3Q: Julie Newman on MIT’s pioneering solar purchase

In 2016, MIT announced that it would neutralize 17 percent of its carbon emissions through a unique collaboration with Boston Medical Center and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation: The three entitites formed an alliance to buy solar power, demonstrating a partnership model for climate-change mitigation and the advancement of large scale solar development.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh recently announced that his city will undertake a similar but much larger effort to purchase solar energy in conjunction with cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Portland, Oregon. At the time of this announcement, Walsh called upon more cities to join in this collective renewable energy initiative. In describing the agreement, Boston officials said the effort is modeled on MIT’s 2016 effort.

Julie Newman, the Institute’s director of sustainability, spoke with MIT News about the power of MIT’s pioneering model for purchasing solar energy.

Q: Can you describe MIT’s alliance with Boston Medical Center and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation to purchase solar energy?

A: Climate partnerships are not new to cities like Boston and Cambridge, where urban stakeholders work together to try to advance solutions for climate mitigation and resiliency. In Boston, MIT participates on the city’s Green Ribbon Commission, which is co-chaired by Mayor Walsh and includes leaders from Boston’s business, institutional, and civic sectors. In MIT’s host city of Cambridge, the Institute works collaboratively with the municipality on a range of initiatives related to solar energy, resiliency planning, building energy use, and other efforts focused on climate change.

In October 2016 MIT, Boston Medical Center, and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation formed an alliance to buy electricity from a large new solar power installation. The goal was to add carbon-free energy to the grid and, equally important, we wanted to demonstrate a partnership model for other organizations.

Our power purchase agreement, or PPA, enabled the construction of Summit Farms, a 650-acre, 60-megawatt solar farm in North Carolina. The facility is now operational and is one of the largest renewable-energy projects ever built in the U.S. through an alliance like this.

MIT committed to buying 73 percent of the power generated by Summit Farms’ 255,000 solar panels, with BMC purchasing 26 percent and POS purchasing the remainder. At the time, MIT’s purchase of 44 megawatts — equivalent to 40 percent of the Institute’s 2016 electricity use — was among the largest publicly announced purchases of solar energy by any American college or university.

Summit Farms would not have been built without the commitments from MIT and its partners. The emissions-free power it generates every year represents an annual abatement of carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing more than 25,000 cars from the road.

A unique provision in the agreement between MIT and Summit Farms will provide MIT researchers with access to a wealth of data on performance parameters at the North Carolina site. This research capability amplifies the project’s impact and contributes to making the MIT campus a true living laboratory for advances in technology, policy, and business models.

Q: What exactly has the City of Boston announced that it plans to do, and how is this modeled on MIT’s solar-power collaboration?

A: MIT, our collaborators, the city of Boston, and the numerous other cities joining Mayor Walsh all share an interest in reducing carbon emissions at the global scale. We want solutions that will transform the energy market, create clean-energy jobs, and sustain healthy, thriving communities. In collaboration, we can have a greater impact than we could if we tried to mitigate emissions on an institute-by-institute or city-by-city basis. By combining our purchasing power, we can escalate the demand for renewable energy more rapidly, triggering new development and installation of renewables through the energy sector in the U.S. 

Our project used a convening force, the group A Better City, to invite disparate entities to combine efforts to increase demand for renewable energy. Similarly, Mayor Walsh has called upon leading members of the Climate Mayors Network, representing over 400 cities and 70 million people, to combine their collective purchasing and bargaining power to reduce energy costs and spark the creation of large-scale renewable energy projects across the country. This invitation has launched a coast-to-coast effort to increase the demand for renewable energy across the eight regional grids.

Q: Has the Institute fielded expressions of interest from other entities interested in trying this model? Is there evidence that it will spread further?

A: We are excited about this solution, and we’ve shared this model of solar-collaboration with peers across the country. We’ve hosted webinars, meetings, and presentations, and received immediate and passionate interest from statewide systems, large corporations, and multiuniversity partnerships that have since pursued collective renewable energy projects. We can now point to a dozen or more projects that have been inspired by this model and  are pursuing renewable energy aggregation.

It is important to note that the success of an external collaboration is only as strong as our internal collaboration. The development of the MIT power purchase agreement relied on expertise from more than eight academic and administrative departments, including researchers from related fields, engineers in our utilities area, and staff with expertise in purchasing, finance, and legal areas. We are on the verge of tapping back into these partnerships as we look ahead to determine what is next.

We now have real-time data on energy, emissions avoidance, and financial performance and can evaluate the real world impacts of our project. These findings will influence our thinking going forward. We are considering such questions as how can MIT continue to amplify our efforts? How can we shape our energy impact in the world, and what is the best way to pursue our interest in collectively transforming the energy market? We are continuously broadening our clean energy knowledge base, from multidimensional carbon-accounting frameworks to the exploration of new technologies. Along the way, we have learned that the location of a new wind or solar project matters significantly to its carbon dioxide reduction impact. (The project has a greater benefit if it’s located in a dirtier power grid.) This will inform our work as we actively pursue new partnerships for future scenarios.

Smart office enables a personalized workplace atmosphere

The atmosphere of a given space — the light, sounds, and sensorial qualities that make it distinct from other spaces — has a marked, quantifiable effect on the experiences of the people who inhabit those spaces. Mood, behavior, creativity, sleep, and health are all directly impacted by one’s immediate surroundings.

In the workplace, atmosphere can influence productivity and relationships, as well as overall employee satisfaction and retention. Recent studies have identified a decline in workplace satisfaction — particularly in the knowledge economy, where distraction and disengagement can cost billions of dollars in lost productivity and employee turnover.

Mediated Atmosphere, a project by the Responsive Environments group at the MIT Media Lab, seeks to improve both wellbeing and productivity in the workplace by improving the workplace atmosphere at an individual level. Using modular, real-time control infrastructure with biosignal sensors, controllable lighting, projection, and sound, Mediated Atmosphere creates immersive environments designed to help users focus, de-stress, and work comfortably.

Smart office with biosensors and machine learning

With the boom of internet of things technologies over the last few years, then-master’s student Nan Zhao noticed that the many lighting solutions, wireless speakers, and home automation platforms on the market lacked a multimodal quality: They weren’t synchronizing light, sound, images, fragrances, and thermal control in a meaningful way. Also missing in most available smart home and office products is a basis in physiology — platforms that incorporate research on the impact of atmospheric scenes on cognition and behavior. For this project, Zhao drew on existing research showing the positive effects of natural views and sounds on mental state, as well as the effects of light and sound on mood, alertness, and memory.

