Go deep with oceanographer Carl Wunsch

Photo of a smiling man in front of a chalkboard covered in math and diagrams.

Carl Wunsch, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography (Emeritus) in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. (Photo by Helen Hill.)

Like many scientific fields, oceanography has gone through big changes in recent decades. It’s been blessed with more high-quality data and powerful computing, leading to more accurate oceanographic models and underlying theories. It’s going through culture shifts, e.g. from male-dominated to one where women are increasingly prominent. And as oceanography has been central to our growing scientific understanding of climate change, it’s thoroughly embedded in the science communication challenges and cultural debate around this curiously contentious issue.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear an insider’s perspective on the evolving science and all these changes?

Let MIT professor Carl Wunsch be our guide. With a career starting in the mid-1960s, Professor Wunsch “is at the heart of many of the major advances in modern physical oceanography,” writes Nature climate science editor Michael White.

Professor Wunsch is the latest guest on Michael White’s “Forecast” podcast, which features long format interviews with climate scientists about climate science. Their conversation is a captivating “one-stop history of the field, and a deeply personal insight into how major science questions are conceptualized and addressed,” full of rich stories about the science, and the personalities, conflicts and connections, that make this world turn.

You can also learn some oceanography directly from Wunsch’s two courses on OCW – 12.842 Climate Physics and Chemistry and 12.864 Inference from Data and Models – and his popular online textbook Evolution of Physical Oceanography (also free on OCW). These are just a few of OCW’s extensive oceanography resources.

> Listen to “Carl Wunsch and the rise of modern oceanography” on the Forecast podcast.

MIT Energy Initiative celebrates 10 years of innovative research and education

Grid of six photos.

Top row (l-r): Tata Center spinoff Khethworks develops affordable irrigation for the developing world; students discuss utility research in Washington; thin, lightweight solar cell developed by Professor Vladimir Bulović and team. Bottom row (l-r): MIT’s record-setting Alcator tokamak fusion research reactor; a researcher in the MIT Energy Laboratory’s Combustion Research Facility; Professor Kripa Varanasi, whose research on slippery surfaces has led to a spinoff co-founded with Associate Provost Karen Gleason. (Photos: Tata Center for Technology and Design, MITEI, Joel Jean and Anna Osherov, Bob Mumgaard/PSFC, Energy Laboratory Archives, Bryce Vickmark.)

It’s said that our ability to harness and use energy underlies the very development of modern civilization. Now, as the world grapples with climate change induced by many decades of runaway carbon emissions, our long-running quest for simply more and cheaper energy shifts toward cleaner and zero-carbon sources, and more just systems and policies to ensure that all people have fair access to essential energy resources. It’s no exaggeration to say that our future lives depend on it.

Ten years ago, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was launched to build momentum, coordinate efforts, and generate the innovations needed to fuel this energy system transition. A lot has happened in those 10 years, as MITEI’s Kathryn M. O’Neill reports in MIT News:

On any given day at MIT, undergraduates design hydro-powered desalination systems, graduate students test alternative fuels, and professors work to tap the huge energy-generating potential of nuclear fusion, biomaterials, and more. While some MIT researchers are modeling the impacts of policy on energy markets, others are experimenting with electrochemical forms of energy storage.

This is the robust energy community at MIT. Developed over the past 10 years with the guidance and support of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) — and with roots extending back into the early days of the Institute — it has engaged more than 300 faculty members and spans more than 900 research projects across all five schools.

In addition, MIT offers a multidisciplinary energy minor and myriad energy-related events and activities throughout the year. Together, these efforts ensure that students who arrive on campus with an interest in energy have free rein to pursue their ambitions…

…What has MIT’s energy community as a whole accomplished over the past decade? Hockfield says it’s raised the visibility of the world’s energy problems, contributed solutions — both technical and sociopolitical — and provided “an army of young people” to lead the way to a sustainable energy future.

