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Transformational Learning From Afar

The D-Lab: Development class is a broad introduction to the effective application of technology in international development. Students traditionally participate in hands-on demonstrations and experiential activities to understand firsthand the most pressing needs of people living in poverty. During a non-virtual year, students live on a fixed income valued at the equivalent of food stamps, carry water by hand from a source outside their dorms for bathroom use, wire up a solar panel, make their own fuel from recycled material, and much more.

This year, Lecturer Libby Hsu (MIT D-Lab) and Professor Bish Sanyal (Department of Urban Studies and Planning) taught a hybrid class in a hybrid manner, with seniors and graduate students invited to the D-Lab space for socially-distanced activities on Fridays, and other students tuning in on Zoom with kits mailed to them for participation. As the instructor in charge of experiential activities, Hsu had to decide which activities were possible, and how the remote students could equitably engage in experiences from afar.

One of the experiences that the team decided to forge ahead with was a charcoal burn—a beloved annual event in which students learn how agricultural waste can be safely carbonized and prepared into charcoal briquettes as a source of clean fuel, beneficial in regions facing deforestation and respiratory illness from harmful cooking fuel sources. D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith and Research Scientist Dan Sweeney ran a burn in the Kresge BBQ pits on a sunny October afternoon, while Humanitarian Innovation Program Coordinator Heewon Lee filmed and broadcast the experience on Facebook Live, and Hsu commentated and answered questions for the remote students viewing the stream.

The in-person students were able to participate in the burn and make briquettes on camera to show their remote classmates up close, sharing their reactions and experiences. A sense of enthusiasm and wonder pervaded the stream chat, proving that transformational learning experiences can still happen from afar.

— Nancy Adams, D-Lab