In the course of this research, however, Zhao kept coming to the same conclusion: “It’s not one size fits all.” 

“People need a place that is fascinating, that gives them a feeling of being away, and is rich but predictable,” she says. “However, this place is different for different people. With our approach, we want to create a personalized experience.”

Comprising a frameless screen (designed with a special aspect ratio so it doesn’t feel like watching TV), a custom lighting network, a speaker array, video projection, and both wearable and contact-free biosignal sensors, Mediated Atmosphere synchronizes and controls numerous modalities.

Zhao and her collaborators also developed a new approach for controlling the system: a control map that compresses a complex set of input parameters to a simplified map-like representation. The compass points of the map are abstract control dimensions, such as focus or restoration. That way, rather than worrying about light levels or sound sources, users can simply tell the system what they want based on how focused or relaxed they want to be. The biosignal sensor stream computes a focus and restoration indicator based on measures developed and evaluated by Zhao and her team. Using these indicators, Mediated Atmosphere can label what specific atmospheric scenes mean for the user, and learn how to automatically trigger changes based on a user’s actual responses and activities.

Customized workspace

The smart office concept is designed to self-regulate on the basis of the user’s activities and physiology. Using biosignal sensors to track heart-rate variability and facial expressions, the prototype both responds to the user’s moods in real time and tracks responses. A user study published in Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies in June 2017 found that the Mediated Atmosphere smart office prototype had a positive effect on occupants’ perceptions and physiological responses.

“We imagine a workspace that, when asked, can instantly trade the engaging focus of a library with the liberating sensation of a stroll through the forest,” explains Zhao, the first author on the paper. “We want to create an environment player that can recommend or automate your space similar to how Spotify or Pandora gives you access to a world of music. We want to help people to manage their day by giving them the right place at the right time.”

The study of 29 users offered five different ambient scenes, ranging from forest streams to bustling coffee shops, measuring how the environment influenced participants’ ability to focus and restore from stress. A second study with nine subjects and 33 scenes, published in Zhao’s thesis, looked at how well the user interface worked in applications where the choice of environments was driven by sensors. In future iterations, Zhao hopes to give users the ability to record their own personal favorite places and upload them into the system, in addition to the built-in options.

Zhao is working with a number of industry experts to hone both the technology and the experiential effectiveness of Mediated Atmosphere. Media Lab alumna Susanne Seitinger, a lighting expert at Philips, worked with Zhao on the lighting installation. Steelcase has advised Zhao on designing for workplaces. International Flavors and Fragrances, a Media Lab member company, is supporting the team’s efforts to add an olfactory display into the latest prototype. Most recently, member company Bose has been supporting the work and helping to take the prototype to the next level — the next iteration will be a modular system that can be installed in any existing workspace so Zhao’s team can conduct experiments on this technology in the wild.

Lee Zamir, director of the BOSEbuild team, is enthusiastic about Mediated Atmosphere’s potential to help redefine the workspace.

“The Mediated Atmosphere project has the potential to improve and rethink the work environment,” he says. “We go to work not just to make a living, but to be challenged, to accomplish, to focus, and to connect with others to achieve great things. When we are able to do this, when we have a ‘good day at work,’ it improves all the other parts of our lives. We carry that sense of purpose and progress from our workday with us.”

In addition to the next phase of research in office environments, Zhao is also creating a smaller, modular system that could be installed in any office or even in a home office. The team is exploring more sensory modality such as thermal control, air flow, and scent.

Future office

Zhao envisions a future office where employees’ workstations come equipped with Mediated Atmosphere platforms, but the concept is a long way from being ready to market or scale. One major challenge is to measure impact reliably during real work scenarios without burdening the user; to that end, Zhao is developing a contact-free sensor system to remove the wearable component. Another difficulty is creating customizable installations that fit into different sizes and types of office spaces, allowing colleagues to each have their own Mediated Atmosphere workstation without disrupting one another. The team is collecting data and doing image-based analysis using machine learning tools to address this challenge.

But perhaps the challenge Zhao takes most seriously is that of adding real value.

“The same technology that can create a memorable, wonderful, stimulating experience can also create an irritating, elevator-music type of experience,” she says. “It takes artistic intuition and empathy to create the former. That is also why personalization is so important.”

First class excels in “hybrid” master’s program

The first students to graduate from MIT’s cutting-edge “hybrid” master’s program, which combines a year’s worth of online learning through its MicroMasters program with one semester on campus to earn a full MIT master’s degree, have not only met all expectations, they ended up performing as well as and being virtually indistinguishable from traditional students in their overall performance.

There was some initial trepidation among the MIT faculty, recalls Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and director of the master’s program in supply chain management. People wondered, “Will they be as good?” as the traditional students, he says. Now that the first blended class has completed the program, “The answer is they are as good and, in many cases, even better!” he says.

Sheffi is not at all surprised. This new set of students, who might never have been able to make it to MIT through traditional channels, faced obstacles that typical residential masters students may not. “They have spent about 18 months, usually on nights and weekends, going over tough assignments in MIT-level classes,” Sheffi says. “They have to do it on their own, after work and family obligations, at the end of the day. It shows their commitment, tenacity, and dedication. These are as important, and even more important, than something like intelligence.”

“The grit required to complete the online courses also helped prepare them for the fast pace of the on-campus classrooms,” adds Chris Caplice, executive director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and director of the MITx MicroMasters program in supply chain management. The blended students tend to be a bit older and more experienced, typically having worked for an average of eight years. “It was amazing and gratifying to see the blended students jump back in and exel in the intense MIT academic environment,” notes Caplice.   

Many of the students, who will now return to their jobs, tackled real-world problems from their businesses as their capstone projects for the degree, Sheffi says. “What they’re interested in is knowledge, not grades.” But they ended up with both, he says. “In all the courses they took in the spring [residential semester] they had better-than-average scores. And the residential students have a very high average!” The MIT program in supply chain management (SCM) has consistently been rated the top such program in the world, he points out.

One of the course instructors, MIT Senior Lecturer Jonathan Byrnes, says that after 27 years of teaching in MIT’s SCM program, “My class this year was the strongest that I ever have taught.” He adds, “It is interesting to note that the SCM students were mostly from our new ‘blended’ program — web learning plus six months’ residence at MIT. They were extremely strong relative to the other MIT students I have taught over the years.”