Read the full story >

MIT OpenCourseWare is pleased to feature many of the subjects in the MIT Undergraduate Energy Minor on our Energy Courses page.

Who Knows That Healthcare Can Be So Complicated? This Sloan Instructor Does!

A female health worker logs data on a handheld device as two others look on.

Sangath health workers in Goa log patient data. (Courtesy of Frederick Noronha and Sangath on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Healthcare can be mind-boggling in its complexity, but diagnosing and treating patients has become routine business in counties like the US. You feel bad, call up, and go to see someone, and they give you advice and a therapeutic regimen to follow. Unless you’re part of an unlucky minority lacking health insurance, it’s pretty simple from the viewpoint of a patient.

But it’s hardly simple in much of the developing world, where communications are spotty, transport is unreliable, facilities are sparse, appropriate interventions are in short supply, and, perhaps most crucially, trained healthcare providers are relatively few and face overwhelming demand on a daily basis.

Non-governmental organizations—commonly called nonprofits in the US—have stepped in heroically to try to improve this situation and give ordinary people living in impoverished conditions a chance at a healthy life. But these heroes can themselves be overwhelmed. Far too often, they have little opportunity or resources to find, let alone implement, innovations in how healthcare is delivered.

So, you smart MIT Sloan graduate students, what advice can you come up with to help a mission-driven NGO innovate in delivering quality healthcare to those who most need it? To add to the challenge, the focus is on mental health and developmental disabilities—areas where problems are rarely solved with a single treatment.

By the way, you don’t have three years to study and develop your ideas. You have three days.

Ready, set, go!

Working Remotely with an NGO

Such is the academic challenge of 15.ES718 Global Health Innovation: Delivering Targeted Advice to an Organization in the Field.

The course—an intensive workshop, really—is taught by Dr. Anjali Sastry, and the site just published on OCW reflects the 2015 iteration of her teaching. In this instance, the class connected with Sangath, an inspiring NGO that provides mental health services to poor people in India.

The workshop represents a logistical tour de force. Just identifying a partner organization to collaborate with the class, writing a proposal that must convince the NGO’s board, defining researchable topics, and lining up people willing to make themselves available at short notice for the class, is a huge task. But Dr. Sastry has been at this sort of thing for quite a while, and she can be very convincing.

Priming Students to Produce Meaningful Ideas

An introduction to global health issues and to the selected organization sets the stage. After learning about the staff team they will work with, the students explore an array of readings, form groups to tackle specific areas proposed by the partner, and pinpoint key topics. By the day’s end, they have formulated meaningful questions to put to NGO staff in their initial conversations.

To expand their thinking, students select from a roster of expert researchers, entrepreneurs, and clinicians whose work may be relevant to their projects, visiting some in their labs and offices across the MIT campus and elsewhere and calling others to glean their ideas and learn of their innovations.

Drawing on this high-speed networking and their own creativity, the students develop a presentation for the NGO panelists, who weigh this advice and provide feedback based on their very practical experience. Then the students refine their presentations once more and share them with the class. Throughout it all, Dr. Sastry is there, serving as a sounding board and advisor, helping the students shape their work into something valuable.

Representing Process with Resources Galore

This intense process is represented on the OCW course site in multiple ways: class activities, readings and materials (including extensive resources on the Indian healthcare system and healthcare delivery, the status and needs of the Indian population, and Sangath itself), lecture notes, and more. Perhaps most important are the Instructor Insights of Dr. Sastry, which cover learning goals, selecting a partner organization, logistical challenges, motivating students, and providing students with useful feedback so the ideas they develop are actually useful. In keeping with another thread of her work on learning from small failures, Dr. Sastry also shares her reflections on what worked—and what she’d do differently.

If it seems amazing that an instructor can undertake a course like this, further amazement awaits on OCW’s other Anjali Sastry course sites: 15.232 Business Model Innovation: Global Health in Frontier Markets and 15.S07 Global Health Lab.

