Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Labs: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Course Aims

  1. Energy literacy
  2. Knowledge of energy usage and challenges in developing regions
  3. Real-world capability to design, build, implement, and evaluate off-grid energy systems

Course Objectives

  1. Have physical intuition for different energy sources and associated units.
  2. Understand the engineering principles behind and have direct hands-on experience with a variety of energy technologies common in developing regions (e.g., biomass-based cooking fuels, diesel generators, micro-hydropower, solar photovoltaics, small wind turbines, etc.).
  3. Evaluate the utility and trade-offs for different energy options in a multi-objective environment, including system-level considerations.
  4. Understand the practice of design for the other 90% including consideration of local adaptability and socio-economic impacts.
  5. Design & build simple, off-grid energy system using co-creation with local stakeholders.

Course Structure

The course is comprised of three sections based on the aims and objectives described above.

During the first seven weeks, the focus of lecture and lab sessions will be a hands-on experience developing energy literacy, knowledge of energy usage and associated challenges in developing regions, and the capability to build, model, and analyze off-grid energy systems.

During spring break, students will have the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and El Salvador to learn first-hand about energy in a developing country, implement small projects or trainings, and identify larger projects to be worked on in the remainder of the class and beyond. This trip is entirely optional and not a formal, credit-bearing part of the class, but highly recommended. Students are expected to contribute $500 toward the cost of the trip; if that amount is prohibitive due to a financial hardship, you should make an appointment with Amy Banzaert to discuss.

For the remainder of the class, students will implement projects in conjunction with their community partners in Nicaragua and El Salvador. There will be one formal design review associated with the project; final presentations both in class and then in the group presentations for all D-Lab classes at the end of the term.

Credit & Grading

D-Lab Energy is a 12-unit undergraduate class: 3 hours/week in lecture, 3 hours/week in lab, and 6 hours/week on homework, readings, language, and design projects. Your presence and attendance in class is essential: every session will involve in-class activities that are very difficult to replicate or make up outside of class.

This seminar is graded on an A/B/C/D/F basis; furthermore it is a class where your work is impacting the lives of people in Nicaragua and we expect an appropriate level of commitment.

Course engagement (attendance, participation in both in-class and online activities) 25%
Assignments (readings, homework, labs) 25%
Quizzes 20%
Design project (10% final prototype & report, 10% participation, 10% assignments) 30%


Required text: [Polak] = Polak, Paul. Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008. ISBN: 9781576754498

Other readings will be assigned for individual topics and class sessions.

Hablamos Españgles

Because we will be traveling to Nicaragua and El Salvador over spring break and working with Spanish-speaking community partners, it is important that all students know at least a tiny bit of Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish fluently, you should plan to spend no less than 20 minutes/week working on your Spanish. We recommend Coffee Break Spanish, a free podcast for beginners to intermediate speakers (starting at whatever week seems like it matches your skill), or Show Time Spanish, a free podcast for more advanced speakers. Each show is 15-20 minutes long. 20 minutes/week won’t get you very far, so if you can sneak in more, please do so (with the podcast format, it’s easy to listen while walking around campus).

In addition, we will speak “Spanglish” in D-Lab Energy. The usage will be very basic and relatively infrequent but will give a taste of Spanish. Students who speak Spanish well are encouraged to help everyone else in the class (including instructors!) improve their Spanish.

Muddy Cards

After each class, students will submit “muddy cards” to request more discussion or clarification, and to provide frequent and timely feedback to the instructors. This reference gives background about the goals and methodology of using muddy cards:

Guidelines for Project Work During 2nd Half of Term

There will be a lot of “free” time in class for project work. You still need to come to class on time and work for the entire time; instructors and mentors will be stopping by regularly to meet with your team and help you. If you will not be working in the classroom, you should leave a note on the classroom whiteboard stating where your team will be and including a cell phone we can use to track you down if need be.

Wiki Design Notebook

Each week, your team should update your team’s Wiki page.

Design Review

Your design review will include 10 minutes to present your project, and then 15 minutes for discussion and questions. You should bring and demonstrate your working prototype.

Final Presentations

The final presentation session will consist of three parts: A 1 minute presentation, a poster session, and finally a 20 minutes design review (10 minutes of presentation followed by 10 minutes for discussion). You should bring a working, good-looking prototype for demonstrations.


Part 1: Foundations - Lectures and Labs

1 Lecture 1. Introduction: Energy, units, estimation, energy usage world-wide Lab 1. Human Power Problem Set 0 (Lantern)

Lecture 2. Energy storage & micro grids

Initial trip planning

Lab 2. Energy Storage

Reading reaction

Problem Set 1

Lab 1 write-up

Trip project survey


Lecture 3. Lighting

Community partner introduction

Lab 3. Biogas & biodiesel lecture & construction

Problem Set 2

Lab 2 write-up


Lecture 4. Solar thermal & PV

Quiz I

Lab 4. Solar panel construction, installation, and operation

Reading reaction

Community partner outreach


Lecture 5. Wind & micro-hydro

Trip planning

Lab 5. Savonius wind turbine construction & testing

Reading reaction

Problem Set 3

Lab 4 write-up

1st brainstorm pictures

Literature search


Lecture 6. Cooking, stoves, & fuel

Biogas digester testing

Lab 6. Charcoal making & stove testing

Reading reaction

Lab 3 and Lab 5 write-ups

Initial project specifications

2nd brainstorm pictures

Materials list for trip

7 Lecture 7. Trip plan presentations Trip preparation

Lab 6 write-up

Revised project specifications

Revised 2nd brainstorm pictures

Trip questions

8 Spring break trip to Nicaragua and El Salvador community partners

* Assignments are due each week on the Lab day unless otherwise noted. Students should anticipate spending 6 hours per week on assignments, including listening to no less than one ~20-minute Spanish podcast/week.

Part II: Project Work


Lecture 8. Design Process

Trip presentations, project evaluations

Team formation & brainstorming

Trip report

Select project

Team roles assigned


Quiz 2

Librarian visit

Experimentation overview

Concept review

Wiki Design Notebook report: best brainstormed ideas, Pugh charts

Project specifications due


System-level design

System spec review

Wiki Design Notebook report: sketch models & experimentation


Detailed design and build

Initial design review presentations

Critical design review with initial working prototype

Wiki Design Notebook report

13 Testing and refinement Wiki Design Notebook report

Testing and refinement

Final design review presentations

Final presentation and review at the D-Lab Showcase
15 Production ramp-up Final project report & team assessment

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment Problem Sets
group_work Projects with Examples
theaters Lecture Videos
theaters Demonstration Videos
assignment Activity Assignments
assignment_turned_in Design Assignments with Examples
assignment_turned_in Presentation Assignments with Examples