Quick pivot: Redesigning an immersive Stanford spring break course in two weeks

Some 40 students head to snowy Colorado each spring break to study extreme energy efficiency. This March, the class had to swap Rocky Mountain scenery for all-day Zoom sessions.

For the past two years, about forty Stanford University students chose to spend their spring break week in still-cold Colorado studying how to design buildings, vehicles, equipment and factories that use very little energy. The teaching team banned computers and other devices from the classroom. They wanted students to be present, focused, mindful. Skiing was not on the agenda.

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Mark Golden

Some 40 Stanford students head to snowy Colorado each spring break to study extreme energy efficiency. This March, the class had to swap Rocky Mountain scenery for all-day Zoom sessions.

The students learned from an energy efficiency legend, Amory Lovins, who grows bananas in his zero net energy home in Colorado in the winter. A tour of his tropical winter wonderland was among the intensive, three-credit course’s non-lecture experiences.

In March, two weeks before students were set to fly to Colorado, the teachers were told to cancel the class or move it online due to COVID-19. Canceling the beloved course would have been the pragmatic choice.

Instead, the teachers decided to press on. They did their best to virtualize the experience of wandering among ripening bananas in a greenhouse beneath snowy skies. The no-computers policy was turned on its head. The students were disappointed that they would miss out on the physical experience in Colorado.

“I went through the stages of grief – denial, anger – I did the whole nine yards,” said Nick Reisweber, master’s student in Stanford’s Sustainable Design & Construction program.

Students were given the option to drop the course, but 30 of 40 stayed enrolled and rallied to the occasion.

“The students were very disciplined and focused on making the best of this unusual experience,” said Lovins. “Their thoughtful questions indicated due attention and a lot of really good thinking.”

Toss out preconceptions

During the two-week course, Lovins leads the class through an integrative design approach that he pioneered. Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which Lovins co-founded, has further developed it. “This isn’t stuff that you’re likely to find in a typical engineering text,” said course facilitator and RMI senior associate Josh Brooks.

Among other things, RMI teaches people to toss out preconceived notions, consider an entire system, adopt a beginner’s mind – an open, curious attitude – and learn from nature to rethink design. The same strategies were also helpful in devising ways to shift the course online.

The course, Extreme Energy Efficiency, is usually as in-person as it gets, said Avery McEvoy, one of the course instructors and a lecturer in Stanford’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department.

“You’re sharing a room at an inn in Basalt, Colorado for a week with two or three other students whom you may have never met before, and all of you are completely rewiring your brains with this new concept of integrative design,” said McEvoy, who also co-teaches Understanding Energy, which is a pre-requisite for the Extreme Energy Efficiency course.

Normally, the week is packed with lectures from Lovins, and Stanford and RMI staff, as well as daily puzzlers in which students work together to solve energy efficiency problems. Students explore RMI’s Innovation Center, which is the most efficient commercial building in one of the coldest climate zones in the United States.

“It’s really proof of several concepts that we get into in the course,” Brooks explained. “We’re teaching a thought process. We need people to work with the ideas.”

This March, tours, lectures and puzzler sessions were all done using Zoom. Lovins’ greenhouse was still a highlight.

“The students saw banana crop number seventy-seven, which we just harvested with no furnace while it snowed outside,” Lovins said proudly. “The papayas, pineapple guavas and coffee beans are ripening.”

Students connected from homes thousands of miles apart – which made for an interesting teaching experience. “Getting people to interact by talking to their screen was hard,” said McEvoy. “I was trying to crack jokes, but everyone’s on mute.”

McEvoy and Brooks worked to set the tone and foster a sense of community. Brooks reinforced RMI’s usual ground rules: be present; practice beginner’s mind; democracy of time; and challenge ideas, not people. McEvoy hosted optional breakfast, happy hour and game night Zoom sessions. They used a live feedback form to make improvements to the course each day.

“It’s important to be dynamic and nimble, and adjust to the suggestions you’re getting from students,” explained McEvoy.

Set new expectations

Perhaps the most important lesson was to clearly communicate – and follow – a schedule so that students could know when to expect a break. After the first couple of days, the teaching team also adjusted their expectations for participation.

“At the beginning, some students had headaches from staring at the screen,” said McEvoy. “Things improved when we encouraged students to listen to a lecture while going on a walk.”

While some students thought the course should not be offered online, most reported positive experiences.

“It was engaging, intense, informative, exhausting at times, wonderful and completely worthwhile,” said chemistry graduate student Grace Johnson.

Several students reported that the intensive Zoom experience prepared them for online learning in spring quarter.

The class “exceeded my expectations by a mile! Not only that, I think it set the bar very high for all the virtual classes next quarter,” one student wrote in their evaluation.

Looking ahead

One positive feature of the online format was the real-time discussion students engaged in through the class Slack channel. Extreme Energy Efficiency lectures are content-heavy, and normally students have to wait for Q&A sections to share their thoughts and ask questions. Slack allowed students to participate with each other and to ask – and answer – questions in real-time.

“Everybody did a phenomenal job of sharing information: ‘Check this out,’ ‘Here’s what I found on Google’ or ‘Hey, I spent a summer doing this and here’s what I learned.’ There was a secondary enrichment piece going on simultaneously with what was being presented,” explained Reisweber.

McEvoy and Brooks would like to incorporate this real-time discussion in the future. Based on the success of this year’s course, RMI may produce short YouTube videos on integrative design.

“The basic concepts of integrative design are so simple that they may spread at the speed of Twitter,” said Lovins. “The course gave us much more hope that this material could be very widely disseminated.”

McEvoy hopes to organize a reunion once students return to campus so that the group can meet each other in person. The students also have an open invitation to visit RMI and Lovins if they are ever in Colorado. By then, banana crop seventy-eight may be ripe.

Extreme Energy Efficiency was developed by Jane Woodward with help from Diana Gragg, Kirsten Stasio and Holmes Hummel, and is jointly sponsored by Jane Woodward and the Straubel Foundation.

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Media Contacts

Kate Gibson, Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 497-1166; kvgibson@stanford.edu