Machine learning courses by Regina Barzilay, 2017 MacArthur Fellow

Photo of Regina Barzilay relaxing against a table in classroom, with students working in the background.

Photo: Lillie Paquette/MIT School of Engineering

Congratulations to MIT computer scientist Regina Barzilay, Delta Electronics professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

This morning, the MacArthur Foundation announced that she’s a 2017 Fellow, awarded for her leading-edge work “[d]eveloping machine learning methods that enable computers to process and analyze vast amounts of human language data.”

In one of her most recent projects, Professor Barzilay aims to bring machine learning assistance to the complex and constantly-evolving field of oncology.

You can sample Professor Barzilay’s teaching in these two OCW courses:

Fly High, Fly Low

Photo of man sitting in an airplane cockpit, wearing a helmet.

Professor Oliver de Weck flies the prize.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Ever hear someone complain about a recent flight on an airliner?

There wasn’t enough legroom to stretch out, the food (if there was any) was only so-so, the movie selection could have been better, it wasn’t easy falling asleep tilted back only slightly in that seat.

What people don’t much complain about is the aircraft itself, which holds 300 people and their luggage, zooms along at 600 miles per hour for thousands of miles up at 35,000 feet, has a pressurized cabin with a comfortable climate, is remarkably quiet, and affords a fairly smooth ride, even in rough weather.

The reason we find ourselves preoccupied with airborne beverage options and not the air-sick bag is the fantastic success of systems engineering in designing aircraft, which now have thousands of requirements, from efficient, powerful engines to sophisticated electronics.

It’s All in the System

Now you can discover for yourself how all this has been made possible by cruising through 16.842 Fundamental of System Engineering, just published on OCW. Taught by Professor Olivier de Weck, whose fascination with aircraft and flight goes back to childhood, the course provides an overview of the entire design process. Professor de Weck takes you along the wings of the V-model, which begins with stakeholder analysis (what the customer wants) and requirements definition through concept generation and selection, and on to validation and lifecycle management. The focus in 16.842 is on aircraft and space craft, but the V-model can be applied to almost any engineered product.

The course site features classroom videos, lecture notes, and assignments.

Competition in a Can

For the central assignment, students are tasked with designing satellites for the CanSat Competition, in which teams from around the world create satellites that must fit in a can, be lofted by a rocket, and be deployed at high altitude. The satellites are then supposed to glide back to earth tracing a circular pattern, collecting data as they go. That’s if everything goes right. It’s a six-week course. No pressure!

Needless to say, teamwork is essential. In his video Instructor Insights, Professor de Weck discusses how he fosters effective teamwork, assesses students both as teams and as individuals, teaches the design process in a SPOC (small private online course) that blends online and in-class learning with students from two different schools, and favors both written and oral exams.

So buckle up for 16.842. OCW has approved you for take-off!

Kerry Emanuel on climate change and hurricanes

A satellite measurement of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 25 found that intense storms in the eastern side were dropping rain at a rate greater than 3.2 inches (82 mm) per hour.
Credits: NASA/JAXA, Hal Pierce.

“‘[With global warming, we could see] a 50-percent increase in the destructive potential” of the most powerful tropical storms,’ says meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

For decades, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel has been a go-to researcher for those seeking insight into how climate change may affect catastrophic storms. The above quote is from 1992, in a Newsweek article “Was Andrew a Freak — Or a Preview of Things to Come?” — and has never been more timely.

Kerry is also an eloquent and forceful voice pushing leaders around the world to take the risks of climate change more seriously.

Now we’re once again deep into storm season around the world, and it’s not pretty. With events still unfolding in Texas with Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, and weeks of escalating devastating monsoon floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, many people are asking: are these extreme storms the result of climate change?

