Experiential learning is alive and well at MIT — even when it’s remote.
Just ask Julian Zulueta, a sophomore in biological engineering. Last May, he spotted an intriguing social impact internship opportunity in the PKG Public Service Center newsletter: The CDC Foundation, a Congressionally-chartered nonprofit created to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was seeking remote students to assist with the Covid-19 response.
He applied — one of 60 candidates for two spots — and got the position. As a member of the CDC Foundation’s Workforce Strike Team, Zulueta interfaced with state and local health departments, with a particular focus on the Midwest region. Drawing on his introductory Python experience at MIT, he analyzed requisition data and created visualizations to detect trends in resources and in the effectiveness of medical interventions. He also studied correlations in universities’ response to Covid-19 and helped establish new professional growth policies within the CDC Foundation.
The internship was eye-opening, and it stoked his interest in exploring public health careers further. “To my surprise, I realized that public health was more than just the opinions of doctors and nurses. Rather, it extends to incorporate ideas related to public policy design and statistics, which can favor majority groups and lead to disparities in health outcomes,” Zulueta says.
Zulueta’s experience is heartening to Kate Trimble, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning (OEL). “When the pandemic first hit, we were very concerned that students were going to miss out on the hands-on experiences that are so critical to their personal and professional development,” she says.
The PKG Center newsletter that changed Zulueta’s trajectory was the result of concerted efforts by OEL and other campus partners to help students whose summer plans had fallen through or were up in the air — efforts that seem to have paid off. While data from industry partners are not available, statistics from the PKG Center and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) show a marked uptick in participation this summer. A total of 213 students worked remotely in intensive social impact programs through the PKG Center (compared to 136 in 2019), and 1,523 students participated in UROP (compared to 975 last year).
And, even better, those efforts served as a roadmap for rethinking similar experiences for the mostly-remote fall academic semester. “It was really inspiring to see the MIT community spring into action to adapt in-person UROPs and internships — and even global experiences through MISTI — to a remote format,” says Trimble. “In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised; the ‘magic’ of MIT lies in hands-on learning, and everyone here excels at problem-solving.”
Retooling the best laid plans
Some students were able to extend or reconfigure in-person opportunities into remote versions. When sophomore Sherry Nyeo realized that she would not be able to intern for the summer at a biotech company in Israel, she applied to continue a UROP she started in February at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, working on RNA secondary structure. Nyeo, who is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science and biology, remotely analyzed the lab’s data and ran the data pipeline.
“I do appreciate that I got a firsthand experience of what goes behind research, and I had a lot of opportunities to present papers to my lab during journal club,” Nyeo says. Her computational data analysis, along with figures she generated, have been incorporated into a paper on the SARS CoV-2 genome, on which she is listed as a co-author.
Marisa Gaetz, a 2020 MIT graduate who is staying on to pursue a PhD in mathematics, managed to tweak her ESG-PKG Fellowship for The Educational Justice Institute (TEJI) at MIT, a nonprofit that leverages education and technology to address mass incarceration.
Before the pandemic, she was planning to help facilitate a summer program for Boston-area youth who have been drawn into the criminal justice system. Instead, she adapted the in-person elements of the program into engaging online activities that encourage discussions about wrongdoing, ethical dilemmas, and moral worth. In addition, Gaetz researched interactive boards with Zoom capabilities and secured funding to install the technology in correctional facilities in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and Maine, ensuring that TEJI can continue to offer its signature classes in these facilities.
“Even though many experiences have to be remote right now, Covid has also exposed a lot of different needs, and so there’s a lot of new opportunities to do impactful work as well,” Gaetz says.
Sophomore Catherine Lu is one of many participants in MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) who were able to convert their global education experiences into remote versions. Originally, the civil and environmental major was slated to travel to Tulum, Mexico, to help restore a lighthouse into a coral education center. Instead, Lu designed and created a virtual reality experience of the lighthouse, which allows users to visualize and interact with the physical space and, by extension, promotes awareness of coral restoration efforts.
“Through this virtual reality world, we are able to expand even more on the idea of coral education, since much of the audience we’re targeting are people who might not live near coral or are not able to physically travel there,” Lu says.
Seizing a singular opportunity
For juniors Carlos Mercado-Lara and Evan Gwozdz, shifting gears to a remote summer opened up unique opportunities they could not have anticipated.
Once Mercado-Lara found out that his MISTI-France program was cancelled, he channeled his time and efforts into SciTeens, as a PKG Center IDEAS grantee. SciTeens, a nonprofit he co-founded in high school, connects underrepresented high school students from underserved communities with online mentors in STEM. This summer, Mercado-Lara and the SciTeens team collaborated with an organization in Zimbabwe to mentor local teens working on science projects.
“That was great, because it was our first time working internationally with students and establishing trust with another organization,” says Mercado-Lara, who is majoring in biological engineering. The experience also helped him shift his focus for the future. “If I had done an internship, it would have helped my career and allowed me to explore a career path, but over the summer I was able to realign some of the things that I want to continue doing for the next few years while I’m at MIT, and hopefully grad school.”
Gwozdz ditched his plans to find an internship in March, since many of them were being cancelled. He reached out to faculty doing interesting research in his major, chemical engineering, and landed a remote UROP in the Zack Smith lab, which investigates polymer membranes for gas separations.
Since he couldn’t physically be in the lab, he focused on learning about molecular simulations, using software to model experimental polymer systems. “Simulations are heavily used in the field, but they haven’t been explored thoroughly in the Smith lab,” Gwozdz explains. By delving into simulations, he created a niche for himself and has become a valuable member of the team. “With this remote project, I think I was able to contribute as much to them as I received myself,” he says.
Expanding ELOs to all undergraduates
The experiences that Zulueta, Nyeo, Gaetz, Lu, Mercado-Lara, and Gwozdz had are indicative of the diversity and range of opportunities available to students, Trimble says.
“The all-remote summer allowed some students to think outside the box and explore amazing experiences — like social impact internships or work in their own communities — that they might not have considered before. And many students used their positions to make a difference on urgent issues like the pandemic, climate change, and racial justice.”
At the same time, Trimble notes, OEL and other offices learned a great deal over the spring and summer about how to support virtual experiential learning. “We’re putting all of that into practice this academic year,” she says.
To that end, MIT is guaranteeing all undergraduates a paid experiential learning opportunity (ELO) this year. Students who are on campus or at home can earn up to $1,900 while working in a wide variety of remote or on-campus ELOs. The OEL’s new website serves as a guidepost, with resources organized into six tracks: research; public service and social impact; innovation and entrepreneurship; global opportunities; teaching and learning; and opportunities for first-year students.