Today’s MIT students are deeply concerned about the world’s most challenging problems such as climate change, health equity, and racial justice, but too few have the opportunity to engage deeply in social impact work through experiential learning. For instance, in recent years, demand has far outstripped supply for PKG Social Impact Internships– funding was available for just one in seven applicants. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by CAPD, only seven percent of summer placements for MIT students take place at a nonprofit or public sector organization.
Yet when students apply their unique skills and knowledge to complicated social problems, they benefit in myriad ways including: increased personal and social responsibility, development of positive mindsets and dispositions, increased career-related skills, and other learning gains (Chittum, Enke, & Finley, 2022). Immersive social impact ELOs also help students build “change-making” skills such as communication, leadership, and ethical decision-making. Mission-driven experiential learning opportunities help students to better understand the real-world implications of their academic skills and to approach solutions with new perspectives while adding valuable capacity to community partners.
MIT has made the expansion of these opportunities an Institute priority. One of the recommendations of the Task Force 2021 and Beyond was to increase the number of “experiential equity and civic responsibility internships” to keep pace with rising student demand. The Task Force emphasized that MIT should support nonprofit and public sector internships and social impact projects, whether local, across the country, or halfway around the world. MIT’s Climate Action Plan also promised to make a climate or clean-energy research or other experiential learning opportunity available to every undergraduate who wants one.
Consequently, MIT is looking to grow the number of rigorous social impact ELOs offered across the Institute so that, in time, 25-30% of undergraduates will have immersive, hands-on learning experiences with ethical, political, environmental, social, and community dimensions. The Office of Experiential Learning seeks to catalyze, promote, and support social impact ELOs across a wide range of issues (e.g., tech for good, climate change, racial justice, and health equity) and a wide range of MIT programs– both programs currently offering impact opportunities and those seeking to incorporate this approach.
Some of the projects we helped support so far in 2023
What is a Social Impact ELO?
Defining the ELO
An Experiential Learning Opportunity (ELO) immerses and supports students in action-feedback-reflection cycle(s) that connect learners to the world around them.
- The “experiential” is the application of knowledge to create, discover, or do something in an authentic or simulated context, with potential societal and/or scholarly impact.
- The “learning” involves building new knowledge, skills, and/or perspectives by grappling with challenges, getting feedback from experts, and reflecting on the experience.
- The structured opportunity is supported by reflection, guidance, feedback, time, financial aid, and space to connect the learning to the context.
ELOs should include the following components:
- Hands-on, applied work in authentic, real-world contexts.
- Meaningful guidance, supervision, and feedback.
- Adequate duration and intensity (e.g., students complete at least one action- feedback- reflection cycle).
- Critical reflection performed by the student.
- Assessment of student learning, measured against identified learning objectives (and optionally, for more advanced programs, the learner’s broader impact is evaluated).
Defining the social impact
In addition to the standard parameters for ELOs, Social Impact ELOs also:
- Have an explicit focus on social and/or environmental impact and directly address a critical and complex social or environmental challenge. Specific topics can include a wide range of issues including racial justice, climate change, health equity, poverty alleviation, tech for good, and more.
- Present opportunities for immediate or near-term application for communities, policies, or practices (that is, they are not completely theoretical).
Students participating in social impact ELOs are exposed to and engaged in the processes of making social or environmental change; in the process, they develop the knowledge and practice the skills required for positive impact.
Engagement with internal and external partners (e.g., research, community agencies) will vary depending on DLC and program parameters.
Social Impact ELOs can take many forms, but many fall into the following types:
- Community-based research; participatory action research
- Community capacity building
- Policy research and development
- Engineering projects and product development (addressing social/environmental challenges)
- Data, monitoring, and evaluation projects
- Social ventures
See the FAQ section below for more specific examples.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some examples of social impact ELOs include:
- Software and web development: developing features for an app that translates text to a 911 phone call for individuals that cannot hear or speak out loud.
- Building digital tools and automating systems: bringing a tech lens to improve operations for an organization that redistributes unused food to food-insecure communities.
- Policy research: examining the impact of state telehealth policies during Covid-19 and developing recommendations to increase equitable telehealth services post-pandemic; benchmarking international approaches to pandemic response.
- Community-engaged, participatory action research: working together with members of the general public to develop and implement a research agenda on future public transit priorities.
- Community-based field research: collecting and analyzing samples to test for contamination in municipal drinking water; researching the environmental footprint of raising livestock and identifying more sustainable methods.
- Engineering projects: designing, building, testing, and refining evaporative cooling devices to help small-scale farmers in developing countries store and preserve vegetables.
- Monitoring and evaluation projects: using qualitative and quantitative methods to gauge the efficacy of domestic violence prevention programs.
- Data analysis, dashboards, and visualizations: supporting a data dashboard for employers to measure, track, and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
MIT faculty and staff: Search for more social impact ELO examples on the Experiential Learning Exchange (ELx). Visit elx.mit.edu and select “Public Service + Social Impact” under the “Type” filter.
Absolutely. Some existing UROPs will fit the criteria for a social impact ELO. We’re currently working on a way to identify and promote these opportunities more effectively to students, and welcome proposals with a social impact focus– in this process or in UROP’s regular direct funding cycles. Standard UROP criteria apply (e.g., MIT faculty supervision, credit-worthy projects).
Only MIT programs (led by faculty members, departments, labs, and centers) are eligible to apply for this funding. Some MIT programs may partner with for-profit companies that offer students opportunities to work on social impact projects within an industry setting; however, the expectation is that these companies are able to cover their own internship costs and therefore will not be prioritized for funding in this process.
Basic science research certainly contributes to the public good, but that is not what we aim to support with this initiative. The application in a real-world context– with all of the attendant political, social, economic, and cultural complexities– is an essential part of the learning experience. Basic science research or theoretical pursuits in the humanities are not eligible for this funding but can be supported through traditional UROP funding.