Climate Conversations S3E2: Free Choice Learning in Universities with MIT Terrascope


What happens when college students are given a massive problem to solve, and the wide-open space to unleash their full potential? Deep engagement, a healthy dose of frustration, empowerment, and changed lives.

We explore this promising space in conversation with an alum (Lauren Kuntz) and an instructor (Dr. Ari Epstein) of Terrascope, MIT's environmentally-focused freshman learning community.

Curt:  [00:00:00] I think we need lots more people like Lauren Kuntz.

Rajesh:  So here's Lauren on the TedX stage.

Lauren Kuntz:  I've been asked many times, "Why climate and energy?" Because, failing to find a solution isn't an option. We don't have a backup planet. We cannot fail at this.

Curt:  Lauren is a newly minted Harvard PhD. climate scientist who did her undergraduate studies at MIT.

Rajesh:  This season we're going to be talking to people on how they learned to change.

Curt: Lauren's time at MIT kicked off with a bang.

Lauren Kuntz:  The first day I remember the professor spends probably the first half of the lecture introducing the problem, saying, "Your mission for Terrascope is going to be to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions [00:01:00] over the next hundred years."

Curt:  Terrascope is a small, environmentally focused learning community for MIT freshman. Every year, about 50 of MIT's 1100 or so incoming freshmen take part. That program, Terrascope, set Lauren on a lifelong quest that's probably near and dear to many of you.

Lauren Kuntz:  Terrascope is unlike any other class that you will probably ever take or have ever heard of even. Eliminate carbon dioxide emissions over the next hundred years. So it turns out it's taking me a lot more than a semester to answer that question. So I've really felt like I've committed to using my career and using my life to figure out if I can actually answer that question that Terrascope threw at me. How do we eliminate carbon dioxide emissions? It's a huge question and I think there's many different ways that I'm trying to tackle it.

 One of it's with my own research. I do a lot of research now, looking at climate change, trying to better [00:02:00] constrain where we are heading given carbon dioxide emissions and projected future emissions and the real problem we're up against.

Rajesh:  Having gone through Terrascope and then a graduate program at Harvard, Lauren's taking her ideas out into the world.

Lauren Kuntz:  One of the things I've been trying to do now is take what we teach and parse it down into something that you could maybe go through in an hour or two hours, either on your own through an online platform, or guided through in a workshop seminar.

 I've actually done such a seminar with three different groups now. One was just a local community in Connecticut where they had no background in energy. The demographic was basically, they were middle class and concerned about the environment but didn't necessarily know a ton about it. And even just an hour, having them think through a small portion of the problem, de-carbonizing your electric grid, almost everybody walked away being like, wow, I know so much more about the problem than I did before. It's so much more complex than I ever thought. And like, a number of them followed up with emails afterwards, sort of [00:03:00] saying like, thank you for guiding us through this.

Curt:  You know, this is more than just a heart warming story. I believe that the future of the planet really hinges on our ability to come together and do these kinds of things.

Rajesh:  And we need to learn how to set up the spaces in which people can actually come together.

Curt:  How do we do this?

Rajesh:  That's what we're going to be talking about in this season.

Curt:  In this episode we'll learn more about Terrascope, how it worked for Lauren, what makes it so special and more importantly, we want to ask what might make it less unusual, less extraordinary. Instead, becoming more a par for the course for our students and frankly for anyone hungry to learn and act on climate change. Maybe us non PhDs and older folks can have some of what Lauren's been having. Let's start by learning a little more about that Terrascope goodness.

Ari Epstein:  Right. So the idea of all of the Terrascope classes is that they are heavily driven by the students and the students are really in [00:04:00] charge in a fundamental way.

Rajesh:  Ari Epstein, Terrascope veteran, free choice learning expert and lecturer at MIT.

Ari Epstein:  It doesn't mean that we sort of just, leave them alone. But it does mean that they have an enormous amount of autonomy so if they want they can rewrite the problem. And they have in the past. They can reshape the problem, they can tell us we got it wrong. They can choose what piece of it to attack. They can choose how to go at it. They can choose how to divide themselves up into teams in order to attack the problem.

