Climate justice teach in focuses on environmental decline

Students wrote messages to trees on campus as part of the “Thank-A-Tree” project during the climate teach in that occurred during Earth Week. (Photo by Julia Sarcinelli)

About 20 classes participated in a teach in during Earth Week, April 18-22, which focused on climate change and climate justice, according to Physics and Earth Sciences Chair Vandana Singh.

Professors incorporated aspects of climate change and climate justice into their curriculum.

Singh said she organized the teach in along with Larry McKenna, professor of physics, earth and environmental sciences and Kevin Surprise, geography professor. They are also the faculty coordinators for the new Center for Climate Change Education.

The center was approved last semester, she said, and over the next two years the staff will “do the ground work” of researching how many people on campus and locally know about climate change.

The staff is comprised of unpaid volunteers.

Singh said they have “ambitious plans,” and decided to undertake the climate justice teach in after the Black Lives Matter teach in, which was held Feb. 22-26.

“It occurred to us, as a result of that teach in – which, as you know, was really successful – that perhaps we could do a kind of pilot, mini-teach in for climate,” she said.

Singh participated in the Black Lives Matter teach in and spoke about climate justice in her Principles of Physics II class.

“We thought of doing a little short-term climate teach in, where we wouldn’t expect a lot of people – because teach ins take a long time to plan – but where we would do a kind of pilot teach in to see how it goes, and also to get a sense to see how many people are already talking about climate change on this campus,” she added.

Shannon Custodio, a junior, said, “I hope Framingham does a teach in on climate change next year because I’m really interested in learning about it because I feel like I’m not as educated about it as I should be.”

Paolo Bon Tempo, intern for the Center for Climate Change Education, said, “The preliminary meetings were just a few teachers that came in and sat and had a sort of roundtable discussion and talked about the ways in which they teach climate change in their classrooms.”

Megan Peterson, a junior and teacher’s assistant for sociology Professor Virgina Rutter’s Sociological Theory class, taught a lesson for the teach in.

Peterson said the class watched a video of a tribe in India which was defending their land against big companies and the government that wished to exploit it. After, they discussed the two sides in small groups.

When Peterson was planning what the class was going to discuss for the teach in, she said she realized how little she knew about climate change and climate justice.

“I realized that I didn’t fully understand how pressing of an issue it was and I think that bringing it into the classroom instead of just hearing about it on the news makes it more personal. It makes you interact with the concept of it more, and hopefully, maybe continue to think about it outside of the classroom,” she added.

Peterson said the students connected on an emotional level with the story of the tribe more than they would have if they heard a scientist or politician talk about it.

“They enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t just a lecture, like, ‘These are the facts about climate change.’ It was, ‘Here’s a perspective that you normally wouldn’t see. Here’s people that are actually dealing with it.’” she said.

She added looking at the issue from a social perspective was more interesting, and she hopes to work with the subject more in the fall.

McKenna said, “The teach in was exactly what the center was supposed to do. Bring people together from disparate backgrounds and talk about the same idea from different perspectives.”

According to McKenna, the chemistry department hosted a panel discussion about sustainability that included business, economics, geography and other science department faculty members.

“I learned a tremendous amount from listening to my colleagues talk about the things that I talk about in class all the time from perspectives I didn’t even know existed,” said McKenna.

He explained the center is still being set up and staff are trying to garner external funding for a “Climate Fellow” – someone who would have the sole job of actively organizing people and bringing them to a common “think space.”

“Without that active organizing, people will never break out of their little silos and come together,” said McKenna.

He called climate change “probably the most pressing ethical dilemma of our time,” adding that, sometimes, people need to take action into their own hands.

Kim Parsons, a senior, said, “Getting involved in all different aspects of maintaining being green is important.”

Singh said because of the impending environmental collapse, there has to be a switch to renewable and cleaner energies faster than most believe. She said this could be done democratically by letting people vote and determine new initiatives – or by the government enforcing changes without the people’s input which could worsen existing social inequalities.

Singh added creating change through a democratic process would put the power in the people’s hands, which she says will increase the number of jobs and lower social inequality.

“We really need to raise awareness and we need the help. This is not something that scientists can do alone. We really need scientists and technologists, true, but I think more than anything, we need sociologists, psychologists, people in literature, people in the arts – we need everybody to be a climate activist,” she added.

McKenna said his students “are so sick of climate change. I’ve spent the entire semester making them depressed, and they’re all now so depressed that they just don’t want to do anything anymore. So next week, what we’ll do – the last week of class – is I’ll slowly start showing them how easy it is to do things – right now, today – that can slow this down.”

McKenna said he will give his students options to reduce their carbon footprints, such as eating less meat, carpooling and using cold water when they wash their clothes.

Surprise said his students, like McKenna’s, are concerned about climate change. In his World Regional Geography class, he saw a range of reactions to the teach in. 

He said there were students who found learning about climate change “a bit jarring.” Others seemed frustrated, and some believed the problem “is so big and still so distant that it’s like, ‘You know, I get it. But what do you want me to do?’”

Surprise’s World Regional Geography class watched a video and debated what responsibilities American consumers have in controlling climate change in connection with the struggles of the island peoples in the south Pacific who face displacement due to rising sea levels.

“They see it not only as a relocation, but a loss of their entire culture,” explained Surprise.

After the teach in, there were two follow-up meetings for faculty to discuss its outcome, according to Surprise.

He said studio art Professor Tim McDonald discussed his students’ reactions of wanting “to kind of skip over the whole, ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die’ and the guilt phase of thinking about climate change, and move toward actually being constructive.”

He added given the short notice for the teach in, he believes “it went really well. … We’d like to scale it up and make sure we have buy-in and participation from every department because climate change is an issue that can be studied from so many different angles and every discipline. Every department – and really every professor – has a unique way to contribute to this, discussing it, debating it, preparing students for tackling it.”

Mary Saffioti, a junior, said, “I think that every department should talk about it. No matter what, it’s an important issue in our world and in this country so it’s important to take a couple minutes out of your class time and address it.”

Bon Tempo said the teach in went well despite the time constraint, but “because of that I don’t think we were able to really advertise it as well and let people know about it. For what it was, I think it was a very good start and in the future I’d like to see more participation. We can definitely do that with a little more work.”

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