Instructor Insights

Designing and Assessing the Open-Ended Final Project

In this section, Kate Mytty describes how the final project in EC.716 D-Lab: Waste reflected the overall goals of MIT’s D-Lab and shares an example of student work. She also describes how the project was assessed and shares tips for providing students with productive feedback.

Designing the Final Project to Align with D-Lab Goals

"We designed the project, which focused on an open-ended waste-related topic, to be action-oriented, hands-on, and practical."
— Kate Mytty

Our course on waste is offered by MIT’s D-Lab. D-Lab is a learning space devoted to promoting development through discovery, design, and dissemination. Much of the work in D-Lab focuses on design at the grassroots level, and inclusive community engagement is highly valued. The scientists involved in D-Lab are tinkerers—they’re interested in hands-on, practical projects that will meet the needs and constraints of the communities they’re designed to support. D-Lab is often one of the main places on campus where MIT students have the opportunity to do hands-on work in real-world settings.

Our understanding of D-Lab, and its goals, shaped how we designed the EC.716 D-Lab: Waste final project (PDF). In particular, we designed the project, which focused on an open-ended waste-related topic, to be action-oriented, hands-on, and practical. Students were challenged to develop projects that would involve stakeholder engagement. Students were also required to incorporate research, design elements, evaluation, and an implementation plan into their projects. Students had the option of conceptualizing the project from several different perspectives (artistic, technological, civic engagement, etc.), and were encouraged to select the approach that aligned best with their interests.

An Example of Student Work

One team of students chose to work closely with MIT’s Environment, Health & Safety Office (EHS) to tackle the issue of lab waste on campus. They learned that most lab waste is categorized as biohazards waste, regardless of what happens in the lab. This is because researchers in the labs and, of course, EHS, want to err on the side of safety.

Through interviews with EHS Biosafety stakeholders, the team learned that different labs fill their bins at different rates. This means that EHS dispatches a collection team at the same frequency regardless of how much waste is in a bin. Because MIT pays a fee for each bin that is disposed, regardless of how much trash is in the bin, EHS stakeholders wanted to explore options for creating a smarter, more systematic lab waste collection system.

To address the needs of EHS, the student team built a “multi-sensory bio-waste box” (PDF) prototype. The prototype provides EHS with specific data about each waste bin that informs EHS about when to dispatch the disposal service to collect the waste bin. We’re hoping that a future group will continue to work with EHS to further develop the project.

Assessing the Project

We evaluated the projects based on the degree to which students engaged stakeholders, the feasibility of their implementation plan, the strength of their arguments, and the thoroughness of their research and design processes. Because students came to the class with different interests, we intentionally did not evaluate students on the specific objectives of their projects. We did, however, make sure students had a strong sense of what they wanted to accomplish through their action-oriented projects.

We accomplished this mainly through check-in sessions with individual teams throughout the semester. During the first check-in, students shared with us brief project statements, which we reviewed with them. During the second check-in session, they shared detailed outlines of their project plans. The third check-in allowed us to review their work-in-progress.

Providing Productive Feedback

I’ve found that one way to provide students with productive feedback on their projects is to give specific examples and references that illustrate the changes I think would improve their work. I might say to a student, for example, “Your project on recycling gives the reader a good sense of what scientists in the field have said about your topic, but your project could benefit from more on-the-ground research. Consider going to five local stores to see how they approach recycling in their businesses.” Sometimes I also provide an example of how other students have approached similar challenges or questions in their projects. Overall, I’ve found that being as specific as possible is helpful.

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