The current thinking: it’s complicated. Foremost, we shouldn’t be seeking a direct causal link between climate change and any particular storm. As Professor Emanuel told The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney a few days ago:

“My feeling is, when there’s a hurricane, there’s an occasion to talk about the subject,” he said. “But attributing a particular [weather] event to anything, whether it’s climate change or anything else, is a badly posed question, really.”

Scientists are clear that climate change has “threat multiplier” effects on storms, increasing the likelihood and severity of some aspects. For instance: warmer waters and warmer air increase the moisture available and the energy in storms; disruptions in atmospheric circulation increase the likelihood of a storm “stalling out” over a region; and ocean storm surges are made more destructive when melting ice caps have raised the baseline sea level.

“The thing that keeps forecasters up at night is the prospect that a storm will rapidly gain strength just before it hits land,” Emanuel recently told Agence France-Presse, citing Harvey as an example. “Global warming can accentuate that sudden acceleration in intensity.”

Interestingly, it’s still uncertain whether global warming will lead to more or less frequent hurricanes. But in terms of catastrophic damage, storm frequency seems less important than the severity of storms, where climate change does have a clear footprint.

[Update, Sept. 26 2017: Kerry just gave an in-depth 1 hour talk at MIT, entitled “What Do Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Portend?” Watch the video, or read highlights in the news coverage.]

Kerry Emanuel has been a frequent contributor on OCW. Check out these two courses particularly connected to the storms + climate change issue.

  • 12.103 Science and Policy of Natural Hazards introduces the science of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes and explores the relationships between the science of and policy toward such hazards. It presents the causes and effects of these phenomena, discusses their predictability, and examines how this knowledge influences policy making.
  • 12.340 Global Warming Science provides a scientifically rigorous foundation to understand anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, an introduction to climate models, the material impacts of climate change, and the science behind mitigation and adaptation proposals. [See also the archived MITx on edX version of this course.]

Want to get into a global conversation about climate change, its impacts and how we should respond? Check out the growing online community at MIT ClimateX.

Gaining Street Smarts in 1.252J Urban Transportation Planning

A photo of a mural depicting a group of people standing in front of a bulldozer. The bulldozer reads "Federal Inner Belt I-95.

“Beat the Belt” is a 1980s mural on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA, commemorating the success of citizen resistance to the Inner Belt Highway that threatened to run through Cambridge. (Courtesy of Chris Ball on Flickr. CC-BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Try to remember: When was the last time an instructor sent you out to watch the traffic go by?

Not recently?

For students taking Frederick Salvucci’s 1.252J Urban Transportation Planning, whose site has just appeared on OCW, it was just the other day.

For the first of four main assignments in the course, Salvucci sends students out in groups to four different intersections and has them count what goes by. The point is “to get students used to thinking about quantities: How many bicycles? How many people in buses? How many people in cars? How many trucks? How many cabs are going down the street? What problems do you observe at that intersection?” Salvucci explains his thinking in his Instructor Insights on the site’s This Course at MIT page.

Knowledge at First Hand

For the students, Boston and Cambridge are a kind of lab, and if there’s anyone who knows this lab, and its highways, byways, and flyways, it’s Salvucci. Growing up in Boston, he served two stints as Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, oversaw the extension of the T’s Red and Orange lines, and orchestrated the financial backing and political support for the “Big Dig,” one of the most complex public works projects in history.

Students go on walking tours, observing roads and neighborhoods, evaluating the impact of urban planning on neighborhoods. They attend public meetings, which “force proponents of transportation projects to explain why they make sense to the public.” The students also investigate what might have been but never came to pass—projects like the “Inner Belt Highway” that were proposed and boosted but ultimately dropped because of community opposition.

Combining experiential learning with the study of research in transportation planning and projects, students write reports and give presentations on their findings.

Boston’s transportation problems, from its half-mad drivers and winding roads to its snowmaggedons and parking torments, are the stuff of legend. Why not join these heroic students and their sage guide in 1.252J, and start learning how to make everything flow more smoothly. Please!