MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Experiential Learning and the
Freshman Experience
Stakeholder Expectations of Learning in First-year Project-based Subjects
The Importance of Freshman-Year Projects
One Perspective on Project-Based Learning
Printable Version

Project-Based Learning

Experiential Learning and the Freshman Experience

Rafael L. Bras and Samuel Bowring


“In light of our findings, the time has come for the Science Core, REST, and Laboratory Requirements to be replaced by a newly designed Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Requirement that retains the rigorous character of the current Science Requirement, while providing more curricular offerings that better represent the disciplinary breadth of MIT and provide new opportunities for students to become involved in project-based experiences that imbue excitement into the first-year experience. [Emphasis by the authors, from Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, pp. 2-12.]

We could not agree more with the spirit of flexibility, exploration, and excitement that the Task Force seeks for our first-year students. Nevertheless, we have some concern that the Task Force’s reliance on individual departments to implement a suite of experiential subjects could inadvertently discourage interdisciplinary exploration.

Seven years ago, Kip Hodges instituted a new class for freshmen called 12.000 or Mission 20xx: Solving Complex Problems. The class teaches freshmen that the way to approach big or “unsolvable” problems is with a strong interdisciplinary focus. Each year a complex problem that involves scientific, technical, social, economic, and political aspects is chosen. The class is divided into teams that address different parts of the problem early in the semester. The students gain valuable experience in the difficulties and power of working within a small team as well as with the entire class. This past semester, the students of Mission 2010 ( tackled the problems of post-Katrina New Orleans. At the end of the fall term the class presented and defended their approach to the reconstruction of New Orleans in a public forum that included a panel of experts.

In 2002, Mission 20xx became part of a special freshman program called Terrascope, which provides experiential learning opportunities for the entire freshman year in the context of a close community of students, faculty, and staff. Students are required to take Mission 20xx in the fall and follow with Communicating Complex Environmental Issues: Designing and Building Interactive Museum Exhibits (subject 1.016) in the spring. In that class, Terrascopers design, engineer, and build interactive exhibits through which the general public can learn about the issues the students have explored all year. The exhibits are opened to the general public, and many of them have later been adopted for use by established aquariums and science museums. In addition, some students in the spring take the optional subject SP.360, Terrascope Radio, in which they develop and produce a radio program on the year’s core topic; the program is broadcast on the MIT campus radio station, and is then made available for use by public radio stations nationwide. During spring break, Terrascopers participate in an optional field trip to a region closely connected with the year’s core problem.

The Terrascope community benefits from the active participation of alumni of the program with many of them serving as Undergraduate Teaching Fellows (UTFs) for one or more years. A remarkable fact is that Terrascope students and those that become UTFs come from a broad cross section of the MIT community. Their dedicated participation is the result of understanding the value of solving big problems with an interdisciplinary approach, regardless of their major.

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Extensive annual assessments have led to constant improvements of the individual classes and program and provide evidence of the satisfaction of the students. When asked “Knowing what you know now about Terrascope, would you recommend it to incoming first year students who share your interests?” 67 percent said “definitely would,” 29 percent said “probably would,” 4 percent said “maybe.” Creativity is at the heart of the Terrascope experience. Quoting from a student:

You come to MIT with all these great ideas about what you’re going to do and you get totally bogged down with the problem-set routine.... And (Terrascope) definitely improved how I felt about my academic freshman year because it was challenging in an intellectual sense ... you have to think creatively ….

The Terrascope program resides within the Office of Experiential Learning, recently created by the Dean of Undergraduate Education. Although two departments (Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences) have generously supported the program and continue to provide faculty time and some space, the budget is outside of their control. Student recruitment to those two departments is not a program objective, and, in fact, over the four years of operation only 43 students of the 343 that have participated in Terrascope and/or Mission20xx have joined Civil and Environmental Engineering or EAPS.

It should be clear that a key element of Mission/Terrascope success is the problem driven, open-ended, interdisciplinary approach. We hope that departmental response to the Task Force will be to develop a range of subjects that have strong interdisciplinary focus and are not explicit parts of the hard-pressed departmental curricula. In our opinion, it would be a mistake to have the new generation of classes focus more on pedagogy than the message that big problems require a true interdisciplinary approach.

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