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Terrascope: A Project Based, Team Oriented Freshman Learning Community With An Environmental/Earth System Focus

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

FPD4 -- Real-World Case Studies & Projects

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1245.1 - 11.1245.23



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Paper Authors


Ari Epstein Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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ARI W. EPSTEIN, a Lecturer in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, earned a Ph.D. in Oceanography (specializing in physical/biological interactions) in a program run jointly by MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He is particularly interested in free-choice learning, such as the learning that happens through museums, media, libraries and community-based organizations.

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Alberta Lipson Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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ALBERTA LIPSON is the associate director of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University. Her research interests include the assessment of innovations in pedagogy and the use of educational technology.

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Rafael Bras Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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RAFAEL L. BRAS is Edward Abdun Nur Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. Dr.Bras' undergraduate and graduate degrees are from MIT, where he joined the Faculty in 1976. He is a former Department Head and Chair of the Faculty. His research interests are in hydrology. His educational interests revolve around Terrascope, the program described in this paper.

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Kip Hodges Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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KIP HODGES is a Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT. He has served as a Co-Director of the Earth System Initiative and the Terrascope Program at MIT since their inceptions.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Terrascope: A Project-Based, Team-Oriented Freshman Learning Community with an Environmental/Earth System Focus


In the fall of 2002, MIT’s Earth System Initiative introduced Terrascope, a year-long program in which freshmen work to find solutions for complex, interdisciplinary environmental and Earth system problems; simultaneously, the students explore ways to communicate on related issues with a variety of audiences, ranging from technical experts to schoolchildren. The program involves both theoretical problem solving and engineering design/construction. A major objective of the program is to develop and nurture the students’ team-building skills, and nearly all of the work is done in teams. Beyond the coursework involved, Terrascope is also structured as a learning community, fostering a communal spirit and sense of shared mission among current students and upperclassmen who are alumni of the program.

Every year, Terrascope is centered around a particular environmental or Earth system problem; the problem always includes scientific, technical, social, economic and political aspects. Students are given the problem at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the fall semester the class, as a whole, presents its solution in the form of an integrated website. The class then presents and defends the solution in front of a panel of internationally recognized experts from outside the MIT community, in an event that is webcast and also archived for later viewing. In the spring, as an exercise in design and construction, teams of students develop, design and build interactive museum exhibits to teach general audiences about the area they have been studying. The exhibits are grouped to form a comprehensive exhibit, which is then opened to the MIT community and the public at large. The exhibits are evaluated by experts from the Greater Boston museum community and by members of the general public (including classes from local schools).

Terrascope also includes two optional classes: a January-term class in which students explore how people learn in museums, and a spring class in which students develop, write, record and produce a radio program about the year’s theme subject. There is also an optional spring break field trip, in which nearly all of the students participate. In addition, students gather at weekly lunches and other social events, and they have exclusive access to a Terrascope classroom, lounge, computer cluster and kitchen. Many upperclassmen who have gone through the program stay actively involved in the Terrascope community, either as Undergraduate Teaching Fellows or through Terrascope-administered research projects.

In this paper, we describe the structure and evolution of the program over the past four years, outcomes for students, and lessons we have learned in designing and implementing the program.


The MIT Earth System Initiative (ESI) is a multidepartmental organization that encourages and facilitates research and education within MIT on environmental and Earth-system science and engineering (see for details). It is directed jointly by representatives of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric

Epstein, A., & Lipson, A., & Bras, R., & Hodges, K. (2006, June), Terrascope: A Project Based, Team Oriented Freshman Learning Community With An Environmental/Earth System Focus Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--248

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