Others who taught in the program shared that view. “The blended learning students were top of the class,” says Richard Pibernik, who taught at one of the program’s two satellite campuses (in Zaragoza, Spain; the other is in Malaysia). “They were well-prepared, had good knowledge of all the relevant concepts, and seemed more mature and serious. That was a very positive surprise; before, I was somewhere between curious and skeptical about how they would do.”

“I have always enjoyed the high quality of the [SCM] students and the high level of class discussions,” notes Paulo Goncalves, who has taught at the Zaragoza center for six years. But this year with the blended group, he says “class discussions were markedly better than ever before. The diversity of the students is also clear. Students had more real work experience, more diverse backgrounds, were more engaged, and brought very rich perspectives to the classroom discussions.”

Students have also given the program high marks. Dan Covert, a student from Maine, said the program was “definitely challenging, but everything that I was learning, I could apply directly to the job I was doing. Although it was very difficult at times, it really kept me engaged because it had this direct feedback for my job the next day.”

In the online five-course program, which led to an MIT MicroMasters certificate after completion of a rigorous online exam, 1,900 students completed all the classes, and 622 successfully completed the final exam. Forty-two of the students ended up starting the residential semester in January of this year.

“We get hundreds of applications,” Sheffi says, “but we’re space-constrained.” In addition to the 42 students at MIT’s Cambridge campus, this year there were 17 in Zaragoza and 12 in Malaysia, and those numbers are expected to continue with next year’s class.

“The amazing thing,” says Sheffi, who has taught at MIT for 43 years, “is that you get people who never had a dream of getting an MIT-level education.” Now, they have demonstrated that such nontraditional students are up to the challenge.

Where economics and materials science meet

As a postdoc in the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, Michele L. Bustamante works at the intersection of economics and materials science, creating models of supply and demand for raw materials important to high-tech, such as tellurium needed for thin-film solar cells and cobalt needed for lithium ion batteries.

Her experience over the last two years helped Bustamante to win a one-year Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship, which begins in September, from the Materials Research Society (MRS) and The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society (TMS).

“I’ve worked with sponsors who are in the commodity industry, and they want to understand how are new things like renewable energy and electric and autonomous vehicles going to change demand for metals that they produce,” Bustamante explains. During her time at MIT, she has presented work at various conferences including the 2017 Materials Research Society Fall Meeting and a recent Industrial Liaison Program Summit at MIT. She collaborated with Materials Systems Laboratory Director Richard Roth, Principal Research Scientist Randolph E. Kirchain, and MSL Faculty Director Joel P. Clark, professor emeritus of materials systems.

Working closely with Roth, Bustamante says, she learned how to look at an abstract problem and break it down. “Even if we are uncertain about pieces of it, we can add value to the conversation, we can create a tool that allows us to draw conclusions that have value despite uncertainty,” she says. Together, they created a high-level framework that has the power to answer questions about innovative technologies and material commodities at the same time. Nobody really knows how many autonomous cars will be on the road in 2050, she suggests. But the models they build can estimate the opportunity for commodity demand growth by looking at factors such as how well the technology functions, affordability, alternatives that can be substituted or competing technologies that provide same function, and how large the technology’s market is expected to grow.

Surprising opportunity

Bustamante’s work took a surprising turn when she explored the use of thinner and higher strength steels for Coast Guard and Navy ships at Huntington Ingalls Industries Shipbuilding Division in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The project, through the Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow Initiative, took her to Mississippi many times, meeting on the ground with production crews. “This industry is as old as our country, and they are using a lot of lower tech manufacturing processes, because they are only making tens of ships of a certain class as opposed to the automotive industry where they are making millions each year,” Bustamante says.

Newer steels that are stronger and can be used at thinner gauge respond differently to these legacy manufacturing processes and can result in extreme waviness when two of the flat metal plates are welded together. “When you’re building a ship that’s going to be used for the military, you want to make sure the quality is really safe and so you can’t have that,” she says.

The MIT Materials Systems Lab was brought in for its expertise in understanding where economics and materials science meet. “Our role was to understand the manufacturing process, and use that to build a cost model to allow them to make this decision in an informed way. To understand, okay, it’s going to cost us X up front, but what kind of savings are we actually going to see down the line and is it something that we should be doing,” Bustamante explains. “That was a surprisingly fun project for me, and a great group of people that we got to work with. The kind of research that I’ve done [historically] has been very much in the lab on my computer, on the phone maybe with some other academics.”

For her most recent project, Bustamante worked with Tanguy Marion, a student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program, on looking at different types of lithium ion batteries that are being used in electric vehicles. Marion went to China, where he interviewed battery and electric vehicle manufacturers to learn how they decide which lithium ion battery technology to use, comparing iron versus phosphorus, and cobalt versus nickel. The MIT team is creating a model to predict the outlook for adoption of different materials. Bustamante also traveled to China last July and September for this work.

Communicating science

Bustamante, who has a longstanding interest in communicating science, says she was excited to find out that there are career paths at the interface of science and policy. She participated in the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program at MIT this spring.

“The practice of teaching is inherently about communicating well and it’s about figuring out how to take something that I know and putting it in your head and getting you to understand it,” she says.

“I see this as a really cool opportunity to get out of the lab and see what people who are making decisions for our country are doing, or not doing, with this scientific information that I spend day in and day out reading about and producing,” Bustamante says. “Can we as scientists do a better job of communicating what we we’re doing and the societal benefits that they provide, so that we can actually implement a lot more of all the cool stuff that’s going on at MIT and otherwise?”

Smell of chocolate

Bustamante, 28, grew up in Hackettstown, New Jersey, where the smell of chocolate hung in the air from the M&M Mars factory, especially around Halloween. “You smell chocolate in the air from my house; that was always really cool,” she says.

After attending Warren Hills Regional High School, Bustamante went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering and materials engineering in May 2012. “I have been someone who’s really interested in a lot of things and so I like to see what kind of opportunities present themselves and seize them when I can.”

Fun little puzzle

A summer undergraduate research opportunity at FREEDM Systems Center at North Carolina State University, challenged Bustamante to work on an electrical engineering project, helping to design a computer model for a rooftop solar panel array that she helped install. The model takes ambient conditions such as temperature, amount of solar radiation, and other outdoor conditions, and predicts expected solar panel output to aid in future research done with the array. “It was a fun little puzzle to actually implement that kind of a model, and it is not something I had ever done before, so I learned a ton,” Bustamante says.

