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A minor that's major

MIT’s new energy minor provides a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the policy, economics, science and technology of energy.
Robert L. Jaffe, the Otto (1939) and Jane Morningstar Professor of Science in the Department of Physics, teaches the 'Physics of Energy' class last year.
Robert L. Jaffe, the Otto (1939) and Jane Morningstar Professor of Science in the Department of Physics, teaches the 'Physics of Energy' class last year.
Photo: Donna Coveney

Starting this year, all MIT undergraduate students have a new academic option available to them: a minor in energy, which can be combined with any major subject. The new minor, unlike most energy concentrations available at other institutions, and unlike any other concentration at MIT, is designed to be inherently cross-disciplinary, encompassing all of MIT’s five schools.

Timothy Grejtak, a student in mechanical engineering, could hardly wait to sign up for the new minor, and became the first student to do so — literally minutes after the registration form was finalized in late September. He hopes also to be the first person to graduate with the energy minor, but since he has three semesters left he knows that someone could beat him to that finish line.

“It’s going to be very popular, I have a feeling,” says Grejtak, who three years ago started the annual dormitory energy competition at MIT — a two-month contest to see which dorm can lower its electricity usage the most —  and has been running it each year. “I know of many students who are very interested” in the energy minor, he says.

The new energy minor is the product of two years of work by the MIT Energy Initiative’s Education Task Force, co-chaired by Vladimir Bulovic, the KDD Associate Professor of Communications and Technology; and Don Lessard, the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who had a great deal of support from numerous faculty members and administrators to get the new curriculum approved and in place. Bulovic noted that “the required core classes and wide array of approved electives for the energy minor encompass the multi-disciplinary nature of energy science, technology and policy and cover the range of energy challenges including energy-related climate change, pollution, and associated poverty issues. They also include subjects on energy efficiency and sustainable sources of energy.”

Amanda Graham, who will administer the minor as director of the education office for the MIT Energy Initiative, has supported the Task Force's work on the energy minor since 2007. From the start, she says, it was clear that what they wanted was a balance that included three areas: energy science, energy technology and engineering, and energy social sciences.

So, for example, a solar energy project might require a detailed knowledge of the inherent physical limits to the system’s possible efficiency (a basic science matter), the specific engineering challenges associated with building the system in a specific design and location (a matter of technology), and the issues associated with gaining the necessary financing, permitting and public support to allow the project to go forward (matters of policy and economics). This range of disciplines was seen as essential in order to prepare students to deal with the full range of technical, political and economic issues that surround most energy-related decisions.
“In order to be proficient in energy, you have to be able to cross over these three areas,” Graham says. Those who choose careers in energy policy need to understand the science and technology, to understand what’s possible and feasible, she says, and those working on energy technology need an understanding of the political and economic realities that determine what becomes a realistic option for society. “We wanted to make sure the energy minor was suitable to complement any major, in any of the schools.”

Graham said that the faculty task force that developed the concept for the new program was quite clear that it should remain as a minor. “They were not of a mind that it should be a major,” she says, because the idea was that the student should develop expertise in depth in a specific discipline, but then complement that with the breadth of understanding offered by the energy minor.

Graham says that while there are some other interdisciplinary minors at MIT, all of those are based in one or two of the schools, whereas the energy minor was conceived from the start as something that would not be associated with any specific school in order to allow a maximum of flexibility and breadth to its curriculum.

New academic structure

The concept was unanimously approved last year by the faculty, which created a new body, the Inter-school Educational Council, to which the new minor reports. A new Energy Minor Oversight Committee, with representation from the five schools, was formed to directly manage the program. At the moment, the energy minor is the only one that has this new reporting structure, but at least one other, a sustainability minor, has been proposed that  may follow that example, Graham says.

This broad structure makes MIT’s program unusual, if not unique, in higher education, she says. In other schools that have energy majors or minors, she says, “the programs that I’m aware of are either science or policy focused. Ours is distinctive in its three-domain structure.” 

MIT Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings says the new minor “can be regarded as part of the ongoing transformation of the MIT curriculum for the 21st century, in that it creates an option for our students which uses approaches and knowledge from all corners of MIT. This shows the power of MIT working together to harness its activities in service  to the world.” He adds that the creation of this new program “allows an MIT student to obtain a degree in a major discipline while also learning about and showing competence in one of the pressing problems of our time.”

As part of the development of the curriculum for the new minor, seven new undergraduate classes were created, and three existing classes were significantly revised. Among the new offerings are a social sciences class called “Energy Decisions, Markets and Policies,” and a new class in Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences called “Earth Science, Energy and the Environment.”

The list of electives available for students in the energy minor is “quite long, and we’d like to see that list grow,” Graham says.

A survey of students earlier this year found a high level of interest in the energy minor, with 19 percent of sophomores and 23 percent of juniors saying they had some interest in it.

Grejtak, who is majoring in mechanical engineering with a focus on energy conversion engineering, likes the fact that the new minor provides a structure to enhance that major with courses dealing with the economics and policy of energy. “It goes through the whole gamut, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s such a great idea,” he says. 

He hopes to find work developing complete energy systems, including working on the political aspects to make them socially feasible, the economics to make them practical, and the engineering to make them successful. “There are many ways of tackling problems in energy,” he says, “and this is a multi-pronged approach.”

“Energy is such an important topic now — it’s the largest crisis that my generation will face,” he says. “It’s going to be a major problem for us, and this energy minor acknowledges that and gives us a way to be qualified to address these problems.”

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