D-Lab Academics Team Wins OVC Infinite Mile Award for Innovation and Creativity

Just a few D-Lab instructors and students!
Just a few D-Lab instructors and students!

Staff from across the MIT Office for the Vice Chancellor gathered for virtual ceremony on June 7 to honor colleagues for exceptional service to OVC, the Chancellor’s Office, and MIT. The D-Lab Academics team received the award in the Innovation and Creativity category.

MIT D-Lab Academics Team

Leadership: Libby Hsu, Associate Director of Academics

Instructors: Joost Bonsen, Sorin Grama, Steve Graves, Sally Haslanger, Libby Hsu, Libby McDonald, Susan Murcott, Lisa Nam, Les Norford, Alex Pentland, Harald Quintus-Bosz, Bish Sanyal, Julie Simpson, Amy Smith, Eliza Squibb, Dan Sweeney, Martha Thompson, Eric Verploegen

Staff: Artie Maharaj, Jack Whipple

Following is the text of the nomination submitted by their D-Lab colleagues:

Since D-Lab’s founding in 2002, its instructors have committed themselves to designing hands-on learning opportunities for MIT students through real-world projects with community partners, all with an eye toward improving the world and with a spirit of humility and respect. Year after year, D-Lab students come away transformed. “My time in D-Lab taught me a lot,” said Maddie Hickman ‘11, “how to weld and use a hacksaw, how to travel and make the most of new experiences, (how to gumboot dance), how to design and fail and try again. D-Lab also showed me the value of project-based learning and in doing work that is personally meaningful. D-Lab continues to have a huge influence on how I work and how I approach life.” And year after year, D-Lab’s community partners see the impact of this approach firsthand. “When MIT D-Lab comes, they don’t come to teach us as experts,” said Betty Ikalany, the Executive Director of TEWDI Uganda. “They come to work with us, but to learn from each other.”

This past year, the Covid-19 pandemic and the transition to virtual learning threatened to upend all of that: taking away the opportunity to spend hours prototyping in the D-Lab workshop, the ability to travel internationally to work with community partners in person, and the bonds that form when teams stay up later tackling big challenges together. But in spite of these hurdles, and without access to their usual tools, the D-Lab Academics team met the moment. They found creative ways to pivot projects and bring hands-on learning home to students. They came together as a pedagogical community to share best practices. And through it all, they maintained an unrelenting focus on the wellbeing of students and communities.

At D-Lab, we teach our students that engaging in true collaborative design requires a specific set of mindsets: optimism, collaboration, and empathy. This challenging year, the D-Lab Academics team showed us what it looks like to put these mindsets into action.

A Mindset of Optimism

D-Lab instructors teach students to look for opportunities in challenging contexts with scarce resources. Instead of focusing on what is lacking, instructors challenge their students to ask, “What can we do with what we do have?” The pandemic forced instructors to ask themselves the same question, and they answered it with ingenuity and grit.

D-Lab instructors quickly adopted a toolbox full of creative ways to engage students over Zoom. They peppered their classes with polls and gameshows on Mentimeter, they hosted design brainstorms with virtual sticky notes on Mural, and they streamed technology demos on Facebook Live. Although this careful choreography often required double or triple the planning time, D-Lab’s instructors were committed to offering truly experiential classes to students. One student noted in her evaluation, “I appreciate the attention to hands-on learning. Even remotely, my instructors made an effort to keep the class involved in different activities apart from just a regular lecture.” Another student added, “Thank you for going the extra mile and really putting a lot of thought and effort into remote learning.”

Instructors didn’t limit themselves to virtual tools, either. For multiple classes, instructors mailed or dropped off hand-on learning kits full of tools and building materials - literally going the extra mile to ensure that students could engage in hands-on learning at home. And for those students who could come to campus, D-Lab reconfigured its workshop and classroom spaces to allow them to build and learn together, safely.

The real-world projects, too, pivoted. No longer able to rely on workshop space or face-to-face time with their community partners, instructors found new ways to facilitate remote collaboration. In the D-Lab: Design class, for instance, students had originally planned to build a prototype of a bicycle for Ugandan street vendors in the workshop. Instead, they created videos, written instructions, and visual diagrams to convey their design to their partners in Uganda, who built it locally.