A presentation by a materials scientist from ARPA-E that summer gave Bustamante insight into the role materials science could play reducing environmental impact from the outset of a product’s life versus the traditional environmental engineering approach of focusing on remediation at the end of it. “I just remember being like, wow, this is it, this is what I have been looking for, and I was so interested. I saw materials science as this amazing opportunity to be on the front lines of products and things we put into the environment from the get go,” she says. Bustamante pursued a double major at RPI in materials science and environmental engineering. “I realized toward the end of it that it was my attempt to create a program that didn’t exist in sustainability by looking at … improving environmental quality of things being put out there at the beginning of a life cycle as well as reducing environmental harm at the end of a product life cycle. That sort of life cycle thinking is exactly what sustainability is about,” she says.

Passion for sustainability

Bustamante sought inspiration at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology. “They were doing precisely the kind of work I wanted to do that looked at the intersection of manufacturing and technology production, environmental impact reduction, and just the whole life cycle, looking at things big picture,” she says. Bustamante found a mentor in RIT Associate Professor of Sustainability Gabrielle G. Gaustad SM ’09, PhD ’09, who was a graduate student in the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory before embarking on her academic career. “She was someone who still to this day inspires me,”  says Bustamante, who was awarded her PhD at RIT in May 2016.

Bustamante and Gaustad tackled the complex issue of tellurium supply and its effect on solar panel industry growth. Unlike copper, a primary metal mined and processed for its widespread demand and multiple uses from electrical wire to cookware coatings, tellurium is a relatively rare element and is produced as a byproduct of copper refining. That means the market for tellurium is somewhat dependent on the market for copper. If there isn’t enough of a commodity being produced, prices will go up, and, in most commodity markets, such as copper, those higher prices will spur miners and refiners to increase supply. “But my perspective of the byproduct research is that natural feedback mechanism is really muted if you are a byproduct, and so for those specific kind of markets, we do need to pay a little bit more attention if we value the products that they are being used in and see the benefit that they’re bringing,” Bustamante explains.

“I did find that something that others hadn’t studied was when you mine copper, there is more than one way to do it, and only one of those ways actually yields this byproduct, tellurium. The other one does not,” she explains. The lower cost method, which is called solvent extraction and electrowinning (SX-EW), had been taking away some of the market share of production from the alternative method, called electrolytic refining, that does yield tellurium as a byproduct. “No one had really been looking at trends in the production [methods] of this main product and how that affects the availability of a byproduct,” Bustamante says. Understanding the details of supply and quantifying the scarcity of materials such as tellurium, which are critical to some new technologies, became the foundation of her research. From the perspective of risk, or criticality, three factors all must be considered: economic importance, supply security, and environmental impact, she says. Her dissertation work contributed to understanding each of these three factors.

Addressing the latter component, Bustamante and her colleagues were motivated by the question, “Can we do a better job of understanding the environmental impact? Because that also is something that people factor into this measure of criticality.” She explored this question through work focused on highlighting challenges and sharing best practices for people performing life cycle assessments [LCAs] of solar energy technologies based on byproduct materials, like tellurium. Life cycle assessment, which is similar to carbon footprinting, is widely used to compare the environmental friendliness of products. It is done by detailing the activities in a product life cycle — how the necessary raw materials are produced, manufactured into products, transported, used, and ultimately disposed of — to quantify environmental impact drivers such as energy or water use and chemical emissions. This technique requires accurate modeling of how raw materials, like tellurium, are produced to describe their environmental impact. However, a key challenge of assessing life cycle impacts of a particular product is deciding how much impact should be assigned to an indivdidual step in a process, such as mining, when there are multiple steps in a production process. This challenge is known in the LCA community as “the allocation problem.” Bustamante’s work demonstrated the impact of ignoring uncertainties in the current approaches, which are based on mass or economic value of the products in a fixed time frame, and suggested guidelines for practitioners to minimize their impact in a standardized way. This work was published in Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.

Considering supply security, Bustamante and Gaustad, along with fellow MSL alumna, Elisa Alonso PhD ’09 developed a framework to compare the effectiveness of different solutions to criticality in a paper published last year in Environmental Science and Technology. For example, recovery of tellurium from recycling cadmium telluride solar panels could reduce supply risk. However, their work showed that this was not viable in the near future when criticality risks are likely to be highest because solar panels have an expected lifetime of about 25 years and most panels of this type were installed within the past decade. They also examined the effect of improving the percentage of tellurium successfully extracted from the mining process with promising results. Among these options, reducing demand by making solar material film thinner was shown to have the greatest benefit. Bustamante presented this work at the 2017 Materials Research Society Fall Meeting.

“What the best solution would be is to start making these panels more efficient, which is great because that’s already their goal, the companies who make these. If we can make them more efficient, then we get more power out of less material and reduce that demand in the short term,” Bustamante suggests.

Relative scarcity

Much like tellurium, rare earth materials such as dysprosium and neodymium, which are used in high-strength magnets for electric vehicle motors, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies, face market supply issues since almost all of the world’s rare earths still come form China.

“The more diversity we can get in the way those things are available, the less risk we face in price spikes for those, causing people not to be able to manufacture them and being too expensive to purchase, the technologies that are providing environmental benefit,” Bustamante says.

Volunteer work

In graduate school, Bustamante helped launch RIT’s Food Recovery Network chapter as one of its first volunteers. During the four years that she was involved, the chapter worked with the school’s food vendors to recover more than 50,000 pounds of food and distribute it to food banks and churches serving the needy in Rochester. “The goal of that organization is to try to both eliminate food waste on college campuses as well as to reduce food insecurity in the community,” she explains. “We do that by creating relationships with the dining centers on campus and getting them to work with us to save leftover food that they have.” One in five children in Rochester is food insecure, meaning they don’t have consistent access to food, and especially nutritious food, Bustamante says, citing a Community Health Needs Assessment. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimates that 31 percent of food at the retail and consumer levels goes uneaten.

“It was a nice parallel to the research that I did because it had to do with an important material being supplied to society and being able to take a byproduct, something that was previously viewed as waste and being thrown away, and give it value and create a solution by just redefining what is actually waste and what is not waste,” Bustamante says. “It’s awesome when you can find opportunities that are such low hanging fruit for providing value,” says.

