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Freshmen to scope out Alaska during spring break

While many college students are preparing to spend spring break in their bathing suits, 28 MIT freshmen are packing their heavy coats. They will spend the week of March 22-26 in Fairbanks and other places in Alaska to learn first-hand about the benefits and pitfalls of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

That footwork will complement book work from the fall, when the students began the two-semester Terrascope program. Taught by Professor Rafael L. Bras of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor Kip Hodges of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and lecturer Ari Epstein of the Earth Systems Initiative, Terrascope challenges freshmen to confront complex, real-world problems through interdisciplinary teamwork.

Terrascope consists of two required subjects, 12.000 ("Solving Complex Problems" in EAPS)) in the fall and 1.016 ("Introduction to Earth System Engineering and Science") in the spring. Students in 12.000 had to design "the most 'environmentally correct' strategy for oil exploration and extraction in ANWR."

This was done deliberately "to encourage broad thinking about the problem and discourage simplistic answers based on preconceived notions, either for or against drilling," said Hodges. "If we had said, 'determine whether or not the US should drill for oil at ANWR,' the temptation would have been great for the students to simply decide with their hearts rather than their heads."

By the end of the semester, the students had identified regions where it would be less damaging to explore and drill, if that is the ultimate decision. They emphasized, however, the need to consider only very specific environmentally friendly exploration technologies. Further, they noted "a significant amount of research remains to be done in [areas such as] quantifying environmental damage, especially deeply intangible elements such as the social value of wilderness." The students' final presentation and web sites can be found at

In the second semester of Terrascope, the students are asked to deepen their knowledge about one aspect of the issues involved in drilling in the ANWR and demonstrate that knowledge by designing and building a museum exhibit. To that end, during MIT's January Independent Activities Period and over the spring term, the students will meet with professional designers in the local museum community.

The exhibits must include interactive elements and be designed for high school seniors planning to attend college. This year, five different teams will build five different exhibits, which will be on view during the week of May 10 in Room 1-090.

While in Alaska, the students will take advantage of the winter weather by cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and learning to mush a dogsled. They will also attend lectures on the engineering, biology, ecology and native peoples of ANWR. When they return to campus, they will integrate the experience into their exhibit designs.

Professor Bras feels the trip is important to the educational mission of Terrascope because "it's a program built on students that trust each other and know how to work together." The trip serves as a bonding experience, and students truly become "Terrascopers" afterwards.

Last year's Terrascope goal was to develop a strategy for the long-term preservation of the rainforest ecosystems of the Amazon. Visit the Terrascope web site at for pictures of the trip to the Amazon and the resulting museum exhibits.

Terrascope is one of the educational components of MIT's Earth System Initiative. Both programs are co-directed by Hodges and Professor Penny Chisholm, who has joint appointments in civil and environmental engineering and the Department of Biology.

--Michelle Seitz

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