MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 2
November / December 2006
Student-Driven Activities at MIT
Financial Foundation for MIT's Future
Undergraduate Education Reconsidered
Stephen J. Madden, Jr.
MIT and Singapore
Teaching and Challenging Engineers . . .
to Engineer
Adèle Naudé Santos
Written in Pencil; February Lunch
First Response Education:
New Orleans Comes to MIT
Do MIT Students Ever Sleep?
The Implication of Mega-Partnerships
for MIT Faculty
Helping Students Become Better Writers
A Century of MIT at a Glance
MIT Faculty and Students (1900-2007)
Printable Version

Teach Talk

First Response Education: New Orleans Comes to MIT

Holly Sweet

History of the development of the NOLA study group

Like many Americans, I was stunned to follow the progress of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast last August, particularly the devastation of New Orleans caused by flooding from the storm due to levee failure. At a dinner gathering of friends shortly after the hurricane, I asked everyone what they were going to do to help. “Nothing” was the most common answer, citing various reasons (“it’s too big a problem, I don’t know what to do, my dollars will just get swallowed up in bureaucracy,” etc.).

The passivity of their responses got to me. I realized that the most important thing I could do was to get others involved in New Orleans through some kind of educational effort.

I wanted to bring the devastation of New Orleans home to MIT students. It is one thing to watch pictures on TV, it’s quite another to study what is actually going on. I wanted students to gain experience doing research on their own about an event that was happening at the same time they were studying it, and to present a specific topic in class. I also wanted them to imagine concrete solutions to real-life problems. I wanted to have them work together, alongside me, in teaching and learning about a subject that was new to all of us.

I knew that credit drew students so I conferred with the director of ESG (Professor Alex Slocum) about using our special topics credit (SP.233) for the group. He agreed that it was important to use this credit in “first response” education, that is, an educational experience investigating important current events in depth. I sent out an e-mail to the ESG community the next day about a study group on the subject and had a planning meeting with interested ESG students right after Registration Day. I also sent out the following announcement to all undergraduate administrators at MIT:

            SP.233 New Orleans: Rising or Sinking City? (3-6 units pass/fail credit)
This study group will spend time looking at what made New Orleans great, why Katrina was so devastating, and what can be done to rebuild the city. Guest speakers and documentary films will supplement discussion and readings. Participants will take turns presenting information on topics and will put together a resource book.

Finally, I contacted the administrator of the MIT home page to put something up about the study group. By September 16th, I had 10 students from a variety of backgrounds enrolled in the subject.

Structure of the study group

We started with introductions, overview of the group, people’s special interests, and discussion of final projects, spent a week on the history of the city, two weeks on the culture of New Orleans, two weeks on Katrina (focusing on why the levees failed, why Katrina was such a powerful storm, and why the evaluation plan failed so dramatically), two weeks on the political and psychological aspects of the storm (in particular, for the people who were displaced from their homes), and three weeks on the rebuilding of New Orleans (including a look at other cities that experienced natural disasters). Our guest speakers included an MIT alumnus who lives in New Orleans, an ESG alumnus who went down to Houston to help in the recovery efforts, and Professor Lawrence Vale, who discussed his book on Resilient Cities and implications for New Orleans based on his research. Readings were largely drawn from Wikipedia and from current newspapers and journals (including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the local paper of New Orleans – The Times Picayune). I paid attention to what was on TV and taped a number of shows that were of relevance to our class, including those on levee construction, global warming, and coastal erosion.

Katrina Devastation
Destruction rendered by Hurricane Katrina (click on image to enlarge)

Each week a student took notes about what happened during the class and e-mailed me the information, which we collected and stored on the ESG Website. I created a listserve for the students in the study group and students were encouraged to send relevant information which they found online to the class. Students were responsible for presenting material for one topic (such as levee failure or the politics of FEMA) during the term. For the last week, I asked students to consider one thing which they felt would be crucial to the rebuilding of the city and to present an argument in class about why this was so important and what could be done to help this occur within the next two years.

Along the way, some interesting events occurred because we were one of the few academic classes studying the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. I began receiving e-mails from a variety of educators around the country asking permission to use my syllabus to help them develop classes on New Orleans and Katrina for the coming spring term. One of my students, a freshman, received an e-mail from an NPR staff member addressed to “Professor X” asking him “as an expert in the field” about his opinion on levee failure. An MIT alumnus who lived in New Orleans read about our class on the Internet and started corresponding with us about his experiences trying to help out with the disaster. He sent us a set of weekly pictures which gave us a “real life” view of what was actually going on in New Orleans.

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Impact on Students and Lessons Learned

The students in the group had a variety of reactions to this experience. One student ended up majoring in Course 11 (Urban Studies and Planning) after studying New Orleans and talking at length with the department head (Professor Lawrence Vale) who spoke about resilient cities at one of our sessions. Another student decided to visit New Orleans for a help week during spring break and was able to see in person what she had studied in the fall. Several students mentioned that the ability to study what was happening to New Orleans helped fend off the feelings of hopelessness and despair which afflicted so many. All of them said they enjoyed the immediacy of the study group and that fact that they were co-creating the group along with me. They were involved in something that went beyond MIT, beyond their problem sets and tests, and brought them into the real world in a substantive way.

Putting together and running this study group stretched me intellectually. I “taught” a class in which I had no formal training. I took a more positive view on the value of laptops in the classroom and reliance on the Internet for information. I became involved with a city that had previously meant very little to me. I collaborated with students in studying a subject which was highly topical, changing daily, and had immediate relevance in a number of fields, including psychology, earth science, urban studies, political science, civil engineering, and sociology. I met graduate students, alumni, and faculty at MIT that I would not normally have met in the course of my work here. I encourage faculty and staff to consider doing something similar in the future: the rewards are tremendous.

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