The largest earthquake of the 20th century hit the southern coast of Chile in 1960, generating one of the most destructive tsunamis ever.

Recently, Rodrigo Zeledon and several classmates flew to Chile to develop an emergency response plan in case another tsunami should hit. The problem, he says, was enormously complex.

“We had to deal with scientists who wanted change, and governments that didn’t. Then there were budgetary constraints.

“Mangrove forests reduce the impact of a tsunami. But many people didn’t want mangroves on the beaches because they wanted the beaches for tourists. Other people didn’t want an unsightly tsunami wall on the coast.

“We learned as much from the scientists, students, professors, and people we met in Chile as they learned from us. The important thing was staying open to all points of view and not drawing conclusions too soon. We had to deal with so many personalities, avoid quarreling, and be productive. The hardest thing was to stay open and listen.”

Zeledon was one of 50 students who recently participated in Terrascope, a class for freshmen that focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex real-world problems — like reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; sustainable development of the Amazon Rainforest; or guaranteeing the survival of the Galapagos Islands.

Students enroll in the same subjects as other freshmen, but also participate in two special subjects: Mission 200X and Communicating Complex Environmental Issues. The two classes focus on the earth as a giant laboratory, teaching students to deal with urgent problems that have no easy solution. In the spring, students take a trip to work in the field firsthand.

Zeledon says: “Other classes are just about problem sets. This one is about real world issues, and it’s much more relevant. It definitely changed my way of thinking.

“When you’re doing problem sets in class you’re applying formulas to limited situations. When you deal with real-world issues, you realize there’s no such thing as a formula. There’s no one way to solve all problems. You must take everyone’s opinion into account and make the best compromise. Terrascope taught me to consider all those opinions, synthesize them, and create a plan to actually solve the problem.”