Washington beckons

For her fellowship application, Bustamante drafted a policy memo examining the impact of solar tariffs, such as the one put in place by the Trump Administration in January 2018. “The tariff supposedly has the goal of helping the solar industry by making it more expensive to import cells and panels, incentivizing you to purchase local, but there is no local manufacturing infrastructure, and it takes time to build that up,” Bustamante explains. She thinks it is unlikely to occur over the four years the tariff will be in place declining from 30 percent in the first year to 15 percent in the fourth. “Undoubtedly, it’s going to raise their prices, so people will have to pay more if they want solar installed for the next four years, and that’s, of course, going to tip the scale for some people and some people are not going to install that otherwise would have been interested in it. So, I think long term it’s going to have a pretty minor effect, but the guise of helping the solar industry by incentivizing manufacturing is really not what’s going to be the impact of this tariff.”

Bustamante won’t learn until the fall which member of Congress or Congressional committee she will serve as a special legislative assistant. She’ll be joined in Washington by her husband, Justin Barends. After an orientation period, fellows are interviewed by Congressional offices to see where their skills and interest fit best. “Generally people end up in offices with people that they largely align with politically, which seems prudent,” Bustamante says. “I would like to work with someone who represents an area that I’ve lived in.”

“I see my role as an opportunity to provide information and advocate for what the science is saying on a certain issue and trying to put that voice out there more, but at the end of the day I know that I’m not going to change politics. People are going to do what’s in their best interests. All I can to do is just keep trying and learning, and learning how that works and what people’s motivations are, so that I can do it better in the future,” Bustamante says.

“I’m bringing my background and my network in the scientific community, but it’s also geared towards being a learning experience,” she says. “So if I can get anything at all accomplished that I feel really proud of, great. But I’m also going to be learning a lot through successes and failures, and hopefully that will lead to better success for the future.”

Institute Archives spotlights pioneering women at MIT

A new MIT Libraries initiative aims to highlight MIT’s women faculty by acquiring, preserving, and making accessible their personal archives. The Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) launched the project last year with the generous support of Barbara Ostrom ’78 and Shirley Sontheimer.

The first year of the project has focused on reaching out to faculty who are ending the active phase of their careers. Four faculty members added their personal collections, comprising 234 boxes and 50 gigabytes of material. They are:

  • Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology Emerita, known for making zebrafish a widely used research tool and for bringing about an investigation that resulted in the landmark 1999 report on the status of women at MIT;
     
  • Mary Potter, professor emerita in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, former chair of the MIT faculty, and member of the Committee of Women Faculty in the School of Science, whose research and teaching focused on experimental methods to study human cognition;
     
  • Mary Rowe, adjunct professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, special assistant to the president, and ombudsperson, a conflict resolution specialist whose work led to MIT having one of the nation’s first anti-harassment policies; and
     
  • Sheila Widnall ’60, SM ’61, ScD ’64, Institute Professor and professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the first woman to serve as secretary of the Air Force, and the first woman to lead an entire branch of the U.S. military.

A donation of the papers of Mildred Dresselhaus, late Institute Professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science and physics, is also forthcoming. Dresselhaus, whose work paved the way for much of today’s carbon-based nanotechnology, was also known for promoting opportunities for women in science and engineering. Discussions with additional faculty are also underway.

“We are honored to be stewards of these personal archives that have been given to MIT,” says Liz Andrews, project archivist. “We’re committed to preserving and making accessible these unique materials so they can be shared with the world into the future.”

Acquisitions of MIT administrative records provide additional context to the personal archives and a broader view on issues of gender equity and the challenges faced by women in academia. In the next phase of the project, archivists will continue to manage donations, prepare collections for use, and enlarge this core group by reaching out to female faculty who were tenured in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Ultimately, the collections will provide not only rich resources for researchers, journalists, teachers, and students, but also, as Sontheimer says, inspiration for generations of women to come. “I’m hoping the project will encourage more women to become engaged in science, technology, and engineering,” she says.

J-PAL North America’s Education, Technology, and Opportunity Innovation Competition announces inaugural partners

J-PAL North America, a research center at MIT, has announced that it will partner with two leading education technology nonprofits to test promising models to improve learning, as part of the inaugural round of the Education, Technology, and Opportunity Innovation Competition.

Launched at MIT this past year, J-PAL North America’s Education, Technology, and Opportunity Innovation Competition supports education leaders in using randomized evaluations to generate evidence on how technology can improve student learning, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

J-PAL North America’s inaugural competition partners are the Family Engagement Lab, an education technology nonprofit that aims to promote effective at-home learning opportunities, and the Western Governors University Center for Applied Learning Science, an online innovation lab that seeks to improve student performance in math.

“We’re excited to partner with Family Engagement Lab and Western Governors University to develop randomized evaluations that can help us better understand the potential for technology to meaningfully improve education outcomes,” says Philip Oreopoulos, professor of economics at the University of Toronto and co-chair of the J-PAL Education, Technology, and Opportunity Initiative. “Technology presents an exciting opportunity to deliver promising new and novel approaches at scale. But with so many innovative programs out there, it’s crucial that researchers and practitioners work together to test, identify, and improve upon effective programs and understand their mechanisms.”

Family Engagement Lab will partner with J-PAL North America to develop an evaluation of FASTalk (Families and Schools Talk), a multilingual digital messaging platform that helps prekindergarten through grade 5 teachers engage with hard-to-reach parents.

Family engagement in the learning process has been found to improve student outcomes. However, it can be challenging for teachers to connect with their students’ families and ensure that classroom learnings are reinforced by learning activities at home. For some households, language barriers make teacher-to-parent communication particularly challenging.

Through the FASTalk platform, teachers can send learning tips and activities to the child’s caregiver in their home language. Message content is aligned to the curriculum and academic calendar. Moreover, the content is pre-scheduled and automatically sent out to reduce demands on teacher time. The platform also supports a two-way dialogue between teachers and parents to facilitate ongoing, reciprocal communication.

“We’re thrilled to be a winner of the J-PAL Education, Technology, and Opportunity Innovation Competition,” says Elisabeth O’Bryon, co-founder and head of research for Family Engagement Lab. “Understanding the impact of FASTalk is crucial as we work towards our goal of developing a scalable, evidence-based family engagement program that meaningfully supports teachers, families, and students. It is an amazing opportunity to have J-PAL’s support to design and implement a randomized evaluation of FASTalk to evaluate the student-level effects of teachers sending curriculum-aligned learning activities to families.”

