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The MIT Museum was buzzing with excitement on the evening of Sept. 13 as 20 Rapid Response Group (RRG) students presented their summer research projects that tackled urgent environmental issues facing the world today. The RRG is a program within MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) that recruits undergraduate and graduate students to quickly respond to pressing environmental issues that are faced by communities, governments, industries, and civil society. They develop science-based solutions and produce diverse materials useful to external partners — like fact sheets, review papers, executive summaries, and briefing documents — across a wide range of environmental topics.
This summer’s cohort was the fifth since the RRG’s inception, which was in the summer of 2020. Program alumni now total over 100 MIT students, with a few from Wellesley College and other universities.
Students participated in the RRG this past summer came from various programs and majors at MIT and Wellesley, working under various ESI research programs, such as Natural Climate and Community Solutions, Cities and Climate, Climate Justice, Education, Mining and the Circular Economy, and Arts, AI, and Climate. Their projects aimed to provide analysis, recommendations, and science-based reviews of the environmental challenges examined in these programs. Students worked in small groups, with research leads from the ESI staff serving as mentors and managers of each project.
“The Rapid Response Group enables us to serve needs beyond the MIT campus while implementing a real-world learning by doing on environmental challenges, from decarbonization through next generation heat pumps to an examination of emerging climate injustice,” said Professor John E. Fernandez, Director of the ESI. “By offering engagement opportunities with government, companies, communities, and civil society, students learn how messy the world is and how time consuming and difficult, but possible, it is to effect real change.”
The event kicked off with students presenting their research projects during a poster session and fielding questions from attendees. For most, if not all of the undergraduate members of the RRG, this was their first time creating a poster and participating in a poster session. Topics included analyzing urban policy landscape in 9,000 urban centers globally, mapping urban susceptibility to landslides using drones in Colombia, establishing the current trends in deployment of heat pumps, and exploring the next generation of important decarbonization technology.
Simon Opsahl, a third-year Course 6 student at MIT, worked on a project under the Climate Machine — a research group under the Arts, AI, and Climate research program. He hosted a climate engagement workshop during The Group Therapy Weekender at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington that involved getting attendees to create physical art that reflected their views about the planet and environment.
“Flexibility is key in fieldwork,” said Opsahl, when reflecting on his project. “A lot of people at the festival [were] really passionate about protecting our world, and the care they took in their art [was] reflective of such.”
Sara Wilson, a second-year Ph.D. student in human-centered design research for sustainable development, reflected on her own experience managing the RRG during the summer.
“It [was] inspiring to be surrounded by a group of undergraduates across a variety of disciplines — from cognitive science to mechanical engineering to computer science — who were drawn to join the Rapid Response Group by their shared desire to gain hands-on, interdisciplinary experience in sustainable development,” Wilson said. “Working with [the students] reaffirmed my conviction in the necessity of interdisciplinary teams in environmentalism and sustainable development.”
Following the poster session, ESI Director John E. Fernandez gave brief introductory remarks on how the RRG program helps to bridge ongoing ESI research teams and the MIT undergraduate community.
The evening then segued into lighting talks, where seven groups of two to three students briefly summarized their work with a supporting PowerPoint slide. The talks highlighted several topics, including: creating an AI pipeline to map Chagras in Colombia, supporting climate conversations with indigenous communities in Washington, developing a climate justice toolkit for educators, and developing immersive a virtual reality exhibition to enrich public engagement in climate action.
The RRG showcase provided a snapshot of the next generation of environmental problem solvers who are working on real solutions at MIT. The rapid-fire format of the lighting talk gave the students valuable experience in communicating their work quickly and concisely to a general audience. This event was an inspiring demonstration of students’ passion for progress, something matched only by their brilliance.
As one attendee reflected, “The evening was a testament to how MIT continues leading research and innovation to help create a just and sustainable world.” The greatest achievement of the RRG is that its members personify this spirit of knowledge in the service of humanity.
Click here to learn more about the Rapid Response Group.