D-Lab: Earth

D-Lab: Earth 2017!

by Ariel Phillips and Susan Murcott


Students from D-Lab: Earth 2016  presenting a poster of their project rECOLAB at the end-of-semester D-Lab Showcase.

Susan Murcott

Ariel Phillips

Concerned about the earth and its people? Want to take meaningful action at the intersection of biodiversity and poverty?  Want to express your passion?  D-Lab: Earth is a project-based seminar in which students have the opportunity to join an existing project or conceive their own project that addresses challenge(s) in resource-limited, biodiverse regions. Existing project sites include Zambia, Nicaragua, Ghana, and Thailand. Or, you can identify your own site location. Travel over the summer if you want to continue your work overseas is an option but not a requirement. 

Below are some questions students frequently ask as they consider this seminar. Feel free to contact Susan Murcott or Ariel Phillips with other questions.

How much work is involved?

Since this is a weekly seminar, the requirements are fewer than they would be for a full course. They are (i) conceptualization and creative engagement with the identified challenge, (ii) active participation in the class, (iii) participation in regular, out-of-class team meetings, and (iv) a small number of readings. In addition, students engage in periodic project check-ins and two design presentations, as well as final documentation of their work to allow others to benefit from it. There are no exams.

What types of projects are involved? 

We’ll go over the criteria in more detail on the first day, but, in brief, we want projects to:

  • Relate to environmental issues, as well as to low-resourced (usually this means economically poor) human populations.
  • Be do-able in the timeframe we have, which, for most students, is the spring semester. This can be longer for students who want to continue their work after the semester ends.
  • Have the potential to be further developed, either by the student or by specific other people. For example, if the project involves a D-Lab community partner, the student must ensure that the partner has a way to maintain momentum and connection with D-Lab, if they want to do that.
  • Be documentable. This relates to our concern that projects have the potential to be conceived and implemented comprehensively, and available to be picked up by future students, if appropriate. 

Is there a strong focus on design?

We especially care about and welcome students selecting topics they are truly interested in and excited about. Even though one hallmark of D-Lab pedagogy is experiential, hands-on learning, D-Lab: Earth projects don’t have to be design projects. In addition, they can be technology-focused, but they don’t have to be. Earth students are a diverse bunch, and no one will be pressured to conform to any one type of project. 

Some examples of the memorable projects that students have engaged with in this class include: 

  • Grassland restoration on the Tibetan Plateau
  • A structured workshop on “creative capacity building” for City Growers, a local, community-supported agriculture (CSA) organization
  • rECOlab – an engineering and design workshop for youth in Thailand
  • A “living machine,” a living water filtration system built in the D-Lab classroom

Can you tell me more about the "experiential activities"?

We’ll do several activities that we think will be useful to students and will help illustrate ideas from the seminar, such as value-chain mapping, one or two role-play games and a “Council of All Beings” workshop    

Is there an expectation to continue the project over the summer? And is there funding?

There is no requirement regarding summer work. There is funding for students, but each person’s situation is a little different. We’d be glad to discuss options with you one-on-one in the first weeks of the class to be sure we find a good fit for your interests and the major themes of the seminar.

Here’s how one former D-Lab: Earth student sums up the seminar: 

"I think the intersection of poverty and environmental stability is uniquely taxing, on the mind, hand, and heart, but also uniquely rewarding in each of those areas. Interacting with this area has given me a deep appreciation of humanity and its efforts toward a better world. 

I have never before had a project that I had such complete control over. From design to fundraising to buying materials to construction, the entire project was totally in our own hands, which was both incredibly empowering and also sometimes stressful. In my other hands­on lab classes, all of the material purchasing and most of the experimental design was done by professors and teaching assistants. In D­-Lab: Earth, we had to consider potential stakeholders, risks, legality concerns, as well as the timeline and actual logistics of finishing our project within a semester timeframe."

We welcome your participation in this adventure in engaged learning and look forward to working with you on your project(s) and getting to know each other in the weeks and months ahead!


rECOlab 2016: Starting with a million questions, ending with a million ideas

By Catherine Yunis MIT '16 and Estefania Lamas-Hernandez Wellesley '16.5


Two students sawing outside to build their prototype in Ao Kapor. 

Students interviewing community members in Koh Yao Yai to learn more about their daily challenges. 


Estefania showing the students deforestation in the U.S. as part of a conversation about sustainability.


