Campus resiliency crawl helps Terrascope students understand challenges of climate preparedness

Campus resiliency crawl helps Terrascope students understand challenges of climate preparedness

Kendall Students

Terrascope—one of MIT’s freshman learning communities—addresses a different sustainability challenge each year from interdisciplinary perspectives. In deciding this year’s topic, Terrascope director David McGee explains that “with Cambridge having just completed its climate change vulnerability assessment and MIT actively researching its own vulnerabilities, this year was a great time to focus students on the question of how MIT should prepare for the impacts of climate change.”

Terrascope connected with the Office of Sustainability (MITOS)—which is currently facilitating cross-departmental committees with campus leaders on the topic of climate resiliency—to discuss ideas for engaging students in this year’s mission to prepare the world for climate change. The collaboration resulted in a field study program featuring a classroom discussion of climate risks, a series of interactive, themed tours led by experts from the City of Cambridge and from operational units within MIT, and activities for student reflection and informal learning.

Koch and students
Suzanne Blake, manager of MIT Emergency Management, discusses the importance of preserving research activities in an emergency at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research

McGee says that these tours “opened all of our eyes to the wide range of factors involved in preparing MIT for climate change impacts and gave the students specific examples of the sorts of concerns and solutions present on the MIT campus. The partnership has been extremely valuable for helping introduce students to the topic of resilience on the MIT campus and for connecting students to experts in resilience planning.” Suzanne Blake, manager of MIT Emergency Management, said that having students attend tours and participate in the process “introduced them to the planning and preparedness that is occurring at the Institute level. Many of them were unaware that MIT has an office that does this. Also, they were really intrigued by the connection between MIT and Cambridge and how we depend on resources outside of MIT to continue our functions.”

So why focus on the MIT campus itself? According to Ari Epstein—a Terrascope lecturer—it’s because MIT is a place that students know and care about. Furthermore, since MITOS and its partners have set out to activate the campus as a living laboratory, it makes it possible for students to be a part of a critical ongoing process. Paul J. Wolff III, MITOS Living Lab Design Manager explains, “Place-based learning provides a unique opportunity to create small-scale experiments such as the Campus Resiliency Crawl, that provide a focal point around which stakeholders can work together in a real-world context. Students are vital in this micro-learning process as each observation, social interaction, and reflection helps to construct new knowledge.”


Jennine Talbot, Senior Planner in the Capital Renewal at MIT, led the Utility Tour which included stops within the underground tunnels on the MIT Campus. She discussed distribution networks, interdependencies and the difference between utility and building systems.

Something that has surprised the class is realizing that climate change is not just a future threat. Both MIT and Bangladesh (where the students are also focusing their inquiry) have already seen the effects of climate change, such as increases in extreme precipitation events. However, Epstein observes that “many of the surprises come in terms of process rather than product.” The structure of the class provides the freshmen with the opportunity to try out different forms of structure for working with a large group, and to be able to assess and reconsider how those work. McGee elaborates, “Throughout the year, students are in the driver’s seat; we offer a great deal of support but give students ownership over both the process and the products that emerge from the classes. Together, the year-long experience gives the students a range of skills in addressing complex problems that will be valuable in any major or career path.”

Currently, students are focusing on issues such as increased heat stress, flooding from extreme participation events, and flooding from storm surge and sea level rise. They are examining the impacts of each of these factors on MIT’s site, buildings, infrastructure, and community: the layers of climate resiliency at MIT.

Moving forward, the students will form a foundation for climate change resiliency plans and prepare specific assessments for MIT and Bangladesh. At the end of the semester, they will give a formal presentation of their research and proposals.

Effie Jia is a fellow in the Office of Sustainability and a sophomore in the MIT School Of Architecture and Planning