, National Public Radio, Nature, High Country News, Discover, Scientific American, Wired, and NovaNext. She has taught journalism at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at various newspapers and spent several years as a National Park ranger.

Joshua Hatch is the assistant editor for data and interactives at The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, where he oversees a team of database reporters and designers. He is president of the Online News Association. Previously he was interactives director at USA Today. He teaches online and data journalism in the graduate journalism program at American University.

Rowan Jacobsen is a freelance science journalist and the author of seven books exploring a wide range of environmental issues, most recently “The Essential Oyster.” He is based in Vermont and has written for a broad array of publications, including Harper’s, Outside, Mother Jones, and Pacific Standard. His work has been featured in “Best American Science and Nature Writing” and has received numerous awards.

Ehsan Masood is the editor of Research Fortnight, a science policy magazine based in London, and the author of several books, including “The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World” (2016). He has worked as a writer and editor at Nature and New Scientist, and has made documentaries for BBC radio. He teaches a course on science and innovation policy at Imperial College London.

Jane Qiu is a globe-trotting freelance science journalist based in Beijing, and a regular contributor to publications including Nature, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. Her work has focused on environmental and cultural issues, with a particular interest in the Third Pole countries of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. Her writing awards include recognition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards.

Kolawole Talabi is a freelance science writer based in Nigeria and a regular contributor to Mongabay.com. He’s received numerous awards for investigative reporting, on issues ranging from treatment of infectious disease in Africa to endangered natural resources. Last year he was one of five writers honored with the Next Generation of Science Journalists award, given by the World Health Summit in Germany.

Mićo Tatalović is editor of New Scientist’s environment and life sciences news section. A native of Croatia, he is now based in London, overseeing a team of staff writers and freelancers. He previously worked on the news desk of SciDev.net, helping to coordinate a global network of science journalists reporting from South America, Africa, and Asia, as well as freelancing for wide range of science magazines. He is chair of the Association of British Science Writers, and sits on the board of the Balkan Network of Science Writers.

Caroline Winter is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, focusing on science, technology, and medicine. A native of Germany, she previously worked as a freelancer for publications ranging from Spiegel International to The New York Times Magazine. She was a Fulbright fellow in 2008-09 and worked in Berlin, researching, writing, and translating stories.

Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) to spark global renaissance in education through innovation at MIT

Today MIT and cofounder Community Jameel, which was established and is chaired by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78, announced the creation of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL).

The global collaborative effort will help educators, universities, governments, and companies revolutionize the effectiveness and reach of education, and aims to help prepare people everywhere for a labor market radically altered by technological progress, globalization, and the pursuit of higher living standards around the world. A guiding focus of J-WEL will be learners in the developing world, populations underserved by education such as women and girls, and a growing displaced population that includes refugees.

“For years, Community Jameel’s commitment to finding practical solutions to complex global problems has inspired all of us at MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “With J-WEL, Community Jameel builds on that extraordinary legacy with an effort that will empower learners around the world and in the United States, opening educational pathways that are currently closed to millions. We are grateful to Community Jameel for their vision, their partnership, and their unwavering dedication to making a better world.”

J-WEL will be an anchor entity within MIT’s open education and learning initiatives that are led by MIT Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma. The three special interest groups integral to J-WEL’s mission — pre-K–12, higher education, and workplace learning — will each have faculty leads. Professors Angela Belcher and Eric Klopfer will direct pre-K–12, and Professor Hazel Sive will direct the higher education special interest group. A workplace learning faculty director will be named soon. M.S. Vijay Kumar, MIT’s associate dean of digital learning, will serve as J-WEL’s executive director and will work closely with the faculty leads. Faculty will receive J-WEL grants for research related to this initiative. J-WEL will also draw on existing educational resources at MIT, including the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) and Office of Digital Learning, to research and apply what works best in the education of children, university students, and workers.