Rajesh:  So students being given freedom and support to solve wicked challenges. Now I think that's real exciting.

Curt:  Yeah, I think it's exciting too. Makes me wish I could tap into it. I mean, does this sound like your school experience? Not so much like mine.

Ari Epstein:  Every Terrascope problem has something to do with sustainability. It's always a real problem that has to be addressed that is not currently being addressed sufficiently. It has to be a [00:05:00] problem that science and technology alone will not solve. So you really need to consider all of the elements. The social and political and economic and ethical elements and more. Those all come into play. And it has to be a problem where there is no perfect solution. Where there will always be trade offs. You have to make those choices.

Ari Epstein:  Sustainability problems are really ideal in that way, because they always involve trade offs. They always involve interactions between the scientific and technical side of things and the economic, the anthropological, the philosophical, the political side of things, is always part of the picture.

Rajesh:  So it's great. You've got the space, you got all these smart people, you got a wicked challenge, you're given freedom and support and yet things can and will go wrong. And then what do you do?

Curt:  You might find yourself going down a blind alley. And in fact, those blind [00:06:00] alleys are really part of the Terrascope experience. Here's one that Lauren told us about.

Lauren Kuntz:  Initially when we were doing it we hadn't considered cost at all. Which is part of the reason we ended up being so far over the global cost. And we were in one meeting as we were getting ready for the final presentation and one of the teaching fellows goes, "Well, how much is this plan going to cost you guys? Like are you willing to spend enough to make this happen?" And we were like, "Uh, I never thought about that." I was so confused, I was like, "Cost? Money. Huh. No one told me as part of eliminate carbon dioxide emissions I had to worry about money."

Curt:  So sometimes there's blind alleys. People forget things. In any learning experience, team dynamics is a really big deal and it can be a particularly painful source of challenges. Ari told us how Terrascope uses student journals as a sort of an early warning system.

Ari Epstein:  So for example if there's a team, and four members of the team say, "Well, everything's going, you [00:07:00] know, really great, except there's this one person who's not holding up his end of the bargain." And then the fifth member of the team goes, "Everything's going really great." Well we know what's going on in that team, right? Or if there's, everybody on the team says, everything's going great, except for one person who says, "You know, nobody ever listens to me."

 So in a case like that we can then write in our comments to the other members of the team, what are you all doing to ensure that everybody gets heard? What are you doing to make sure that your team is fully inclusive? And simply asking that question can make a huge difference.

Curt:  So we've seen how to create these kinds of spaces, get people working together, you've given them a good problem, then what?

Rajesh:  Well you gotta stir the pot for sure, but you know, ultimately we want to change the world. And for that to happen, people have to act together. Do something tangible.

Curt:  And that tangible thing doesn't have to be big. Maybe it's the experience of building something or reaching out to like, an important person. Just so long as it's [00:08:00] doing instead of just thinking and just talking about doing. For Lauren and Terrascope, this began with a little field trip to the ocean.

Lauren Kuntz:  For our project we were looking at low carbon concrete. One of the ideas that we were testing was somebody else's theoretical idea that you could precipitate out cementitious material from sea water.

Curt:  Hmm, cementitious. What, what is that?

Lauren Kuntz:  Oh, it means that it has cement-like properties, so that it is a binding substance. So you could sequester carbon dioxide and make this material that had cementitious properties replacing cement if you bubbled carbon dioxide through it. And it was so empowering. We actually got to reach out to a bunch of different professors at MIT and ask like, can we use your lab space? We want to test this out. We want to get a giant bucket of sea water. We want to bubble CO2 through it, we want to see if we can make this precipitate. We want to see if it's cementitious.

 And it was just mind boggling how many professors responded like, "Absolutely. Come on in. We're gonna help you out." [00:09:00] And I remember the moment we were in the lab, we'd literally gone to Revere Beach to get the sea water. Like, came back with this giant bucket of sea water, we're bubbling CO2 through it and saw this white precipitate form. And it was just so phenomenally awesome because the three of us were there, the students and then we also had John there.