Western Governors University’s (WGU) Center for Applied Learning Science (CALS) seeks to develop scalable models to improve student learning in math. Almost 64 percent of adult learners start at WGU with limited math proficiency, and survey results indicate that many WGU students feel anxiety around their math ability and aptitude.

WGU is partnering with J-PAL North America to rigorously evaluate a suite of four adaptive online interventions that support mathematical thinking and reasoning. The interventions aim to help students cultivate a math mindset, offer concrete strategies to reduce math anxiety, and utilize concept mapping to increase comprehension of key math concepts.

Beyond its population of 95,000 online learners, WGU seeks to understand whether these interventions can improve math and overall academic performance at community colleges.

“We are honored to be named partners with J-PAL. CALS is focused on using scientific principles to develop and evaluate ed-tech products that improve student learning,” says Jason Levin, vice president of institutional research at WGU. “J-PAL’s mission of using rigorous science to improve outcomes for disadvantaged groups is perfectly aligned with what we do at CALS. We look forward to learning from the network of experience that J-PAL provides. Together with J-PAL we hope to make a big impact for students.”

J-PAL North America will work with these two organizations to build evidence around how technology can improve learning. Despite rapid innovation and substantial investment in education technology, there is little rigorous research to help decision-makers understand which uses of education technology are truly helping students learn.

J-PAL North America is a regional office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. J-PAL was established in 2003 as a research center at MIT’s Department of Economics within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Since then, it has built a global network of affiliated professors based at over 50 universities and regional offices in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. J-PAL North America was established with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and works to improve the effectiveness of social programs in North America through three core activities: research, policy outreach, and capacity building. J-PAL North America’s education technology work is supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

At 99, Lew Aronin ’40 volunteers for MIT AgeLab

As a volunteer for MIT’s AgeLab, 99-year-old Lew Aronin ’40 is doing what he loves mostseeking scientific knowledge for the benefit of humankind. A physics alum­nus who attends MIT events and donates annually, Aronin is a member of 85+ Lifestyle Leaders, a group of people 85 and older, including many alumni and spouses, who delve into topics such as age-friendly design, caregiv­ing, and use of technology.

Aronin’s career began during World War II: The Waltham Watch Company hired him to reproduce the verneuil process for making synthetic sapphires, which are an important compo­nent of watch bearings. “If the company’s supply from Switzerland was cut off, there was a great fear that the only source of preci­sion bearings would be lost,” says Aronin. “I successfully did this in less than a year.”

When the company folded, Aronin joined the staff of the MIT Metallurgical Proj­ect, where he also consulted on the development of the atomic bomb. His research focused on nuclear reactors, and he published an article on radiation damage in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1954. After his department spun off to become a com­pany called Nuclear Metals, he worked as a department manager, and he also con­tributed two chapters to a textbook called Nuclear Reactor Fuel Elements Metal­lurgy and Fabrication.

Aronin first encountered the Institute when his sci­ence teacher in Norwood, Massachusetts, took his best students to attend lec­tures by notables like Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Robert Van de Graaff. The lectures and the campus won him over. Unable to afford a dor­mitory, Aronin commuted and had a part-time job on campus. “I worked hard and got into MIT with the odds against me,” he says, “and it has served me well.”

One first-year experi­ence left a big impression. On May 6, 1937, while work­ing on a problem set in Build­ing 2, he noticed a sudden darkness. When he looked outside, he saw the Hinden­burg overhead, with swasti­kas on its tail. Three hours later, it crashed in Manches­ter Township, New Jersey.

He and his late wife, Eleanor, a musician, were married for 59 years. They raised their children in Lex­ington, Massachusetts, where she became a sought-after piano teacher; he was an active volunteer for the Lions Club and Masons.

Aronin, who retired in 1990, finished his career at the Army Research Labora­tory in Watertown, where he was an expert in beryllium, a relatively rare chemical ele­ment used in cell phones, missiles, and aircraft.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Slice of MIT blog

Discovering hidden stories in the Flint water crisis

As the story of lead contamination in the water of Flint, Michigan, was unfolding in the national news, Elena Sobrino was finishing up her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan at Flint. Now, as a graduate student in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), the Flint native studies “the questions the water crisis has raised about science, power, and where to go from here.”

“It’s an ongoing water crisis. People are continuing to deal with not knowing if their water is safe or not,” Sobrino says.

Her interest in the societal implications of science drew her to HASTS, despite a common misconception. “People usually think MIT is exclusively focused on STEM research. … I saw this program, HASTS, as a way to be in conversation with physical or biological scientists, as a social scientist myself.”

In addition to bringing the perspective of a Flint resident to her research, Sobrino also draws on her experience as an aid worker. Before she began her studies at MIT, Sobrino volunteered for the American Red Cross in Flint, where she worked on diversity and outreach projects and trained other volunteers. There, she noticed the dramatic shift in the resources that became available when news of the crisis went national.

 “There was a public health emergency abruptly taking over everything we were doing. It was like an overnight change,” Sobrino recalls. “One day, the office is empty and quiet, and the next day [volunteers] are everywhere, not just from Michigan — they’re from all over the country.”  

Remembering and documenting notable moments like those plays into Sobrino’s current study of Flint, and she refers to them as “protofieldwork.” Now, Sobrino is preparing to embark on one year of continuous ethnographic study in Flint. She aims to capture the interactions between people and institutions, and the stories of people that have been lost in the national news cycle.

Compressed narratives

Though Sobrino now studies Flint as a graduate student, it wasn’t always an obvious choice.

“Coming into school, it was hard for me to forget everything I’d seen and done in Flint,” Sobrino says. “So I just began to write about it.” She first wrote about the city in the context of social theory in class papers and projects, before deciding to focus on it for her research.

Part of Sobrino’s work involves unpacking some of the terms used to describe places like Flint today: deindustrialized, postindustrial, abandoned, blighted. “These are layers of language that we use but don’t always examine,” Sobrino says. “The language we use matters. The structures we use to a tell a story about a place matter. People are always telling stories about the places they live in and the environments they live in.”  

To learn those stories, Sobrino performs ethnographic research — a type of anthropological research in which the researcher is embedded in the community and culture they aim to study. She uses questions to guide her research.

“What do I need to pay attention to that’s maybe getting lost in some of the stories that have already been told?” Sobrino says.

