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maria A. cassidy
Terrascope students follow farmers of the Hallusarige Village in India through uncultivated land as part of their field work.
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Spring break is always a highly anticipated time, and this year’s break could not have had a better start: record-high temperatures and beautiful sunny weather. But like any break from classes, spring break is tragically ephemeral, and like any weather system in New England, the spring weather is not here to stay. So why not live vicariously through various MIT courses and student groups who used the week off as an opportunity for fieldwork and service projects? The Tech profiled seven MIT students representing five MIT groups that traveled off campus over spring break.

Architecture Studio — Galápagos, Ecuador

Emily W. Lo G and Yushiro Okamoto G traveled with their architecture studio group to Puerto Ayora in Galápagos, Ecuador. Their trip was part of a larger collaboration between MIT and the Universidad Tecnológica Equinoccial (UTE) to look into urban development issues for a growing population. The studio students’ projects focused on the city, so they used their five days in the field to survey how buildings were being constructed and to interact with locals and public officials.

Students also used the trip as an opportunity to reorient their projects for the course. Before the trip, Okamoto was interested in the edge condition between urban and natural parks, but he has changed his focus to the internal city. Lo was researching developing housing on the water and renewable energy generation, but is now thinking of pulling her project into the city as well. Their research prior to the trip had been based on information from the Internet, so the excursion was valuable to their understanding of the community in a real-world sense. They learned that the terrain was hillier than they expected and observed that people were constructing buildings incrementally — for example, a family would move into their house after building one floor — which resulted in wasted space and open lots.

Okamoto’s biggest takeaway from the trip was how different the lifestyle was in the Galápagos, in the sense that animals were, in a way, superior to people, since the society was based on wildlife preservation. Lo said that she got “a glimpse of some of the issues about how people are impacting nature and their environment.”

TDC — Camp Sunshine

MIT’s chapter of Theta Delta Chi (TDC) participated in the FSILG&D Community Service Challenge and went to Maine to volunteer at Camp Sunshine, which supports children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. TDC’s philanthropy chair, Eric Hernandez ’13, heard about the camp from the TDC chef, who had volunteered at the camp before and enjoyed the experience.

Prior to the trip, Hernandez had thought it would be depressing to volunteer at the camp and interact with children who had such serious illnesses, but he says the experience was actually inspiring. During the four-day camp, Hernandez was a counselor for the teen group. He said it was challenging to work with kids close to his own age, since it was harder for them to take him seriously. But he also felt that because he was close to their age, he had an easier time relating to them and their experiences — and in the end, Hernandez felt he earned their respect.

The camp also pushed Hernandez outside his comfort zone. Naturally a calm and reserved person, Hernandez found himself doing a song and dance performance with the other TDC volunteers and cheering loudly to motivate the campers. He found it rewarding to inspire kids and is excited that he was able to motivate his fraternity brothers to participate in a community service project.

Habitat for Humanity — Alabama

Habitat for Humanity went to Birmingham, Ala., where the group spent four days building houses. The MIT volunteers joined with a group from Ohio State to form a coalition of 50 volunteers, split amongst four houses. The teams were supported by construction professionals who guided the students and taught them construction skills along the way.

MIT trip leader Christine S. Lai ’13 had participated in Habitat Build Days in Massachusetts and went on their spring break trip last year, but this was her first time acting as the trip leader. Through her previous experience, she knew that the goal of the trip was not only building, but also connecting with the local community and other volunteers. As the trip leader, she led daily reflections and activities to promote team bonding. The trip was Lai’s second visit to the South — her first was last year’s Habitat trip to Tennessee.

Alternative Spring Break — New Orleans

Julia K. Jaskolska ’13 and Janet D. Lin ’13 traveled to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans with the MIT student group Alternative Spring Break (ASB). The group participated in a Historic Green project to restore a playground. It was both Lin and Jaskolska’s first time working with building tools, and it was challenging to learn everything quickly without making mistakes. The group worked on the playground daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and explored the city during their free time in the evening.

But Jaskolska’s experience over spring break has made her rethink the idea of going green. “The entire four days of restoration work that we did this year has to be repeated every single year in order to seal the playground with a green, non-toxic sealer. Had a conventional (non-green) sealer been used, the work could have been done once every 15–20 years instead of every year,” Jaskolska said. “I realized that going green is not the most optimal solution in every situation, and that it should always be preceded by a thorough cost-benefit analysis.”

Lin didn’t expect such a positive experience in New Orleans; he found the community there to be very friendly and kind. “The ASB trip was a great way to spend spring break. I came out of New Orleans having made a positive impact on the community, met new people with interesting stories, and experienced all the city has to offer,” Lin said.

Terrascope — India

This spring break, Terrascope, an MIT program for first-year students, traveled to India to do fieldwork for two spring courses — SP.360 (Terrascope Radio) and 1.016 (Design for Complex Environmental Issues: Building Solutions and Communicating Ideas). This year’s theme challenged students to design a plan to produce and distribute food to feed the planet for the next century in a sustainable way. During the fall, students researched and proposed solutions for improving food security, and they tested their proposals over spring break. Maria A. Cassidy ’14, who is enrolled in both courses, found that many of the solutions the class devised were actually being applied, like food co-ops and education initiatives.

Cassidy was involved with interviewing village community members about their roles on their farms for the final project in SP.360. Despite the many translators, there was still a language barrier that made communication difficult. The students were also very conscious of cultural differences and took care to not be unintentionally offensive.

For 1.016, Cassidy’s team is designing a passive crop dryer, which would help farmers add value to their crop — for example, dried banana chips sell for a higher market price than non-dried banana. After their trip to India, the group is back to the drawing board because they learned they were designing a product for a market that doesn’t exist.

The group was delayed on their way back to Boston and spent three extra days in a hotel in Mumbai. They were fortunate that some Terrascope students had family in Mumbai to help them get a hotel relatively quickly. “There was a slum outside our hotel room windows, 100 feet away. The view was the ultimate reminder of how many different faces food insecurity could take and how many different lifestyles play into solving global problems,” Cassidy said.

For Cassidy, the biggest highlight of the trip was seeing the children and the resiliency of the farmers, who “want so much for their kids.”