Curt:  That's John Ochsendorf an MIT architecture professor who works on sustainable design. He'll be back a little later in this episode.

Lauren Kuntz:  We had another professor there. We had a post doc there and a PhD student, like all surrounding this like, little beaker of water bubbling CO2 through it and seeing this white precipitate form. And it was just like, the excitement in the room was almost unlike anything I'd felt before.

Curt:  Let's just sit back and think how awesome this is. The excitement, the discovery.

Rajesh:  Yeah. Create a space in which people feel empowered to solve problems.

Curt:  Yeah, that's a key word. Feeling empowered. It's not something to take for granted is it?

Rajesh:  Absolutely not. [00:10:00] And to be frank, it fails a lot of the time.

Curt:  Yeah, yeah. So let's say we've created this wonderful empowering feeling. Part of me is saying like, "I still don't quite buy it. It feels too sweet."

Rajesh:  You don't think it's enough?

Curt:  It feels just a little too sweet and idealistic. There's gotta be, there's gotta be some grit in there, some spice.

Rajesh:  Totally agree. And you know we did hear from Ari and Lauren about frustration.

Lauren Kuntz:  Anything collaborative is simultaneously the best and worst part depending on what time of the project you're in.

Rajesh:  Right.

Lauren Kuntz:  Julia is one of the other leaders from my year of Terrascope. And we just hit it off. Like, she will probably always be the best work buddy I ever have. Just the two of us together, like we were so on top of it. We complemented each other perfectly and that sort of collaboration between us made the project so much better. What I naturally lacked or didn't want to do, she excelled at.

 In addition it also forces you, at the times that suck, and you're like [00:11:00] this collaboration kind of sucks, is because other people have different viewpoints. And they have those other perspectives of, the cost matters or the social implications matter. Where, I maybe naturally didn't want to think about it, because it's hard, and they're sort of forcing you to be like, there's this really complex arm that you haven't considered. Look at it.

Ari Epstein:  Some of the deepest learning comes from a place where you are frustrated and then you dig your way back out of that frustration to an actual answer. And so figuring out how not to take away that gift to the students, right? Right. If you sort of just, if you say, here do it this way, here do it that way, you're not doing them any favors, right?

Curt:  I think that's great. That frustration can be viewed as a gift.

Rajesh:  You know when I was preparing for my thesis defense, one of my committee members said, you need a little bit of fear going into the room. Not so much that your petrified, but if [00:12:00] you're completely confident, it's not the right thing. So you need a little bit of adrenaline that comes from that, maybe things could go wrong.

Curt:  Right, right, right. Make you commit. Makes you dig in.

Lauren Kuntz:  And I think in the end it makes your solution a lot stronger and a lot more robust.

Curt:  So, autonomy, trust, empowerment.

Rajesh:  Let's not forget about frustration.

Curt:  These things are fuel for learning to change.

Rajesh:  So what sparks the fire?

Curt:  Well remember John Ochsendorf? He comes back again a couple years after Lauren's initial Terrascope experience.

Lauren Kuntz:  I remember as a junior at MIT I was in a meeting with John Ochsendorf and he asked me, "Lauren, how are you going to change the world?" And that was the first time I'd ever thought, "I'm capable of changing the world." And for me that changed my perspective on everything because now instead of thinking what am I gonna take next semester or what am I gonna do to earn money after I graduate, it became how am I [00:13:00] gonna leave my mark? How am I gonna solve this big real world problem? And having somebody who I looked up to have the faith in me that I could do it, it changed my life.

Curt:  So the comment from the right mentor at the right time really has a profound impact.

Rajesh:  It can totally change your life. And at a place like MIT there are so many fantastic mentors available, but what about the rest of the world? How can we take the Terrascope experience into the big wide world out there?

Curt:  Yeah, it turns out that Ari has done a lot of thinking and a lot of work on this.

