David McGee and Terrascope help first-year students who are interested in studying Earth systems and issues surrounding climate and sustainability to navigate life at MIT and beyond.
BY DR. ARI EPSTEIN | TERRASCOPE
The first-year experience at MIT can be rich and challenging, but also daunting and confusing. Thinking about your future—plotting your career at MIT, personal and professional development, your role as a steward of the Earth, and everything in-between—is understandably overwhelming. Of course, choosing a major and an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) are great first steps. Joining an MIT first-year learning community like Terrascope, directed by David McGee, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), can help take students even further, providing real mentorship to help fit the pieces of their personal puzzle.
Co-founded by EAPS and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Terrascope provides an innovative and supportive setting in which first-year students become acclimated to the Institute while they take charge of their educational experience, working in teams to address complex, global, interdisciplinary problems involving sustainability, climate, and Earth systems.
McGee studies paleoclimatology, so he appreciates the magnitude a small influence—be it weather perturbations or advising undergraduates—can have over time. Recognized for his outstanding work, McGee received MIT’s 2018 First-Year Advisor Excellence in Mentoring Award. “Professor McGee demonstrates the essence of mentorship with his students. This is where he shines,” the citation read. “Rather than giving students the answers, he mentors them and guides them to find their own solutions.”
McGee leads Terrascope’s cornerstone class, “Solving Complex Problems,” also known as “Mission 20xx”—the number reflecting the students’ graduation year. Each year’s mission addresses a different multifaceted problem related to climate and sustainability that requires students to think creatively, consider interdisciplinary approaches, and make difficult tradeoffs. Together, over the semester, they will develop a solution that is then published online and publicly defended in front of a panel of experts, similar to how scientists, policymakers, and society interact in the real world.
Terrascopers can then dive deeper into the mission with courses like “Design for Complex Environmental Issues,” where they develop engineering solutions for parts of the year’s core problem, and Terrascope Radio, where they create a publicly broadcast audio program for general audiences addressing their mission topic. In these classes, students take the lead in developing research plans, structuring their project timelines, and determining the scope and content of their final projects.
The annual spring break field experience then brings the mission to life. Program members travel to locations relevant to the year’s topic, assessing the issue as it exists, gaining perspective from people directly affected by the problem, and exploring the physical setting in detail.
Terrascope offers students the unique opportunity and resources to grow personally, develop solutions to critical problems, and communicate their work in a creative and accessible manner. The success of the program is borne out in its recognition—it has been designated as an “Exemplar in Engineering Ethics Education” by the National Academy of Engineering (one of only 25 programs nationwide to receive this honor), and Terrascope Radio was recently awarded “Best Documentary” at the annual National Student Electronic Media Convention.
As one Terrascoper observed, “The most important thing I learned in Terrascope? The power of looking for the answers yourself.…There isn’t a lot of teaching in Terrascope, but there’s a humongous amount of learning.”
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EAPS and the Terrascope Gift Fund subsidize the field experience for our students and we need your support to ensure that we can keep this experience open to all. Thanks to a generous challenge grant of $40,000, your gift may even be doubled!
To support the Terrascope Gift Fund (2739491), please go to http://bit.ly/eaps-giving
Story Image: With a world population of 9 billion expected by 2050, Terrascope Mission 2019 students explored the issue of food security, visiting New Mexico where agriculture has been influenced by water scarcity, human migration, technology, and agricultural practices from across the world. Photo courtesy Terrascope
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