Leveraging MIT’s resources, J-WEL will convene a global community of collaborators for sustainable, high-impact transformation in education through research, policy, pedagogy, and practice. The lab will foster new initiatives and build a powerful collaborative of schools, governments, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropists, and businesses. Through these networks, J-WEL and MIT at large will gain input and insight from the regions, both domestic and international, where the new educational tools and methods will be deployed. Collaborative members will have special access to MIT programs and resources, such as trainings, workshops, and certification programs.

Fady Mohammed Jameel, president of Community Jameel International, says: “Education and learning are fundamental to a strong society and economy — they promote employment and create increased opportunity for all. While there has been progress made in improving education, there is always more that can be done. Enabling individuals to do their very best and reach their full potential, whatever their background, is a key priority for Community Jameel and the world. That is exactly why we are establishing the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab with MIT. 

“MIT is one of the most respected research universities in the world, and through J-WEL those involved in education will have special access to their programs and resources, such as training and workshops, as well as collaborative opportunities with MIT and other members. From our ongoing collaborations, including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, we have already seen firsthand the benefits of working with MIT, and J-WEL will build on that record of success.”

In an age of social and technological change, education is a critical tool for society. MIT’s approach has centered on understanding the processes of learning at a fundamental level, allying that understanding with the technological means to deliver learning, and then designing educational systems in the most effective ways possible. Building on MIT’s historic footprint in education at the childhood level (through STEM teacher education camps and programs such as Scratch), in the collaborative formation of new universities (such as Singapore University of Technology and Design and Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica in Brazil), and in the education of professionals (through MIT Professional Education and MIT Sloan Executive Education), J-WEL will work with its global collaborators to improve the delivery and quality of educational opportunities using new digital, maker, and in-person “mind-and-hand” approaches to learning.

Early examples of MIT efforts in this arena include work at the high school level across India with the Tata Trusts, on teacher education with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, improvements to workplace learning at Accenture, and expanded educational reach in the Arab world with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education.

“Tata Trusts has successfully partnered with MIT on seeding the Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx) that leverages the power of technology to enhance both teaching and learning, in high schools in India. The Trusts are also collaborating with the Tata Center for Education and Design at MIT to apply technical talent to address challenges in development. We look forward to J-WEL breaking new ground through applied research in education in India and the world,” says Mr. R. Venkataramanan, managing trustee of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, in India.

“We have a very special collaboration with MIT spanning several years, with a shared vision to bring to life new ways of learning for people at unprecedented scale,” says Rahul Varma with the Talent and Learning Office at Accenture. “Hearing about the plans for J-WEL reminds us of MIT’s expertise and commitment in helping to address major issues of the day. I have no doubt J-WEL will be a success and have significant impact.”

“It is exciting to see MIT put together an effort to share emerging best practices across the world in education, especially in the primary and secondary education spaces. The need for new thinking in these sectors is pressing, especially in STEM, and MIT is perfectly poised to take on this challenge,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation

“Through J-WEL, we will forge new and long-lasting collaborations as we learn, share, and train together, using the assets developed at MIT as well as by leveraging the community convened by J-WEL,” says Sarma. “To borrow an idea expressed by philosophers and educators across the centuries: J-WEL will help to spark fires in students’ minds, and enable educators to spark solutions to their communities’ most demanding challenges.”

“As we help young people prepare to navigate in an uncertain future, we cannot do so without re-imagining learning at every level, inside and outside formal schooling. This is why our collaboration with MIT on online learning is critical to our strategy to educate and upskill Arab youth. We welcome J-WEL and look forward to being a part of its visionary work, and we applaud Community Jameel for this important educational investment,” says Maysa Jalbout, CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education.

The gift is part of MIT’s current $5 billion Campaign for a Better World and is consistent with Community Jameel’s focus on creating a better future. Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), established in 2003, seeks answers to poverty in a changing world. Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), established in 2014, seeks answers to food and water scarcity issues as the population rises and global warming takes hold.