Left to right: Catherine, Estefania, Tukta and Sam (one of our translators) at DSIL.

We began D-Lab: Earth during the Spring 2016 semester without a clue of what was about to unfold: a nearly two-month long adventure in Thailand teaching engineering design techniques and sustainability to students of all ages. Cofounded by Estefania Lamas-Hernandez (Wellesley Political Science ’16.5) and Catherine Yunis (MIT Mechanical Engineering ’16), rECOlab was developed at the invitation of Nalin “Tukta” Tutiyaphuengprasert from the Darunsikkhalai School of Innovative Learning’s (DSIL) in Bangkok. 

Though the project was initially conceived as a curriculum to pass onto Tukta, after receiving a D-Lab Fieldwork Grant from the MIT Underclasmen Giving Campaign, we spent the semester working towards making the workshop a reality. By the semester’s end, we received additional grants from MIT’s Tau Beta Pi, Wellesley’s Center for Work and Service, and two foundations in Thailand - the World Dignity Foundation and the Suksappatana Foundation. We were inspired by a mutual passion for design, and a belief that its message transforms and empowers people to become more civically engaged through community-based problem solving. 

After months of organizing around hectic schedules, a 12-hour time difference, and invaluable meetings with faculty and staff at DSIL, Wellesley, and MIT, we determined that rECOlab would travel to two villages to host workshops, one in Koh Yao Yai, a small island in the southern Andaman Sea, and one in Ban Sam Ka, in the northeastern mountainous forests near Laos.

At its core, the project aimed to get students to participate in design thinking and constructionism workshops meant to increase their environmental awareness and community involvement. Our workshop moved through five stages in an adapted design cycle: identifying a problem, brainstorming solutions, selecting a solution, building a prototype, and testing the prototype. At the end of each workshop, students showed off prototypes they had created as teams based on challenges they identified as negatively affecting their surrounding natural environments.

The presentation for Ban Sam Ka was even attended by Khun Paron, an MIT alumnus who founded DSIL and has dedicated much of his life to promoting constructionism. With his gracious support, we crossed paths with many key stakeholders in Thailand who promote constructionism as a form of human rights activism. These included a retired United Nations - Human Rights Commission ambassador, various DSIL staff, and members of the Thai business community — all who are excited to continue projects like rECOlab in the future. 

Ultimately, we hoped that students would actively consider the ways in which they have a place in their community, thereby creating actionable plans to tackle personal and environmental challenges they identified during the workshop. Through daily data collection from students and observations from students and school staff, we gladly report that we succeeded in increasing students’ civic engagement and environmental awareness. Without a doubt, our methodologies were influenced by D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building approach to development, as well as their commitment to honoring local innovation techniques. In this spirit, we are planning to follow up with Tukta and others at the schools by asking about how the student’s projects have progressed, and continuing discussions about how we can make rECOlab happen again in coming years.

To say “we learned a lot this summer” would be an understatement — but it would also be the truth. Since we were committed to teaching culturally responsive material, we created the curriculum with faculty and staff at the schools. In practice, this meant that, though logistics were discussed in advance during videoconferences, many details were not settled until we were inside the classroom. We often had to improvise, repeat, or rethink parts of our lessons in order to ensure students were internalizing the material. This allowed us to be responsive to day-to-day changes in the classroom, and adapt ourselves to what the students needed or wanted to learn, instead of strictly following what we assumed we should teach them. 

Beyond learning about the depth and richness of Thai culture, we came away from this experience beyond grateful for the support we received to make this once-dream a reality. We found new approaches to teach/participate in design, and nurtured our inner teachers (as recent college students, no less!!). We were met from the start with generosity and flexibility — we cannot give enough thanks to the people we worked with for their time, energy, and generosity. They are responsible for the workshop’s smooth first deployment. The persistence they had in making sure we — and rECOlab — were well taken care of made all the difference. 

Catherine reflection: Learning to teach in a different country, in a different culture, with only one other person there who was in the same shoes was a totally new experience for me. It was amazing to feel so far from home but still so well supported and loved despite being a stranger. I’m hoping that some of the work we did had a positive impact on the students’ lives.

Estefania reflection: rECOlab gave us an opportunity to multiply the gifts we’ve been given during our undergraduate educations: to think critically, beyond ourselves, and to make a difference in the world. I am grateful to have been a part of this project, and hope that together, we can continue to create solutions grounded in promoting empathy and understanding.

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