On April 21, 2010 MIT Professor Lorlene Hoyt, CoLab staff Amy Stitely, and the six Urban Planning masters students who comprise the CoLaborative Thesis Group held a round table discussion to mark the beginning of CoLaborative Thesis Days. Between April 21st and 23rd each of the six writers is scheduled to present his research, all of which explores new strategies for regenerating local economies in American cities.
Hoyt began forming the idea for this group last summer. She was thinking through new ways to reinvigorate an old form – the master’s thesis. “So much time and energy goes in to the thesis, but often the projects don’t have the impact on places that they should. The thesis should inform place and policy more, and also create space to develop knowledge together, and see what new lessons emerge,” said Hoyt in her introductory remarks at the round table discussion. “Students often feel very isolated and overwhelmed when they write their theses. Seeing that year after year, I thought there must be a way to make this more rewarding and less isolating.”
She talked with students about the idea in order to gauge their interest. The concept intrigued most students immediately. Student Ben Brandin, who researched energy-saving retrofits for the declining building stock in Oakland, California, joined the group because he was frustrated with repeatedly finding disconnected, subpar information on retrofitting programs. Ben and his colleagues at CoLab were doing extensive research in this area. “I said, ‘Why can’t we be that production house of information?’ I got involved in this group because I knew there was that chance that we could be the production house.”
The group met several times in the fall semester, and bi-weekly in the spring semester. At first, the meetings were check-in style, with each student making a progress update.
Then in January, the group reached a turning point when student Nick Iuviene demanded more substantive meetings. Student Gayle Christiansen recalled that meeting: “There was a moment when Nick said something like ‘Can we really get deeper into this stuff?’ His statement made us all refocus and re-evaluate where we were going with this.” At that point, the group transformed from a support network to an intellectual collaboration unit. They conducted two four-hour ‘mini retreats’ in which they did the hard work of examining how their research fit together.
The group uncovered several cross-cutting themes, all of which they will discuss in their presentations this week. Additionally, the students found that knowing their peers’ case studies made them better researchers in their own contexts. “Things came up in my interviews that I would have overlooked,” said student Marianna Leavy-Sperounis. “Talking with this group helped me pay better attention to the stories I was hearing and understand what people were talking about when they mentioned small businesses, for example.” Although Gayle Christansen researched small businesses in Camden, New Jersey and Leavy-Sperounis researched green workforce development strategies in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the two found invaluable connections between their data. Several group members sited similar thematic relationships.
Each student will present her findings to the public at MIT this week. CoLab Radio will publish one article for each of the six thesis writers, summarizing key findings and the subsequent discussion. Eventually, the group will also produce a document that dissects all the cross-cutting themes and policy recommendations to come out of their collective work.