Classroom Earth: Terrascope

Sam Bowring
Friday, May 31, 2013

EAPS considers it essential that all undergraduate students have some knowledge of the Earth system, in areas that range from its inherent complexity to sustainability. Here, Professor of Geology in EAPS and Director of Terrascope Professor Sam Bowring describes this unique program.

Since a class in how the Earth system works is not required at MIT, the Terrascope program attempts to reach a broad cross-section of incoming students, regardless of their intent to major in a particular field, in research-enhanced education focused on some aspect of the Earth system. Our emphasis is on using a multidisciplinary approach to show that understanding the geosciences, from fossil fuels and energy, to water resources and strategic minerals, to climate change and the health of the oceans, is important to the students' world view, whether they know it or not.  We believe it is our responsibility to teach as many students as we can about the Earth system, and in our experience, Terrascope students have a greatly expanded consciousness about the Earth and humans’ effect on it.

Terrascope is offered by a partnership between the Departments of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) under the directorship of EAPS professor, Samuel Bowring. The program derives its support largely from MIT’s Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) through the Office of Experiential Learning (OEL).  Participation does not require an interest in EAPS or CEE, only a desire to learn about the environment in a new way.  

Terrascope combines the development of a community of like-minded students with academic advising and learning experiences not commonly found in the freshman year. In the fall semester, in the program's core class (12.000 or Mission 20xx - the year in which the class graduates), students are given a complex, “unsolvable” problem that they must propose solutions for as a group; deliverables include a comprehensive website and a defense of the solution before a panel of experts and the general public.  

In past years, problems have included designing a new tsunami warning system, developing a plan to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, stopping the impending collapse of the global fisheries, and developing a plan to feed the planet. In the spring, options include a class in which students work in small groups on specific aspects of the solution, under the guidance of faculty (1.016), a class in which students create a radio program for general audiences about the year’s topic (Terrascope Radio) and a field experience in which students come to understand the complexity of the problem on the ground, as well as the perspectives of people who would be directly affected by their proposed solution.  

The guiding philosophy behind Terrascope is that from the very first day of class students are treated as researchers in science, engineering, and social sciences, not teenagers just out of high school.  We have high expectations of their ability to take responsibility for their own learning process, and we make sure the students understand that.  This is very different from what they are exposed to in the large physics, math, and chemistry classes that most students take at the same time.

Of course, the great majority of our students do not yet have significant research experience; part of the challenge they face is to develop appropriate research skills quickly and in the context of a specific problem. They are provided with a wide variety of personnel (including faculty, staff, peers, and alumni) to whom they can turn in developing those skills; part of their responsibility is to decide how best to use those resources.  

Students who have been through the program tend to have strongly developed leadership, project-management, and teamwork skills, and they credit Terrascope with being a formative part of their MIT experience, and with shaping their approach to academics and employment. Many Terrascope students take on leadership positions in departments, classes, and campus organizations, and they tend to seek out and become actively engaged in complex, multidisciplinary group projects.

One of the important observations we have made is that Terrascope attracts students with diverse interests, and these students go on to major in a broad cross-section of schools and departments at MIT; EAPS and CEE do not attract a disproportionately high number of Terrascope students.

Support for Terrascope

An important part of the program is the participation of upper-level students, staff, and volunteers, in addition to regular faculty.  The three main groups are Undergraduate Teaching Fellows (UTFs), MIT library staff, and alumni mentors. Our UTFs are drawn from upper-level undergraduates who took part in the Terrascope program as freshmen. They are assigned to small subgroups of freshmen, for whom they serve as mentors and cheerleaders. 

The MIT library staff work hard to educate the students about all of the library resources that are available, from books to search engines, to referencing software so that by the end of the fall semester they have become very skilled users of the library system.  

Alumni mentors are MIT alumni from a wide variety of departments and graduation years (1960-2012) who make themselves available to help the students formulate solutions, steer them toward resources, and provide support. We have a very active group of mentors from across the country.  Some of our local mentors come to class every day; others make one or two visits to the class, while others communicate primarily via email.  

Alumni mentors are a very important part of the total success of the program. If you are interested in volunteering—we warmly welcome participation by EAPS alumni and friends—please e-mail Sam Bowring (sbowring [at] mit [dot] edu).

Financial support is also welcome. While Terrascope receives funds from the MIT administration for classes and MIT-based activities, we must also rely on the generosity of alumni and friends to help fund the annual spring break field trip.  If you would like to make a gift in support of Terrascope, please visit and enter the Terrascope Gift Fund number 2739491 in the “search designations” box. Gifts in any amount are deeply appreciated.  Please contact Sam Bowring (sbowring [at] mit [dot] edu) if you have any further questions.  


Terrascope Website

Terrascope, one of MIT's learning communities for first-year students, is a unique opportunity for freshmen to expand their academic experience by spending a year trying to understand and propose a solution to a complex problem (12.000 or Mission 20XX). 

Last year in Mission 2016 freshmen were tasked with designing a plan to ensure that all nations, including those that aspire to be developed, have access to strategic minerals by implementing recycling technologies, searching for non-traditional sources, and developing an environmentally sensitive global management plan.

Check out the Terrascope Mission 2016 blog about the students' spring break field trip to the Western USA HERE

Terrascope Radio archive LISTEN

Archive of all past mission websites

Mission 2013 (Abu Dhabi) Blog

Recent News

Mission Southwest: Mines, water and rocks | MIT News 

Terrascope: Not the Typical First Semester Class | MIT News

Terrascope Alumni Mentor's Share Mission 2016 Experiences | Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education News