Ari Epstein:  You could do this at a high school. You could do it in an elementary school. It takes a certain level of commitment but if you have the faculty and the administration who are committed to doing it, it really can be done. You know, it's a different flavor everywhere you go but the idea that the students are in charge of their own learning and that they have ownership. And that, that ownership gives them [00:14:00] motivation to really go deep and to really get at the heart of the problem, that style of education works with anybody. I would argue that it probably works even better with people who are not typical MIT students. With people for whom traditional, sort of lecture style learning and textbook style problem solving, has left them a little flat.

 MIT students are all good at those things. But imagine your somebody where those things are not your strength. But thinking about the problem that you have full ownership of can be a very empowering experience for any student, anywhere.

Rajesh:  So how do we take free choice learning into the world?

Curt:  Yeah. How exactly did Lauren go about teaching that small workshop that we heard about at the top of the episode?

Lauren Kuntz:  When I just tell people, "Oh, this is the solution," or "Oh, these are the problems." You have then like, oh well do I trust Lauren or not? Like, does she know what she's talking about? Or, I don't necessarily agree with what she said because I heard these other things that I like better.

 But going there and saying, "Okay, [00:15:00] here's a model. I can show you all the inner workings of the model, of our energy system. And all it's doing is calculating carbon emissions." And letting people fiddle with the knobs and sort of say, "Okay, if I turn up solar what happens to my costs, what happens to the land area? If I turn up natural gas, how does that impact it?" And really letting people just play around and test their own assumptions is huge.

Curt:  What Lauren's talking about there really resonates with me personally and locally here. The kinds of conversations I get into with climate folks in Massachusetts, talking about renewable energy, you think?

Rajesh:  You mean, friendly conversations or tough ones?

Curt:  Well it depends on how big your tent is, you know? In the echo chamber you might say it's fairly friendly. But one of our leading newspapers for instance, is, has recently taken on a somewhat antagonistic stance towards the environmental, renewable energy advocates. And you know that's a really complicated system that we're [00:16:00] talking about and everybody has different ideas about how it should evolve here in the state.

 We have a big nuclear plant that's about to be decommissioned and a couple of other big, fossil fuel, natural gas plants that they're also talking about being brought offline. And I think it would be great if we could bring on tons and tons of solar and deploy offshore wind super fast in time to bolster that up. But there are people who don't think that, that's viable.

Rajesh:  And I think there are people who, for example, genuinely think nuclear has to be on the table.

Curt:  Right, right.

Rajesh:  And I think that these are reasonable people.

Curt:  They absolutely are.

Rajesh:  Even though I disagree with them.

Curt:  I'm friends with them. I'm friends with some of them.

Rajesh:  Yeah.

Curt:  You know, one of my wishes would be to have some like, effective meeting, conference, along the lines of what Lauren talked about where people get, you know, [00:17:00] some sort of a model that's constructed for us that we can twiddle the knobs and dials and see. Really see on a certain timeline, here's how fast we can put this stuff out. How does it get us where we need to? How do we fill the gaps?

 Because there are people who are pushing back on a lot of these changes. The ones who are responsible for keeping the lights on. I respect their ability to analyze what's going on.

Rajesh:  I bet, you know, this reminds me of some of the things that our friends at the Engagement Lab and Boston Civic Media-

Curt:  The engagement lab that's at Emerson College?

Rajesh:  At Emerson College, have been doing where they set up these kind of role playing games where people can come in and make decisions and then understand the consequences of those decisions together. I think, like that kind of embodied experience is a kind of learning that I think will go a long way.

Curt:  Right. Which leads us to this one big question.

Lauren Kuntz:  The "Now what?" [00:18:00] question is what I always love to talk to people about, because I find that to be the more empowering one as opposed to like, the problem definition one. So a lot of what I think is important for the "Now what?" is really showing people what our energy system is made of, where our energy comes from, how we're using it, making people sort of connect driving their car to the oil emissions to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Or turning on the light bulb to the coal fired power plant.

 And thinking about the consequence of those things but also presenting the alternatives and saying well, we could use solar or we could use wind. Or nuclear could be a great option but what are the down sides of each of these? And getting people to actually engage with the whole spectrum of the problem, not just the carbon side. But also think about that cost side that I initially ignored. And think about the environmental impacts and other ways of mining rare metals. But to try to get a more wholistic view of a problem I feel like alone, is really empowering for people.

