MIT’s Terrascope first-year learning program — operated jointly by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering — has been designated an Exemplar in Engineering Ethics Education by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES), making it one of 25 programs nationwide to receive this honor. The NAE award is showcased in a report, Infusing Ethics into the Development of Engineers, in which the NAE highlights “programs and strategies for improving engineers’ understanding of ethical and social issues.” NAE is also working to create resources based on these exemplary programs, for the use of other educational institutions.
Ethical issues are a part of the program’s DNA according to longtime Terrascope lecturer Ari Epstein. “In Terrascope, ethical engineering practice is not treated as a separate skill set. Ethical considerations are fundamentally part of every problem the students take on, as they will be throughout these students’ careers.”
During their first semester at MIT, Terrascope students take 12.000 (Solving Complex Problems), in which they immerse themselves in all aspects of a complex, real-world problem and develop a solution. They then present and defend their solution in front of a panel of global experts.
Terrascope problems are rich in the tradeoffs inherent in real-world problem-solving, and they always require students to understand and address ethical, economic, social, political, and other issues, in addition to the scientific and technical aspects of the given problem.
Past examples have included: Develop a plan to provide adequate fresh water to western North America for the next century; determine whether/how to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; and design a plan to feed the planet over the next century, maximizing efficiency and equity and minimizing environmental degradation.
In the spring semester students can take 1.016 (Design for Complex Environmental Issues), in which they work directly with MIT researchers to design and fabricate protoype solutions to specific aspects of the year’s problem. Prototypes are presented for evaluation to a panel of experts, and students often continue their projects well after their first year.
Students can also take SP.360 (Terrascope Radio) in which they create a radio program for the general public about the problem. Terrascope Radio programs have been distributed and broadcast by over 100 stations across the U.S. An optional spring-break field experience brings students into contact with people who would be affected by their proposed solution and gives them the chance to understand the broader human context of their work.
“Terrascope gave me a taste of how science and engineering can work in the real world to solve real problems”, says Lisa Song ’08 SM ‘09, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist. “It made me interested in issues of accountability in science and engineering, and it was the program that made me think directly about what I wanted to do with my degree after I graduated.”
“This award is a wonderful acknowledgement of the committed work of Terrascope faculty, staff, alumni mentors and students over the past 15 years,” says David McGee, the Kerr-McGee Career Development Assistant Professor in EAPS and interim faculty director of Terrascope.
“Terrascope students learn powerful lessons about how to take responsibility for their own learning, how to apply their classroom learning to big, messy, important problems, and how to work together with students of diverse interests and abilities to tackle challenges that would be impossible for an individual,” McGee added.
Alumna Zehra Ali ’07, SM ‘09 notes that working on various aspects of a real-world problem that affects the environment and the lives of people has been instrumental in shaping her academic and professional development. “It was through Terrascope that I developed my interest in the connection between housing, energy and the environment in Pakistan, my home country. What started as a summer Terrascope UROP to explore sustainable housing across Pakistan has transformed into an enterprise that I founded and now direct called Ghonsla, which provides sustainable and affordable insulation solutions to underserved markets in Pakistan.”
Professor J. Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research and a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering, directs MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning, under which Terrascope is organized. Vandiver has been involved with the program since its inception in 2001 when the subject 12.000 was created. “That subject was the brainchild of former MIT professor Kip Hodges,” said Vandiver. “It was created to confront freshmen with hard real world problems, thereby giving them a context for the otherwise dry and abstract, required core math and science subjects encountered in the freshmen year. The NAE award is a special honor for Terrascope and confirms the value in training freshmen to think broadly, creatively, and justly.”