The Public Faces of Terrascope

By Ari Epstein, Lecturer, Earth Systems Initiative

This spring has been a time for those involved with Terrascope to present their work to wider audiences.  In May, this year’s class of Terrascopers opened to the public an interactive museum they had created focusing on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Exhibits included:

  • A walk-through maze, representing the decision tree New Orleans residents were faced with as Katrina approached, during the storm and in its aftermath. As visitors entered the maze, signs directed them to decide between evacuating or remaining in New Orleans. Those who chose evacuation had a choice of destination, and those who chose to stay also had a number of options. Each choice led to a distinct path through the maze, with distinct consequences. For example, those who chose to remain in their homes passed through a “storm” that included debris propelled by a fan, eventually emerging onto a simulated rooftop to await evacuation.

  • A replica of a storm-ravaged house, marked on the outside with the now-familiar annotated X painted on by post-storm emergency officials.  Visitors first entered a room laid out to represent the jumbled, muddy interior of a house, as it would have appeared shortly after the storm.  They then passed through into a room showing what a house would look like in the midst of gutting and restoration. Interactive elements enabled visitors to get a feel for what it might be like to work on such a restoration. For example, they could try to break up a wall with a sledgehammer, explore secret compartments in which some New Orleanians stored valuables, and sort debris according to rules established by recovery workers.

  • An informational tour of hurricanes and their effects, including an interactive element in which visitors could create a simulated storm surge and see how it affected regions protected by wetlands and barrier islands, those protected by levees, and those with no protection. In another element, visitors learned the difference between the infamous “I-wall” floodwalls, and the superior “T-wall” systems, by erecting their own floodwalls in a sandbox and feeling how easily an I-wall can be compromised.

The exhibits were open to the public in Lobby 13 for three weeks, and they were evaluated by a panel that included local museum professionals, high-school students and teachers, an engineer now working in New Orleans, and others. The museum was taken down to make way for graduation festivities, but photographs of the exhibits, and of other Terrascope activities, can be viewed at:

Another product of this year’s Terrascope classes was a radio program developed by freshmen taking Subject SP.360, Terrascope Radio. The program, called “Nerds in New Orleans: No, we’re not here for Mardi Gras,” presents a personal look at the stories these students found during their Spring Break trip to New Orleans (see the April 2007 edition of the DUE newsletter), including:

  • An interview with a nurse who was stranded in Charity Hospital for six days during the storm.

  • A guided tour of the bayous and wetlands south of New Orleans, areas that are crucial to the city’s future but are themselves subject to a number of environmental hazards.

  • A lighthearted story about a steamboat expedition, in which we learn what happens when you tell a group of MIT students that it’s OK to visit the engine room.The program aired on WMBR and is now being made available for rebroadcast on public radio stations nationwide. It can also be heard at:

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Aquarium of the Pacific, in Long Beach, California, opened its “Catch A Wave” exhibit, which includes a major component called “Faces of a Tsunami” that was developed in collaboration with students from last year’s Terrascope class (see the February, 2007 edition of the DUE newsletter for details on the exhibit’s origins).  Terrascope faculty also found outlets for their program-related work this spring, presenting to faculty and researchers elsewhere lessons they have learned as they have developed and run the program, and contributing to scholarship in the rapidly-developing field of project-based learning. Throughout Terrascope’s lifetime, faculty and staff have conducted careful quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the program, making it possible to highlight elements that seem most important to the program’s success, as well as elements that have had to be changed over time.

Two results of this scholarship were published this spring. The first, “Students’ Perceptions of Terrascope, a Project-Based Freshman Learning Community,” by Alberta Lipson, Ari W. Epstein, Rafael Bras and Kip Hodges, is to appear in print in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, but it is already available through the journal’s Online First service at:

This spring’s other Terrascope publication, “Team-Oriented, Project-Based Learning as a Path to Undergraduate Research, a Case Study,” by Ari W. Epstein, Rafael Bras, Kip Hodges and Alberta Lipson, appears as Chapter 5 of Developing and Sustaining a Research-Supportive Curriculum: A Compendium of Successful Practices, edited by Kerry K. Karukstis and Timothy E. Elgren, and published by the Council on Undergraduate Research.  This publication is not on line, but copies are available from the Terrascope Office, (617) 253-4074 or

These two publications join the first published Terrascope paper, “Terrascope, a Project-Based, Team-Oriented Freshman Learning Community with an Environmental/Earth System Focus,” by Ari Epstein, Alberta Lipson, Rafael Bras and Kip Hodges, available on line at:  Terrascope faculty and staff hope to continue contributing to current knowledge about project-based learning as the program continues to evolve and as it becomes possible to track the future career development of Terrascope alumni, of whom two classes have now graduated from MIT.