Curt:  So, (Rajesh 00:19:26) what do you think of the value of this wholistic view of [00:19:00] the problem? Where does that leave us?

Rajesh:  I mean I love wholistic views and I also worry that it's very hard to get there.

Curt:  Wholistic is big.

Rajesh:  Yeah.

Curt:  It throws us back into the like, wait you know, if we can reduce this to some smaller things we can get our answers. Yeah.

Rajesh:  And as you can see, the flip side is, at some level we are all solutionists, right? We want like, okay, what's the answer? And the great thing about wholistic view is to say, well, maybe it's not just one answer. There are many, many different answers and you gotta keep as many of them consciously available to you as possible.

Curt:  Yeah, yeah. After reflecting on the conversation with Lauren and Ari, I'm also thinking that, we didn't actually talk that much about the socio political. And to me there's this massive sort of, untapped layer running underneath this, which has to do with our attitudes and our behaviors. [00:20:00] And we can come up with the most brilliant, what look like socially appropriate, technological solutions in there, but what's going on for those people who don't agree that we've brought into the room that we're trying to come up with these solutions. What do they walk away from it with? To me weaving in those layers, the kind of attitude and behavior stuff that's running in our psychology, that's the wholistic thing that I want to bring in.

Rajesh:  And of course university education really doesn't emphasize those kinds of affective modes. At least I never took a course on how to change my attitude towards solving problems as opposed to just solving problems.

Curt:  Yeah.

Rajesh:  There are so many places in the world where people are learning how to change and I think we're going to be traveling to some of those places this season.

Curt:  Yeah, we've got a few really good ones in mind. But we'd love to hear from you if you've got favorite learning destinations, you know. [00:21:00] Think big. Think crazy. Let us know.

Rajesh:  As usual you can reach us at climateX@MIT.edu.

Curt:  And find us in all the usual social media channels, Twitter, FaceBook and the like.

Rajesh:  Thank you for listening.

Climate Conversations S3E1: The Psychology of Learning to Change, a Conversation with Renee Lertzman - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e1-psychology-learning-change-conversation-renee-lertzman

Climate Conversations S3E2: Free Choice Learning in Universities with MIT Terrascope - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e2-free-choice-learning-universities-mit-terrascope

Climate Conversations S3E3: Learning in Community with Mothers Out Front - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e3-learning-community-mothers-out-front

Climate Conversations S3E4: NextGen Learning to Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e4-nextgen-learning-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan

Climate Conversations S3E5: More with MIT Terrascope Lecturer Dr. Ari Epstein - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e5-more-mit-terrascope-lecturer-dr-ari-epstein

Climate Conversations S3E6: The Making of a Climate Scientist with MIT Terrascope Alumna Lauren Kuntz - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e6-making-climate-scientist-mit-terrascope-alumna-lauren-kuntz

Climate Conversations S3E7: Building a Community with Mothers Out Front Co-Founder Vanessa Rule - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e7-building-community-mothers-out-front-co-founder-vanessa-rule

Climate Conversations S3E8: Moving into Action with Mothers Out Front Chapter Leader Stacy Levy - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e8-moving-action-mothers-out-front-chapter-leader-stacy-levy

Climate Conversations S3E9: Teaching Climate Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Teacher Cate Arnold - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e9-teaching-climate-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan-teacher

Climate Conversations S3E10: From Learning to Teaching with Boston Latin School & YouthCAN Alumna Rebecca Park - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e10-learning-teaching-boston-latin-school-youthcan-alumna-rebecca

Climate Conversations S3E11: Learning to Lead with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Co-President Susan Tang - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e11-learning-lead-boston-latin-school-youthcan-co-president-susan

Climate Conversations S3E12: Turning Learning into Habits with Quinton Zondervan, City Counselor - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e12-turning-learning-habits-quinton-zondervan-city-counselor

Climate Conversations S3E13: Season 3 Wrap-up: What Have We Learned About Learning To Change? - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e13-season-3-wrap-what-have-we-learned-about-learning-change