Remote Summer Research Connects Dartmouth Students With a Range of Energy Issues

Applied research is key to the development of future energy leaders. It engages students in hands-on projects that augment classroom learning with multi-faceted experience and knowledge. In a typical year, the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society offers mini-grant funding to undergraduate and graduate students to pursue research projects during fall, winter, spring, and summer term. Of course nothing about 2020 has been typical.

As the world locked down in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the first part of 2020, the Irving Institute, like many organizations, adjusted to the realities of a remote-based world. While this shift to an online space limited opportunities for onsite laboratory-based work, it produced a summer term rich in outcome-oriented student energy and society research across the disciplines. Beyond the discoveries Dartmouth students made, the research opportunities led them to develop new skills and insights.                          

Enhancing Research Capabilities 
For Suraj Srivats '22, an engineering sciences major, mini-grant funding enabled him to undertake an analysis of how MBA students in energy-based tracks at 11 universities across the US were viewing their programs. Did they see their MBAs as a vehicle for pivoting to a new career?  Or did they pursue it to enhance a path they were already on? 

Suraj crafted the project in order to push himself beyond the lab-based research experience he was used to. "I was interested in this project because it gave me the chance to look past the niche that being in a lab gives you. When you focus on things at the smaller level, you don't always consider the broader societal impacts."  While he had experience researching energy-related topics in the lab, the mini-grant project gave him a chance to "get a look at the industry as a whole and see a different side of energy." 

Suraj's project identified trends that can help inform the Institute as it develops future education programs. For example, he found that for many, one of the most important elements of the energy MBA experience is student-led communities and organizations.  The project also helped Suraj develop new skills and an appreciation for interviewing. "I started out with the idea that these interviews were more for data collection. But I came to see the interview as an art."

Exploring Energy and Society Connections
Mini-grant projects weren't the only Irving Institute-sponsored student projects happening over summer 2020. The Institute also enlisted and employed ten students on two teams to pursue research projects focusing on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on energy and society. One group (including Stephanie Currie '20, Marisa Magsarili '19, TH'20, Cameron Newcombe '22, Jessica Yin '22 and Raniyan Zaman '22) examined how the pandemic affected local transportation usage, polling approximately 1,300 Dartmouth College student, staff, and faculty community members to determine if and how individual mobility changed due to COVID-19. In addition to gaining insight into how Dartmouth community members had changed their transportation behavior in response to the virus — the group noted an increase in use of cars and walking  to avoid perceived risks in public transportation options —the group members enhanced their skills in developing effective survey questions and using survey development software.

The second group, which included Ellery Curtis '22, Nicholas Britton '21, William Dickerman '21, Sophie Edelman '22, and Hannah McGrath '21, studied the impact of COVID-19 on Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs), which coordinate, control, and monitor regional electric grids. 

For Ellery Curtis, a Government and Environmental Studies major,  the project gave her a chance to build on her interest in energy. "I've always been interested in clean energy and helping to facilitate the clean energy transition," she said, "but I hadn't done this kind of project before." 

In addition to connecting with other Dartmouth students who shared her passion for energy, Ellery gained a stronger understanding of how the electricity regulatory system works and the critical role RTOs play. "I also discovered that the challenges we face in the energy transition are more complicated than just focusing on a particular technology, like solar or wind."  

The group produced a final report on their work that highlighted the different ways that the pandemic had affected the RTOS in terms of load changes, fuel mix, stakeholder communications, and more. (Read the final report here.) They also got the chance to present their findings to a late-summer meeting of RTO leaders, where they received high marks for their work. 

While the pandemic has changed the way we're currently approaching student research offerings, remote-based projects like these continue to provide Dartmouth energy students with valuable experiences, skills, and insights. In addition to producing data and analysis that contribute to our understanding of energy and society systems, mini-grant funding and other research opportunities help train future leaders who are able to meet our most pressing challenges with the interdisciplinary, systems-thinking approach that our world's complex problems require.