For fieldwork, Sobrino aims to go beyond the sit-down interview, to learn how the lives of residents and workers in Flint have changed as a result of the water crisis. There are no details too mundane, she says.

“What do those tell us about the deeper history of Flint as a place? I think that’s why anthropology is good at telling a longer story, and it takes a longer time,” Sobrino says.

Innovative media

While most graduate research at MIT is documented in the form of journal articles or dissertations, Sobrino’s ethnographic work may take other, additional forms.

“There are so many different histories that get lost because, inevitably, you have to tell a compressed story that depends on whatever kinds of genre or method you commit to,” she says.

In an effort to capture those histories, Sobrino wants to incorporate a visual component into her work. “I have been very drawn to the idea of using film,” she says. “Film can be a very dynamic and valuable archive.”

Sobrino draws some of her enthusiasm for film from 4.354/5 (Introduction to Video and Related Media), a class in the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, as well as 21A.550J/STS.064J (DV Lab: Documenting Science Through Video and New Media).

“That was such an exciting experience for me — not only getting into the technical issues of editing or just the equipment itself and lighting, but we really explored the politics behind the medium of film as well,” Sobrino says. “That’s a really useful thing for me to think about because [political factors are] something you think about all the time as you’re trained to approach fieldwork, but [film involves] a whole different history: a history of not just research, but art.”

Stories around

When Sobrino isn’t focusing on capturing the stories of Flint, she’s spending time with peers or engaging in local activism. “Building relationships with people is actually something I’ve really learned to prioritize,” Sobrino says. “In a PhD program, where you divide your time between intensive coursework alongside your peers, and then in other stages spend time away from MIT and in the field, you often need to make a conscious effort to maintain friendships.”

“I can’t imagine doing [the HASTS program] without this kind of network of friends or colleagues who come to support you in really personal ways, not just scholarly ways. They intermingle,” Sobrino says.

Outside of MIT, Sobrino takes part in local water activism with the coalition #DeeperThanWater. The coalition works on water toxicity and contamination in Massachusetts-area prisons.

“This has been incredibly enlightening for me because this is a whole different context from Flint, and yet some of the issues are extremely similar, like prolonged toxic exposure,” Sobrino says.

Sobrino invited the coalition to give talks at Cross-STS, a working group within HASTS that consists of researchers from different backgrounds who focus on science, technology, and society.

“I have learned a lot from just walking out the door and seeing the conversations that are happening all around the city,” Sobrino says, “And it’s a privilege to be part of some local community activism and environmental justice activism.”

As Sobrino embarks on her fieldwork in Flint and prepares for all the uncertainties with it, she’s sure about one thing in particular.

“MIT was just absolutely the ideal choice, even in ways I didn’t quite realize when I was applying,” Sobrino says. “I can learn to be an anthropologist, but I really want to think about science, technology, medicine, and their histories. But I don’t want to do that in a vacuum. I want to be really held accountable in a way for exploring the way knowledge gets created, organized, and shared.”

MIT researchers release evaluation of low-cost cooling devices in Mali

Across the Sahel, a semiarid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal to Sudan, many small-scale farmers, market vendors, and families lack an affordable and effective solution for storing and preserving vegetables. As a result, harvested vegetables are at risk of spoiling before they can be sold or eaten.

That means loss of income for farmers and vendors, reduced availability of nutritious foods for local communities, and an increase in the time spent traveling to purchase fresh produce. The problem is particularly acute in off-grid areas, and for anyone facing financial or technical barriers to refrigeration.

Yet, as described in a recently released report “Evaporative Cooling Technologies for Improved Vegetable Storage in Mali” from MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) and the MIT D-Lab, there are low-cost, low-tech solutions for communities in need of produce refrigeration that rely on an age-old method exploiting the air-cooling properties of water evaporation. Made from simple materials such as bricks or clay pots, burlap sack or straw, these devices have the potential to address many of the challenges that face rural households and farmers in need of improved post-harvest vegetable storage.

The study was undertaken by a team of researchers led by Eric Verploegen of the D-Lab and Ousmane Sanogo and Takemore Chagomoka from the World Vegetable Center, which is engaged in ongoing work with horticulture cooperatives and farmers in Mali. To gain insight into evaporative cooling device use and preferences, the team conducted interviews in Mali with users of the cooling and storage systems and with stakeholders along the vegetable supply chain. They also deployed sensors to monitor product performance parameters. 

A great idea in need of a spotlight

Despite the potential for evaporative cooling technologies to fill a critical technological need, scant consumer information is available about the range of solutions available.

“Evaporative cooling devices for improved vegetable storage have been around for centuries, and we want to provide the kind of information about these technologies that will help consumers decide which products are right for them given their local climate and specific needs,” says Verploegen, the evaluation lead. 

The simple chambers cool vegetables through the evaporation of water, in the same way that the evaporation of perspiration cools the human body. When water (or perspiration) evaporates, it takes the heat with it. And in less humid climates like Mali, where it is hot and dry, technologies that take advantage of this cooling process show promise for effectively preserving vegetables.

The team studied two different categories of vegetable cooling technologies: large-scale vegetable cooling chambers constructed from brick, straw, and sack suitable for farming cooperatives, and devices made from clay pots for individuals and small-scale farmers. Over time, they monitored changes in temperature and humidity inside the devices to understand when they were most effective.

“As predicted,” says Verploegen, “the real-world performance of these technologies was stronger in the dry season. We knew this was true in a lab-testing environment, but we now have data that documents that a drop in temperature of greater than 8 degrees Celsius can be achieved in a real-world usage scenario.”

The decrease of temperature, along with the increased humidity and protection from pests provided by the devices, resulted in significant increases in shelf life for commonly stored vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, and hot peppers.

“The large-scale vegetable cooling devices made of brick performed significantly better than those made out of straw or sacks, both from a technical performance perspective and also from an ease-of-use perspective,” notes Verploegen. “For the small-scale devices, we found fairly similar performance across differing designs, indicating that the design constraints are not very rigid; if the basic principles of evaporative cooling are applied, a reasonably effective device can be made using locally available materials. This is an exciting result. It means that to scale use of this process for keeping vegetables fresh, we are looking at ways to disseminate information and designs rather than developing and distributing physical products.” 

