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Dr. Ari Epstein on how the Terrascope program tackles sustainability

Meet Ari Epstein, Associate Director and Senior Lecturer in Terrascope

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Dr. Ari Epstein is the Associate Director and Senior Lecturer of Terrascope
Photo courtesy of Ari Epstein

Dr. Ari Epstein is the Associate Director and Senior Lecturer in the Terrascope program, a first-year learning community focused on sustainability and the environment. He teaches Solving Complex Problems (12.000) in the fall, and Terrascope Radio (SP.360) in the spring. Before joining Terrascope, Epstein was an editor for the Scientific American and a museum exhibit designer for the New England Aquarium. The Tech sat down with Epstein to learn more about the challenges he overcame as a Terrascope instructor and director and how Terrascope has influenced his students and himself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Tech: What is your story of joining Terrascope and creating Terrascope Radio? 

Ari Epstein: It was the summer and fall of 2002, and my first year of Terrascope. 12.000 had been taught for two years. I was between jobs. I wound up on the alumni site, and there was a new thing called Terrascope. It sounded very interesting. One of the directors, Penny Chisholm, was someone I learned from during graduate school. I wrote her a note and said, “I would like to be one of the people in the program.”

They were trying to develop a spring Terrascope class and already knew what they wanted the class to accomplish, but they weren’t sure how to do it. They wanted engineering, communication, and a continuation of fall experience. One of the classes I proposed was designing museum exhibits to teach the content from the whole semester. That’s how I got hired. The spring engineering design class subject number is 1.016/2.00C. The class has gone through a lot of changes, but it is still one of our core classes.

Terrascope Radio came along a couple of years later. After my first year at Terrascope, Penny and Kip were eager to add a CI-H class to the program. One of the classes I proposed turned into Terrascope Radio, a class in which students make radio stories as part of their Terrascope experience. We worked with the Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W) program, and at that time there was Rekha Murthy and Joellen Easton. Both were master’s students and former radio producers. We made an arrangement that for a year they would teach audio production and I would do student-driven learning. This happened in the 2004-2005 academic year, and the class continued from there. 

TT: How have you noticed your students change after taking Terrascope Radio?

AE: They are much better at teamwork than other students. They tend to be a lot better at project management and understanding the time things take. They also tend to have a deeper sensitivity to the lived experiences that are not theirs. We often neglect the lived experiences of people who have been dealing with this their entire lives. Our role is not to come in and be the big savior. I think that’s the important part of the Terrascope experience. Each class comes with its own set of skills.

The world becomes a much more familiar place for them. They notice sound everywhere around them. Always. They come out with a deeper sense of the stories that other people want to be told and come out recognizing that they help others’ words reach a broader audience. They want to be a medium through which the people they are creating a story about are speaking. At the end of the semester, the students tend to not say their say, but help others say theirs. 

People have a richer sense of story, narrative, and what storytelling can be. People have better interviewing skills. They are themselves for interviews, and they feel much more competent, as they have done the other direction (interviewing others). 

It’s very personal. There are going to be disagreements. If you are going to make something together, you need to diplomatically navigate those disagreements that are sensitive to people and keep being effective partners and friends. 

I think they come out of the class with humility, but also power and control. Whoever makes the story has power, and they need to be appropriately humble about how to use that power.

Some come out becoming better writers because writing for radio requires being direct and always thinking about your listeners. When you put something in print, people can skip a paragraph. But in radio, if they aren’t interested, they can change to something else. You need to hold and grab the attention of the listener and know what the listener wants. You are not serving yourself.

TT: How do you teach such a diverse class, who have varying ranges of exposure and interest in sustainability? What have you learned from your students in Terrascope? 

AE: Teaching the way we teach is very challenging. It requires more effort than when I used to teach lecture-based classes. At the very core, it is focused on the students and their experiences and what their state of mind is. That’s what we start with every day in class. We have the Undergraduate Teaching Fellows (UTFs), and their job is to be aware of what the students need.

I have learned a lot from my students. How do I even start? I’ve learned how to be a better teacher by letting them have better control of their learning process. To have better control of their learning process means putting themselves in the center of it. The class is largely shaped by their experience. Every year, we change the classes based on student feedback — there is constant improvement.

I learned how kind MIT students are and how wonderful they are. I have worked with a lot of students in this age range. Students here are very tolerant of differences, and they’re kind and good to one another in a way that isn’t always found elsewhere. They’re much more considerate of others’ particular needs. The students don’t really appreciate it because this is their only college experience — they don’t know what it’s like anywhere else.