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Pages: First-year learning communities

By Julia Davis
August 25, 2018

students working in a labYour first year at MIT can seem like a whole lot of change happening at once. In the span of a few weeks, you move to a new city, live with a new roommate, enroll in new classes, find your way around a new school. We get it, it can be overwhelming trying to navigate your new life!

Amidst the huge changes, some students are part of much smaller academic groups, the first-year learning communities (FLCs): Terrascope, Experimental Study Group (ESG), and Concourse. These groups help to provide a close-knit community and academic environment to students as they go through their first year at MIT.

Each of the three communities focuses on academics through a different lens, but they all represent thriving communities that allow students to have a group of peers to study with, socialize with, and complain about p-sets with from day one. Each FLC has a supportive atmosphere, including 24-hour hangout rooms filled with couches and bean bags for students to relax in between classes, and areas where students can work together at all hours of the day (or night). Outside of academics, the communities also plan excursions like movie nights, theater workshops, and other fun events around Boston and Cambridge.

“It’s more than just the classes, and that’s common to all the FLCs, is that they’re all really important, supportive communities that aren’t meant to replace dorm communities or fraternity communities or sports communities, or whatever extracurricular sources of support, but are a really important academic community,” David McGee, director of Terrascope, said.

We talked to directors from all four about what the first-year experience looks like as a member of their learning community.


MIT students are known for creating solutions, being makers, and wanting to make the world a better place. Terrascope combines all of these attributes into a project-based year where students are tasked with creating solutions to a sustainability-related real-world problem.

Each year Terrascope students are given a “mission” that they collaborate on and come up with a plan to solve. Last year’s mission was the effects of climate change on MIT’s campus, as well as in coastal communities in Bangladesh. This year’s mission will address access to clean drinking water in the Navajo Nation.

Terrascope classes are set up in a way that leaves students to decide how they want to tackle the problem, which allows students to figure out how to work together and what strengths they each bring to the table.

“All of these classes are really student-centered,” Terrascope Director David McGee said. “So students are really in the driver’s seat, not only with owning the project that comes out of the class, but owning the process that gets them there.”

Once the students work to develop and present their comprehensive plan during the fall semester, they get to explore that year’s topic up close and personal during a spring break trip.

“We take a spring break trip to kind of get to see that year’s topic in the field, to talk to people who are affected by that problem, people who are working to address that problem, so the students don’t just come away learning what you can learn from a classroom in Cambridge, but really come to understand the problem in its full dimensions,” McGee said.

Unlike some of the other FLCs, Terrascope students do not take their core institute classes within Terrascope. The community is focused solely on taking the knowledge that student’s already have and applying it to real-world problems, which aligns with the entire purpose of Terrascope.

“We view the main goal of Terrascope as being focused on the students, on preparing them, equipping them, to tackle big complicated challenges, and communicate about big, complicated challenges,” McGee said.

Experimental Study Group (ESG)

If participation points have always been your strength, and the idea of a class of 6-12 people sounds appealing to you, then Experimental Study Group (ESG) may be the perfect FLC for you!

ESG focuses on offering MIT’s core classes (GIRs), like chemistry, physics, math, biology, and the humanities, but in a small, hands-on environment that is much more active than your typical 200-person lecture.

“It entirely changes the way that people are learning the material,” ESG Associate Director Graham Gordon Ramsay said. “It’s not passive at all, and in this way, we get to discover who the students are, what their learning styles are, and what their passions are.”

Because of the small class sizes in ESG, teaching becomes much more personalized. If a class is having trouble with a concept, more time can be taken and more examples can be given to help, and vice versa. Classes can breeze past through material that everyone seems to understand.

This hands-on class approach allows for more back-and-forth between the students and the professors, which means ESG students get used to asking questions and clarifying concepts.

“What we discover is that our students tend to perform much better in future MIT classes, in terms of levels of self-confidence, their ability to ask questions, and their ability to be proactive and go after the information that they’re missing and need to know,” Ramsay said.

ESG is a community in and out of the classroom, and their space features classrooms as well as study spaces with bean bag chairs, where students can be found doing p-sets at all hours of the night. Ramsay says he hopes students leave ESG as lifelong learners.

“We try and encourage people to think about learning as not something that’s sectioned off into a classroom. We’re trying to encourage people to recognize that life and learning are not things that you have to tease out and put in separate boxes.”


Some first-year students come to a tech school like MIT and are worried that the won’t be able to focus on the humanities. Of course all students have to take humanities classes at the Institute, but for first-year students that want to go a bit further, Concourse is a great fit.

Concourse is focused on giving students an integrated academic approach. So students take GIRs with Concourse professors, but they also take classes about Western philosophy to help shape their understanding of human motivation and the intersection of science and art, philosophy, and literature.

This course structure makes for a class load of subjects that not only teaches students the concrete theories of science, but also asks further questions about human nature in relation to scientific discoveries in general.

“A lot of students who’ve loved [Concourse] over the years have described it as a liberal arts school inside of MIT. So you still get to get your technical education while enjoying that love of learning about humanity that comes from something other than science,” Concourse Program Administrator Paula Cogliano said.

Concourse’s interdisciplinary approach is taught through small, intimate classes with no more than 20 students, and works with a team advising approach, where Concourse students are free to talk with any advisor about questions they may have.

“Having the team advising approach, with all of the instructors and faculty available and hanging around in the lounge each day really does just create this space where people come to talk about different ideas together,” Cogliano said.