Experiential Learning in the Time of Covid-19: How Two D-Lab Class Projects Pivoted to Bridge Distances and Meet Critical Needs

The 2020 D-Lab: Design class meeting online during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2020 D-Lab: Design class meeting online during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Covid-19 has led to countless challenges for MIT students since the abrupt closure of campus in the middle of March. As MIT D-Lab instructors and students scrambled to transfer their class lectures and discussions to Zoom, they wondered if they could do the same with their projects.

In a typical semester, D-Lab students spend hours in the D-Lab workshop building prototypes, often traveling overseas to implement these projects in the field and work hand-in-hand with community-based organizations around the world. Without these hands-on and in-person experiences, would D-Lab projects still have the same impact?

In the face of all these challenges, D-Lab students were quick to adapt to the new circumstances to ensure that their projects could have a meaningful impact on both themselves and the partners.

D-Lab Design: Prototyping across borders in the time of Covid-19

One D-Lab: Design team turned the challenge into an opportunity. In collaboration with Kyusa, an NGO in Kampala, Uganda that helps youth create jobs out of their passions, D-Lab students Megan Flynn '21, Joshua Maldonado '21, Kwame Connell '23, Isabel Barnet '22, and May Huang '23 were working on the design of a bike that street vendors could use to transport coffee. The bike had to uphold high sanitary and ergonomic standards as well as be temperature controlled. Before the lockdown, these students were planning to build the prototype themselves. However, with no access to the D-Lab workshop, they needed a plan B.

Instead, the students worked with Noeline Kirabo, the founder of Kyusa, to create simple and thorough instructions that could be followed by people in Uganda, such as Henry, an alumnus of Kyusa programs and a carpenter, and Samson, a welder. By creating videos, written instructions, and visual diagrams, the students were able to convey the design to the team in Uganda. The students, instructors, and the team in Uganda were astonished at the positive outcomes of the new approach. D-Lab: Design instructor Eliza Squibb commented, “[their approach] was an excellent way to engage local partners even more than in the typical human-centered design process.”

Communication was critical throughout the prototyping process, and the students regularly kept in contact with Noeline, Henry, and Samson through WhatsApp, e-mail, Skype, Zoom, and other platforms. While there was a strict lockdown in Uganda, the communication helped both students and the team in Uganda move forward on design ideas. Even though materials were not readily available and there was a strict budget to adhere to, MIT D-Lab students found innovative ways to get around the obstacles they face, such as the lack of manufacturing availability. Taking into consideration the various needs of the user (improved food capacity, easy to clean, low cost, water and weather-proof, and more), the students brainstormed and designed diagrams that not only met the users’ needs but exceeded them.

Megan, Joshua, Kwame, Isabel, and May also took away lessons from this new way of working. Megan shared her reflections on the challenges her team faced and the collaborative approach that was required to overcome them:

“The crisis definitely forced us to commit to remote fabrication and allowed us an opportunity to understand how to write directions for our classmates to interpret before sending things along to Uganda. We had previously talked about the different barriers including the gaps in language/translating, the technology available (CAD and files vs. phones), and how to best deliver a helpful prototype plan for Kyusa by the end of the semester. These concerns were amplified by going remote, but I believe our team was well suited to handle remote collaboration after working with our partners in such a way.”

The team’s hard work and flexibility were rewarded, as Noeline from Kyusa has asked them to continue with the project so the prototype can be built as soon as the lockdown is reversed. Noeline believes that  “this project has far-reaching implications and the potential to make a very positive impact.”

Humanitarian Innovation: Preventing the spread of Covid-19 in refugee camps   

Students in D-Lab’s Humanitarian Innovation class decided to use their skills to help refugees and displaced people protect themselves during the pandemic.

Before the crisis hit, Ayse Guvenilir '20, Shariqah Hossain '21, Pushpaleela Prabakar G, and Octavio Vega '22 working with Faros, a refugee NGO in Athens, had planned to address the effects of mental health with UAC in Camp Moira. Instead, they are now addressing Covid-19 with UAC in Camp Kos. When the Covid-19 crisis hit, they quickly changed their strategy to focus on a project that would enable refugees to stay safe during the pandemic.

The team took on two challenges: first, to develop tailored resources and provide information to the community about the virus; and second, to design a device to open a door without touching surfaces. They aimed to make a Covid-19 kit for unaccompanied refugee minors in the overcrowded camp on the Greeks island of Kos that would include:

  • a printed educational booklet on Covid-19
  • parts for a hook device as well as video, image, and oral instructions to assemble the hook
  • safety materials including alcohol wipes, sanitizer, Lysol wipes, and DIY masks

The educational resources that were created for the refugee minors centered on debunking Covid-19 myths, methods to take care of one’s mental health, and the actions that should be taken to keep the virus from spreading in the community. Since the refugees at the Kos Camp speak various languages, resources were devised in multiple languages. Greek government protocols to control the pandemic have restricted access to the camp in Kos so the team is currently working with a Greek NGO in Kos running a radio programs for the refugees to reach the unaccompanied refugee minors more effectively. The students will be working over the fall to coordinate education efforts over the radio program and to explore the possibilities of getting the kits or some kind of hook to the refugee minors.

The students' creativity and adaptability propelled them to design an innovative curriculum and product that met the needs of the refugees in the camp. Humanitarian Innovation instructor Martha Thompson said that the pandemic gave her an opportunity to “learn to be much more creative [remotely] and use new tools to continue to make [the] class interactive.”

The Covid-19 pandemic did not deter D-Lab students from harnessing their creativity and resourcefulness to design across distances and meet critical needs. As the pandemic continues, and D-Lab looks ahead to remote learning in the fall semester, students can take advantage of the skills they learn in D-Lab to make a difference in the communities around them.

About the blogger: Sarina Motwani is a senior at the Spence School, NYC. She enjoys spending time with her family and tutoring children. She is passionate about fighting against education inequality.

More information

D-Lab: Design

Humanitarian Innovation


Libby Hsu, MIT D-Lab Lecturer and Associate Director of Academics