Instructors also helped students pivot their projects to meet the crisis. In the D-Lab: Water, Climate Change & Health class, students made recommendations to the City of Cambridge for lowering Covid-19 transmission rates and updating food programs in light of the pandemic. In the Humanitarian Innovation class, students created a Covid-19 kit for unaccompanied refugee minors in the overcrowded camp on the Greeks island of Kos, including an educational booklet, a kit to build a hands-free door opening device, hand sanitizer, and DIY masks. These pivots meant that in a time of confusion and helplessness, students could engage in projects with immediate relevance and urgency.

A Mindset of Collaboration

D-Lab classes emphasize to students the value and experience that every person - regardless of their background - can bring to a problem-solving process. Confronted with the challenges of teaching remotely, D-Lab lived this value and turned to each other, coming together as a community to share resources and lessons.

Throughout these changes, Associate Director of Academics Libby Hsu’s leadership was paramount.

“Libby Hsu has done a tremendous job of proactively guiding the D-Lab instructional staff as they have adapted to teaching during the pandemic,” said D-Lab Academic Director Maria Yang. “Once it became likely that we would be moving to remote, Libby quickly followed up by sending out a detailed list of resources on best practices for teaching remotely, and held a Zoom call for all teaching staff to discuss specific concerns. Although it seems obvious in retrospect, at the time there was a great deal of uncertainty about how exactly instructors would magically change to remote teaching, and Libby’s focus on making order out of chaos was incredibly important to making the process more achievable.”

The learning didn’t stop there. Once the first semester of virtual learning wrapped up, the team led a special evaluation effort to understand the specific challenges students and instructors were facing as well as the resources, tools, and strategies that worked well. This effort culminated in a publication that was shared with other experiential learning offices and that informed the team’s strategy for the fall. In January, the team came together for a community learning day, sharing the findings from that evaluation and enjoying fireside chats with two instructor teams who reflected in-depth about their Covid-19 teaching experience. The team’s commitment to continuous learning, sharing, and iterating embodied the design process in action.

A Mindset of Empathy

D-Lab teaches its students to cultivate empathy, understanding, and respect when designing solutions to global poverty challenges. This year, D-Lab instructors have shown that the same principles apply when teaching in a crisis. Through this challenging year, instructors have maintained an unrelenting focus on the holistic wellbeing of students.

An MIT News article on D-Lab from last summer began: “It’s not a typical sentence you’d find on a class schedule, but on April 2, the first action item for one MIT course read: 'Check in on each other’s health and well-being.' D-Lab instructors built student wellness into the design of their classes: scheduling regular personal check-ins, creating space for students to share and build community with each other, and building in flexibility for students facing personal challenges. Students felt the difference. In their evaluations, they specifically called out the caring environment that D-Lab instructors created:

  • “Libby and Andrea made the whole experience of the course to be very informative but also very loving. There was a lot of support for students, in addition to really interesting lectures and knowledge.”
  • “Additionally, I made a lot of new friends (which was so amazing over virtual class) and really loved getting to learn from my peers.”
  • “I thought the check-ins were very nice and allowed us to feel like we were connected and sharing, even if we weren't physically together.”

As D-Lab’s Founding Director Amy Smith sums up, “At D-Lab, we pride ourselves on the hands-on, experiential nature of our classes, which made the switch to remote learning especially challenging. That being said, our instructors have really risen to this challenge and have come up with inventive ways to keep the essential elements of their classes thriving. They have creatively explored new platforms and found ways to add value to their classes. Their thoughtful approach, as well as their care and attention, have been appreciated by the students throughout these difficult times.”

D-Lab's Executive Director Bob Nanes adds, "The last year has been trying for everyone, but the inability to work with colleagues and students in person has hit instructors especially hard. In spite of these hardships, the D-Lab instructors have shown fortitude and creativity in their efforts to continue to give meaningful educational experiences to our students. They have essentially had to re-create their curricula with the new conditions in mind. D-Lab classes have all traditionally been meant to be in person and experiential, thus there had to be a lot of re-thinking of how to create that experiential tone. There have been many creative changes including sending “prototyping kits” to students’ houses and expanding the types of interactive software being used. It goes without saying that keeping students interested while classes are on zoom takes energy, creativity, and a desire to be responsive and adaptive. The instructors have also made extra efforts to monitor and learn as they moved along. As always, the caring that our instructors have shown is exemplary."

They have shown us what we can overcome when we approach a challenge with a spirit of ingenuity, learning, and hope. As we look ahead to a moment when hands-on learning can again happen face-to-face, we’re grateful for how they’ve weathered this storm and inspired to see what they’ll do next!