Tai DaCosta last spring traveled to New Orleans, where he heard firsthand the heartbreaking stories of people affected by Hurricane Katrina.

“Their stories were very touching and left a huge imprint on me,” he says. “I learned a lot more than I bargained for.”

DaCosta was one of 15 MIT students who recently participated in CityScope, a new one-semester, undergraduate course that focuses on cities at risk. The cities’ problems result from natural disasters, like hurricanes or earthquakes, or from other disasters, such as urban renewal failures. The class, offered by the School of Architecture and Planning, gives students the opportunity to develop computation, calculation, and analytic techniques for identifying major urban problems. The course also includes a trip to work in a troubled city. Some at-risk cities include Detroit, St. Louis, Mexico City, San Diego, and Johannesburg.

“All we learned in New Orleans was much better than just sitting in a classroom. I mean, what we learned in a day, we wouldn’t have learned all semester,” he says.

“It’s not until you actually go to another city, talk to people, and hear what they actually went through, do you realize, ‘Oh, man, what I am proposing may look good on paper, but in real life, there is no way it could work.’ If you’re just in a classroom, you miss all the nuances, which are so important.”

DaCosta, who was raised in Jamaica, says he felt saddened that in one of the poorest areas of the city two years after Katrina, “literally the only thing that’s been done is part of the rubble has been cleared. There are still falling-down houses that I couldn’t even go into because it was too dangerous. You hear about all the recovery work of the federal agencies, but it’s shocking that there’s still so much work left to be done.”

DaCosta says the hands-on nature of the course opened his eyes to poverty in the U.S.

“People definitely need a broad education where they aren’t taught strictly from a book. I believe if people saw true poverty firsthand, we wouldn’t have the level of poverty we do in the world,” says this young man, who plans to launch an architecture and engineering firm that focuses on sustainable development and designs low-income housing.

“If you actually go into a community and see a child who hasn’t eaten in two days, and who is so thirsty they are willing to drink dirty rainwater, unless your heart is made of stone, you will do something to help.”