Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Beyond Earth System Science

An Approach for the 21st Century

Go back to the beginning of this presentation by Kip Hodges from Arizona State University.


What kind of a course teaches students the skills they will need to become stewards of our planet? Terrascope is a course Kip developed and taught for first year students at MIT. It's a project-based course that requires students to design an engineering solution to a problem. In the process, they develop a deep understanding of the complexity of Earth systems.

During the first semester, students focus on solving complex problems. Second semester activities include field experiences and communication of the students' findings to the public via museum exhibit design and "Terrascope Radio."

Each class had a project ("Mission 2007").... The goal of the project is to solve an environmental problem; doing so requires a multidisciplinary approach.

In the museum exhibit design phase of the course, students develop museum exhibits to communicate science and engineering concepts to the public. Some of their proposed exhibits have been implemented.

Student "Escape to Alaska" exhibits included a simulated dogsled ride, a planetarium-style aurora borealis, Alaskan animal habitats, Native artifacts, and an oil-exploration walk-through.

The optional spring break field experience immerses students in the environment they've been studying.

MIT students on various field trips.

Terrascope Radio is a collaborative project with the Department of Comparative Media Studies. Each Terrascope team develops, produces, records, and broadcasts a radio program designed to communicate their project -- including the scientific concepts involved -- to the general public.

Each of the missions is a deceptively simple environmental problem involving finding a sustainable solution.

The mission is subdivided into tasks, and students are divided into teams. Each team has a teaching fellow (upper class student), alumni mentors, and disciplinary mentors to help guide them through the process.

Students are individually and collectively responsible for documenting their research, and for presenting (and justifying) their design solutions.

Individual, team, and class efforts all figure significantly into student grades.

Here's an example of the top page from one team's website, describing their design for a permanent, manned, underwater research station with minimal environmental impact.

Another team's solution to the same problem.

Students rate this course highly relative to its goals: independent learning, self-directed learning, developing teamwork skills, and producing a sense of accomplishment.

Students' written comments highlight the success of the course relative to these goals.