Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Course 6 and Sustainability

Here are some professors who might be interested in helping to adapt current curriculum to sustainability applications.

LEES - Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems is basically the power electronics lab, and so they have many projects on energy harvesting and energy storage systems. I took Leeb and Perreault's power electronics classes and they are the only professors in EECS that I know for sure are interested in sustainability.

Joe Paradiso
is a Media Lab professor and heads the Responsive Environments Group that does a lot of work on sensor networks. Also Rich Fletcher but he is new and often overcommits himself.

Director Joel Schindall was also working on some relevant projects and would probably also know more other people who are interested.

LIDS blog - the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems recently had some energy events about power grid management and CO2 mitigation in the power sector by outside lecturers. This shows that while I'm not sure if anyone at LIDS currently is working on this stuff, their technical expertise is relevant.

David H. Staelin works on environmental sensing and wireless communications and seems like he might be interested in working on sustainability projects.

Dimitris Bertsimas works on Operations optimization, which seems like it could be applied to sustainability.

Bottom line is that a lot of the EECS profs are there because of the research they did that ultimately got applied to military applications, aerospace, and the communications industry (internet, cellphone).

I also wanted to address the issue of whether urban planning in developing nations or developed nations would be more relevant. I am not against studying developing nations. I think it's extremely important. I just personally feel that there has been too much emphasis on developing nations when we talk about sustainability projects. I feel it gives people the impression that if you are interested in sustainability, you should go overseas. Because of the success of D-Lab, working in developing nations has become all the rage. Of my colleagues who work on "sustainability," the vast majority of them focus on developing nations, but usually the very underdeveloped countries rather than the rapidly developing nations, which have different issues. For a sustainable society, it is just as critical for business as usual in developed nations to change, and in some ways it is even more difficult because of vested interests.

In addition, where students end up working depends on what they want to do and it depends on the resources of the field. For working on cutting edge technology in EECS, nowhere is more research and innovation happening than in the United States even if I don't think the research is focused on the right stuff.

Students who came to MIT to work on the cutting edge of technology find that the cutting edge is defined and funded largely by DARPA, NASA, and increasingly cancer research grants. Personally, I don't feel compelled to work on something unless I am in pursuit of the end goal, but many students just want to work on something really technically challenging because that is how they were motivated enough in the first place to come to MIT. While some of these people may prefer to work on projects related to sustainability, especially if there were classes and staff supporting them technically, they are fundamentally pursuing a high tech career and are not interested in working in developing countries, where the much-needed projects tend to be more low-tech as well as low-paying.

Yes, it can be surprising and perhaps dismaying that students describe their interests very narrowly, but in the context of their fields, they may feel their interests are already pretty broad, especially if they are willing to take classes outside their major. In science and engineering, people typically become extremely specialized in their particular area of expertise. At MIT, people generally already feel less stifled/sheltered because there is interdisciplinary collaboration. People don't always really have such narrow interests, though. It's just the way they talk about their interests.

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