The research results indicate that evaporative cooling devices would provide great benefit to small-scale farmers, vendors selling vegetables in a market, and individual consumers, who due to financial or energy constraints, don’t have other options. However, evaporative cooling devices are not appropriate for all settings: they are best suited to communities where there is access to water and vegetable storage is needed during hot and dry weather. And, users must be committed to tending the devices. Sensor data used in the study revealed that users were more inclined to water the cooling devices in the dry season and reduce their usage of the devices as the rainy season started.

Resources for development researchers and practitioners

In addition to the evaluation report, Verploegen has developed two practitioner resources, the “Evaporative Cooling Decision Making Tool” (which is interactive) and the “Evaporative Cooling Best Practices Guide,” to support the determination of evaporative cooler suitability and facilitate the devices’ proper construction and use. The intended audience for these resources includes government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, and businesses that could produce, distribute, and/or promote these technologies.

Both resources are available online.

As part of an ongoing project, the MIT D-Lab and the World Vegetable Center are using the results of this research to test various approaches to increase dissemination of these technologies in the communities that can most benefit from them.

“This study provided us with the evidence that convinced us to use only the efficient types of vegetable cooling technologies — the larger brick chambers,” says World Vegetable Center plant health scientist Wubetu Bihon Legesse. “And, the decision support tool helped us evaluate the suitability of evaporative cooling systems before installing them.”

Launched at MIT in 2012, CITE is a pioneering program dedicated to developing methods for product evaluation in global development. Currently based at MIT D-Lab, CITE’s research is funded by the USAID U.S. Global Development Lab. CITE is led by Professor Dan Frey of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT D-Lab, and additionally supported by MIT faculty and staff from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center, the Center for Transportation and Logistics, the School of Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management.

Metropolitan Storage Warehouse is potential new location for School of Architecture and Planning

MIT has identified the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse as a potential new location for the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). The proposed move would let the Institute create a new hub for design research and education, allow the school to expand its full range of activities, and open new spaces for public use.

The building would need renovation, a process that would require approval from the City of Cambridge.

While MIT has previously considered other functions for the landmark building, using it as an interdisciplinary academic center — while expanding the capacities of SA+P’s highly rated programs — could bring about a wide array of benefits for students, faculty, and the larger community.

Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, emphasizes that students, staff, and faculty throughout the Institute would find an intellectual home in the proposed new building.

“It’s about really creating a design hub for MIT on the campus, bringing the expanding and increasingly important areas of design from across MIT — art, architecture, and urban planning — together in one place,” says Sarkis. “Moving does not address just the school’s aspirations, but MIT’s aspirations.”

MIT leaders have voiced their support for the plan, while also noting its benefits for the Institute as a whole.

SA+P already has a wonderful spirit and sense of identity; uniting so many elements of the School in a single building will amplify that strength and create a central resource for the whole MIT community,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “In its outward effects, the project is also a perfect fit for the people of SA+P: Who better to revive a grand old building and reknit the streetscape along Mass. Ave. than those who love and understand buildings and cities the most?”

Robert B. Millard, chairman of the Corporation at MIT, also expressed his support for the project.

“I have a long history with and an admiration for the School of Architecture and Planning, and I am delighted that as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture, we plan for a future that strengthens both SA+P and MIT,” Millard says.

Among other things, a relocation to the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse could expand MIT’s classroom and design studio space, significantly increase its exhibition capacity for arts and design programming, provide new faculty offices, create a new center for the arts at MIT, and provide new areas for meetings and collaboration-based work. The building would also host public events and activities about cities, and include retail spaces.

“The renovation of the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse is intended to generate new opportunities for research, teaching, and innovation at the Institute,” says Provost Martin A. Schmidt. “I look forward to seeing faculty and students, across many disciplines, use the new space to push their fields into the future.” 

A featured part of the renovated building would be a new makerspace headed by Martin Culpepper, a professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and leader of the Instutute’s Precision Compliant Systems Laboratory. That space would provide expanded design and fabrication facilties for the MIT community, and let Institute researchers collaborate — physically or virtually — with the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, which opened in 2017.  

In recent years, SA+P has become increasingly involved in collaborations with other schools at MIT. These substantive new areas of collaboration range widely, including the increased incorporation of design principles in engineering — as well as the greater use of data in urban studies, and new connections between architecture, planning, climate science, and engineering. SA+P could host studio-based courses developed with other schools (including the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management) in the renovated space. MIT also approved a new urban science major for undergraduates in 2018, and a design minor, approved in 2016, to fit any existing major.

A new building enhancing interdisciplinary interactions would be “transformational,” Sarkis says.

The possible move would also shift a major space for teaching and research over to the west side of Massachusetts Avenue for the first time, bringing the school into closer proximity with the residential population of the Institute campus.

“We [would be] creating a new gateway for MIT,” says Sarkis, noting that the building has a central location in the overall map of the campus.

The proposal to renovate the historic building includes retail space on the ground floor, and a theater. One of the proposed retail spaces would be a new outlet for the MIT Press, likely focusing on the topics of art, architecture, urbanism, and design.

The possible move would also take advantage of a distinctive situation in which there is room for academic expansion within the existing built environment at MIT.

Construction on the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse began in 1894, although some parts of the current structure date to 1911. The building was designed by the architectural firm Peabody and Stearns, and its brick tower and narrow windows have long drawn comparisons to a castle.

The structure, which MIT owns, is one of the oldest buildings in the campus area — MIT did not move to Cambridge until 1916 — and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The City of Cambridge must approve modifications to the structure due to its historic status. MIT has been in discussion with Cambridge officials about the project.

As one of MIT’s five schools, SA+P encompasses a variety of departments and programs, including the Department of Architecture, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the MIT Media Lab, the Center for Real Estate, the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, and the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism.

MIT Media Lab personnel would remain in their current locations. The Media Lab is housed in a two-building complex, and its newest building, on the corner of Ames Street and Amherst Street, just opened in 2010. The project could allow SA+P to create shared resources with the Media Lab, including gallery and performance spaces, and project rooms, while providing a new public portal to the Media Lab.

The proposed redevelopment of the structure would follow other MIT building projects that have been designed for interdisciplinary collaboration while containing flexible spaces. This includes the Stata Center, which houses an array of researchers in disciplines from computer science to linguistics, and the new MIT.nano building, slated for completion this year, which will host a wide range of nanotechnology research.

“Everybody’s looking at it as an opportunity,” Sarkis says. “We can think about how we can do things better together, how we can create new opportunities for teaching and research, and technology and resources and workspaces — together we can re-imagine everything. We’re really looking forward to that.”

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