Experts gather at MIT to explore new research in education technology

Technology is developing at a breathtaking pace, and it’s fundamentally changing the way teachers, policymakers, and researchers think about education. On March 31, J-PAL North America hosted a conference at MIT to discuss the role of research and evidence in education technology, bringing together a diverse group of leaders across academia, education companies, education practice and administration, and philanthropy to share their experiences implementing and evaluating technology both in and out of the classroom. Throughout the conference, speakers and participants advocated for rigorous evaluation to advance our understanding of how technology can help students, regardless of income level, learn.

Technology: An opportunity, a challenge, and the need for research

Quentin Palfrey, executive director of J-PAL North America, and Phil Oreopoulos, J-PAL Education co-chair and professor of economics and public policy at the University of Toronto, discussed the transformative promise of education technology and some of its most exciting uses, including approaches to personalize learning and scale instruction to learners across different contexts. However, they warned that rapid advances in education technology create the risk of leaving those without access behind, exacerbating already stark inequalities between affluent and low-income students — a public policy problem known as the “digital divide.”

“Emerging fields like machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence will likely compound the influence of technology even further, increasing the range of tools that ed-tech can draw on and speeding up cycles of learning and adjustment…[but] these technologies are arising in a context of persistent inequality,” Oreopoulos said. “Despite expanding access, the digital divide remains very real and very big. If ed-tech practitioners and researchers don’t pay close attention to equity of access and tailoring programs to the needs of those at the lower end of the income spectrum, there’s a risk that the growing influence of technology will aggravate the educational inequalities that already exist.”

Oreopoulos set the stage with a review of the current evidence on what in education technology works, what works best, and why, drawing on over 90 studies across economics, education, and social psychology. Technology-assisted personalized learning programs emerged as an especially effective approach from the review, which stems from an upcoming education technology literature review. However, many open questions remain about how to leverage technology to help disadvantaged learners, which technologies are the most cost-effective, and why successful approaches work.

Kumar Garg, a former White House advisor who spearheaded President Obama’s efforts to improve STEM education, underscored the tremendous need for investment in education research to help us answer these questions. In 2015, only 0.4 percent of the federal education budget was spent on research, compared to 6.3 percent in health and 12.3 percent in defense. By increasing investments in rigorous research, we can better understand how to use technology to truly transform education, Garg stated.

Not a silver bullet for education

Despite the excitement around education technology, a consistent theme throughout the conference was how technology alone will not serve as a panacea. Rather, it’s best used as a complement to good pedagogy.

“Technology is not a silver bullet, but education is,” said Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise and former director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education. During her keynote address, Cator highlighted the need to produce and use evidence to understand how we can make the most of technology both within and outside of the classroom. She went on to discuss educational equity, technology, and the profound impact of education on social justice and economic development.

Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown City School District in New York, shared his personal experience with innovative approaches to improving high-poverty schools in his home district. In his experience, “pedagogy and the art of teaching trumps technology every time,” and emphasizing complementary professional development is key to optimizing technology in the classroom.

Working at the intersection of policy, research, and philanthropy

Alongside practitioners and researchers, the conference featured philanthropic leaders like Emary Aronson, the interim chief program officer of the Robin Hood Foundation. Aronson spoke as part of a panel focused on improving access to education in the 21st century. “Technology enables access to information, and access to information is a poverty issue,” Aronson said of the foundation’s role in the education technology space.

Speakers also addressed the challenge of translating research into policy action. Tom Kane, a leading education scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discussed how he aims to keep the research process and results localized and timely in order for evidence to be actionable. Former U.S. Chief Technology Office Aneesh Chopra and former White House advisor R. David Edelman shared their perspective on how research can impact large-scale federal policies.

Additional speakers from academia and education companies discussed diverse strategies to embed rigorous evaluation in the rollout of new education programs — such as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative — to better understand how real-world policies affect student outcomes. Building off the lessons from the conference, J-PAL North America plans to catalyze new research and promote evidence-based policymaking in the education technology space. 

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