Climate Education’s Relationship to Public Interest Technology at MIT and Beyond: an interview with Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

Scientists and technological innovators should pause at the early stages of technology and product incubation to question: What problem are we attempting to solve? Could we go deeper to the underlying cause of this problem?

Climate Education’s Relationship to Public Interest Technology at MIT and Beyond: an interview with Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

Question 1: What technologies are you working with, or have you worked with?

My work at MIT and beyond involves attempting to better understand, assess, and expand different aspects of climate education, with a focus on climate and environmental justice. In teaching projects, I engage with a number of different open source online tools that help students explore, identify, visualize and potentially address climate and environmental issues that inequitably affect people across different social identities like race, gender, class, and global location. These include a mix of Geographic Information System (GIS) tools such as ArcGIS, ArcGIS Story Maps, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s free mapping tool EJScreen. I also attempt to use other data sets, data visualizations and digital resources such EJAtlas, BU’s Visualizing Energy resource, and the CDC’s Environmental Justice Dashboard, to name a few. 

I also recently launched an open-source educational resource called the Climate Justice Instructional Toolkit. This Toolkit houses a wide-range of climate justice adaptable teaching modules, a starter guide for teaching climate justice, and other resources that can serve as supportive tools to enhance professor and instructor teaching content and approaches across MIT, and beyond. 

Question 2: How do you take account of MIT’s obligation to pursue the public interest in the work that you do? 

Scholars and leaders across fields, disciplinary expertises, and institutional contexts have argued that climate change represents the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. This is evident in MIT’s recent launch of The Climate Project, which aims to position MIT as “one of the world’s most prolific and collaborative sources of technological, behavioral, and policy solutions for the global climate challenge.” With the Climate Project in context, MIT has an obligation to apply technological innovation of all kinds to the varied underlying issues that cause climate change and environmental degradation both locally, and around the world. What is more, one of the missions of The Climate Project is titled: Empowering Frontline Communities. From the lens of this mission, it is critical that technologies are co-designed with communities in democratic ways, created with the users in mind, and are ideally in open source formats when possible. It may also be important to rethink what technology is, and to build off of innovative technologies that communities have already created with collaborative and participative methodologies. 

In line with the Empowering Frontline Communities mission, I also believe it is of critical importance to focus on educational technologies that can help expand climate and environmental justice education across higher education and K-12 spaces. Research shows that this content knowledge is not fully included within environmental and sustainability degree programs. As such, I believe I have an obligation to continue generating educational tools that include the content knowledge, voices, and experiences of those who are most impacted by climate change. 

In future projects, I am hoping to partner with community organizations or explore issues that directly impact communities most impacted by environmental and climate dilemmas, especially those relevant to MIT’s focus on science and technology. For example, in a new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I am designing entitled: Science, Technology and Environmental Justice, Bianca Bowman, The Climate Justice Manager from GreenRoots (a local EJ organization in Chelsea, MA) will be providing a lecture to help provide context of the unique socio-environmental challenges and solutions their organization experiences. In addition, I am working on a project with the Social & Ethical Responsibilities of Computing Scholars (SERC) Program to create a SERC Case Study on the life cycle of electronic hardware through the lens of climate justice. In this case study, we hope to illuminate the impact of mining, hardware manufacturing and hardware disposal (e-waste), on different communities across the global south.  

Question 3: What more could you and others do to help MIT team meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology?

There are many ways that MIT could work to meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology, especially in relation to climate change and climate justice as described above. Three come to mind right now. First, critical thinking in relation to why and how we create technologies for understanding and addressing climate change is of vital importance. Understanding that climate change is actually a symptom of socio-cultural issues is needed when centering technocratic solutions that may only address symptoms and not the root cause. Scientists and technological innovators should pause at the early stages of technology and product incubation to question: What problem are we attempting to solve? Could we go deeper to the underlying cause of this problem? 

Secondly, new technologies should be created with both quantitative and qualitative data in mind. Although quantitative data is critical to make arguments and understand larger sample sizes, many technologies (such as some GIS tools) do not include qualitative data that encapsulate community members' unique and nuanced opinions, experiences and stories. This kind of data is critical when engaging in participative or collaborative strategies for technological innovation with and for communities. For example, students in my environmental justice class while discussing the pros and cons of the tool EJScreen, commented that although the tool is extremely helpful to visualize geographic and demographic data, it is not helpful in understanding how communities are impacted at the qualitative level.

Finally, MIT is uniquely positioned to participate in much-needed changes in the world of hardware electronics with its large focus on computing. There are devastating impacts to the environment due to creating digital hardware from the mining of minerals, manufacturing, and disposal (commonly referred to as e-waste). Many of these issues are primarily felt in the Global South. MIT could become a leader in the promotion and creation of new design protocols and systems that seek to create modular, replaceable, and or repairable electronic devices. As awareness continues to grow in this space, I hope to do more work on better understanding how climate education can be integrated within and across computing courses and disciplines. 

Chris Rabe is a Postdoctoral Associate in Environmental and Sustainability Education at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, where his main area of research focuses on better understanding and expanding climate justice and sustainability education at MIT and beyond. Chris is also interested in exploring environmental education and community engagement that centers inclusive and anti-racist practices and supports students who experience challenging emotions in relation to the climate crisis. 

In addition, Chris helps advance the varied goals of ESI’s education program by supporting faculty, advising students in the Environmental and Sustainability Minor, building curriculum, co-teaching courses, and conducting research on educational practices. Current examples of this include leading the Climate Environment and Sustainability Infusion Fellowship (CESIF), developing and promoting The Climate Justice Instructional Toolkit, and conducting a cross-disciplinary study on climate justice teaching and learning experiences at MIT. Chris also serves as an affiliate postdoc in the Social and Ethical Responsibility in Computing project, where he leads a reading group that is exploring the intersection of climate justice and computing.  

Prior to joining MIT, Chris spent 15 years as a composition instructor for immigrant and international students in a variety of educational contexts. He holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education and a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, both from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Chris enjoys spending his free time roaming parks and bike paths near his home in Dorchester, MA with his son, Tiago and wife, Lorena.