When most people I know think of MIT, the first thing that leaps to mind is almost always computer science, physics, or some other aspect of science and engineering. As important as it is, international development isn't exactly something MIT is world-renowned for. Yet.
But there's a dedicated cadre of people at MIT dedicated to changing that perception - and their numbers are growing. When you come on campus, in fact, it's almost impossible not to notice the tremendous amount of resources that MIT is pouring into a host of international development issues. Whether your passion is combating poverty, improving healthcare in Third World countries, or anything in between, MIT is pushing international development forward on pretty much level, from fostering student groups and Institute initiatives to creating more classes and UROPs dedicated to these issues.
This entry is about one of the most well-known classes focusing on international development at MIT: D-Lab. D-Lab is actually a trio of one-semester classes; the three D's stand for Development, Design, and Dissemination. The classes can be taken individually or as a series, and some students even elect to continue their D-Lab projects for longer than three semesters - such as through UROPs or other initiatives. No matter how little or how long students spend in D-Lab, the skills and perspectives the participants learn continue to be relevant long beyond they've left MIT.
I first heard about D-Lab during freshman year, when one of my upperclassman friends in Simmons started eating crackers for dinner. When I asked why she'd suddenly changed her eating habits, she explained that it was part of an assignment for D-Lab: surviving on $2 a day - the typical living income for a Third World country - for an entire week.
Recently, I discovered that a good friend from freshman year - Chris '11 - was taking one of the D-Lab classes this semester. In celebration of Blog Action Day, I asked him if he had any perspectives to share about the class. Here's what he had to say:
I'm currently taking D-Lab: Development, the first class in the series, where we learn about technologies in the developing world and different factors that cause poverty to continue in developing countries. In January (MIT's Independent Activities Period, the class splits up into teams of four or five and spends three weeks in a village in a developing country. I will be heading to northern India, while others will be going to places as far and varied as Tanzania, Ghana, and Guatemala. In D-Lab: Design (the second class of the series), you build your own technology that could be distributed in a developing country. The third class, D-Lab: Dissemination, takes the principles of D-Lab: Design to a real-world level by showing you to create a plan to distribute a technology or business model throughout the developing world.
D-Lab is unlike any other I've taken. In most engineering classes you're simply given the screws, metal, and circuits that you need in order to build a project, and you can shop around if there’s a part you need that isn’t around the lab. In D-Lab, the materials we use are restricted by the things easily and cheaply available in the villages we're each visiting. The goal isn’t to make our technology as flashy as possible, but rather to make it as simple as possible, so that anyone using it will know exactly how it functions and how to fix it if it breaks. A week ago we had an assignment to estimate the amount of energy we use in a day. As we consider various projects that we can do in the villages we’re visiting, we are realizing how much cow dung we would need to produce that much energy using a biogas digester.
Of course one thing that our professor, Amy Smith, reminds us of as we work on our projects is that with all the technical knowledge we gain in class, nothing can substitute the indigenous knowledge of the people we're helping. They’ve been on their land a lot longer than we have and they can shed a lot of light on the best technologies. Amy tells a story in class about a cheaper charcoal briquette that she and a group of her students were having trouble with because it dissolved if water was poured on it, as is typically done to extinguish it, after the first use. This was causing a lot of trouble for the group, until finally they were presenting the charcoal to one village and a young boy suggested that they just throw sand on the briquettes instead of water.
All in all, D-Lab allows fifty students each semester to delve into how grand the problem of poverty is and the kinds of solutions that are needed to solve it. Some technologies still need to be invented, while others already exist and just need people to go out and disseminate them. D-Lab trains its students to figure out how to assess the needs of a village and introduce effective solutions that will allow the village to be more self-sustainable. And visiting an impoverished place helps reminds us that we aren't just studying concepts and equations, but rather a global issue that affects people not very different from ourselves.
Of course, this is hardly the first time D-Lab has been mentioned on the blogs. Mitra '07 took D-Lab her senior year and ultimately blogged about her trip to Zambia, where she and her group worked with government programs and NGO's like the Agricultural Support Programme, Peace Corps, and CARE; and helped strengthen ties with the University of Zambia (UNZA) administration. You can also find two of Mitra's actual blog entries from Africa here and here. D-Lab's own website also lists some of the projects past students have dreamed up in the Project Portfolio.
For even more information on D-Lab, check out some of these other excellent articles written about the class and the amazing things its students have done.
- New York Times: Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
- Popular Mechanics: Latest Inventions from MIT Help Developing Countries
- Boston Globe: Shared beliefs engineer technical changes for better
- MIT News Office: Students tackle flooding in Honduras
- MIT News Office: Charcoal technology holds promise for Third World
- and more...
- even more...