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Students are Solving Billion Dollar Problems

By Sharon Chen
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted its first Energy Hackathon, an innovative contest in which undergraduates and graduate students compete to solve current energy industry problems. Corporations such as McKinsey provided eight challenges, ranging from new business models and messaging to attract solar energy customers, to optimizing gas use released from landfills. These are real world issues, with billion-dollar ramifications - and students more than met these challenges.

The Hackathon is noteworthy for its focus on hands-on, multi-disciplinary, collaborative learning, with an emphasis on business and real-world solutions. This type of learning - whether its in the classroom or in a competition - is precisely what higher ed needs to provide to students – especially as our world increasingly turns to sustainable, clean energy solutions. By introducing students to climate challenges and instilling in them the desire – and foundation – to meet these challenges, we are sure to have a bright future.

Reducing waste and inefficiency, while increasing access and profits, propels MIT Energy Hackathon

Marilyn Siderwicz | MIT News | December 11, 2015

While government leaders tackle long-term climate and energy issues on a global scale, the MIT community and others recently joined together for a weekend to solve current industry energy challenges. About 250 people participated in the first MIT Energy Hackathon held Nov. 13-15 on campus. The event attracted MIT engineering, programming, and business students as well as alumni and neighboring school's undergraduates and graduates.

The inaugural MIT Energy Hackathon was an offshoot of the MIT Clean Earth Hackathon held last spring, which was organized and co-led by Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) doctoral students Jessica Bryant and Hanny Rivera. This year, Bryant and fellow CEE doctoral student Thomas Petersen stepped in as content co-directors, while and the event itself was co-directed and hosted by MIT computer science PhD student Kai Xiang and mechanical engineering undergraduate Stephen Rodan.

Nine companies and organizations — Equota, First Fuel, GreenChar, Loci Controls and Casella (in a joint challenge), McKinsey and Co., the MIT Office of Sustainability, Opower, and Solstice — provided the eight challenges, which ranged from devising new mathematical algorithms for improved energy data analyses, to optimizing oil drilling, and exploring new business models and messaging to attract new solar energy customers. Ultimately, 18 teams competed over the weekend.

“It’s great to see such an impressive response to current energy-related issues,” Bryant said. “Participants were attracted to the challenges not only for the monetary reward, but also out of a real desire to contribute to solving the energy problems facing our world. Participants also reaped the benefits inherent to hackathons, including networking and brainstorming with people with a diversity of backgrounds and expertise from across MIT and the greater Boston community.”

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