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Envisioning education in a climate-changed world

Symposium asserts a role for higher education in preparing every graduate to meet global challenges with courage.
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Four adults sit in red armchairs beside a podium bearing a sign that reads, MIT Symposium for Advancing Climate Education, April 2023, in front of a seated audience
A panel discussion on structural change in higher education was moderated by MIT’s John Fernández (left), with leaders from Harvard, Duke, and Brown universities.
Photo: Tony Rinaldo
Four women sit in red armchairs beside a podium and in front of a projection screen, three attentive to the fourth at center. She is wearing a gold blazer and speaking to the seated audience with her open hands facing upward.
“Growing up, I definitely thought that if I wanted to work in the climate space, I needed to be a scientist,” said Alexis Washburn (center), a regional director at Emerald Cities Collective, during a career panel.
Photo: Tony Rinaldo
Mariama White-Hammond gestures emphatically while standing behind a lecturn signed "MIT Symposium for Advancing Climate Education April 2023"
“Climate action is a socio-spiritual crisis,” said Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, that must be addressed at the level of systems and relationships.
Photo: Tony Rinaldo
A conference space is filled with attendees seated around tables of seven or eight, and in the foreground, in focus, Siri Colom smiles and gestures with hands outstretched. Printed papers, pens, and a laptop are on the table.
Siri Colom, an urban sociologist at Worcester State University, discusses innovations in teaching and learning.
Photo: Tony Rinaldo

What must colleges and universities do differently to help students develop the skills, capacities, and perspectives they’ll need to live, lead, and thrive in a world being remade by the accelerating climate crisis?

That question was at the heart of a recent convening on MIT’s campus that brought together faculty and staff from more than 30 institutions of higher education. Over two days, attendees delved into the need for higher education to align structurally and philosophically with the changing demands of the coming decades.

“We all know that there is more to do to educate and to empower today's students, the young people who rightly feel the threat of climate change most acutely,” said MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “They are our future leaders, the generation that will inherit the full weight of the problem and the responsibility for trying to solve it.”

The MIT Symposium for Advancing Climate Education, held on April 6 and 7, was hosted by MIT’s Climate Education Working Group, one of three working groups established under the Institute’s ambitious Fast Forward climate action plan. The Climate Education Working Group is tasked with finding ways to strengthen climate- and sustainability-related education at the Institute, from curricular offerings to experiential learning opportunities and beyond.

“We began working as a group about a year ago, and we quickly realized it would be important to expand the conversation across MIT and to colleagues at other institutions who … are thinking broadly,” says Professor David McGee, co-chair of the Climate Education Working Group.

Co-chair Professor David Hsu encouraged attendees to build lasting relationships, adding, “There is a true wealth of knowledge spread throughout the room. Every university has pieces of the puzzle, but I don’t think we can point to a single one that right now exemplifies all of what we want to achieve.”

The symposium featured keynotes by Nobles; Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society; and Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, founder of the New Roots AME Church in Dorchester, who is also chief of environment, energy, and open space for the City of Boston.

On the first morning of the event, participants engaged in roundtable discussions, exchanging ideas, successes, and pain points. They also identified and read out close to a dozen unsolved challenges, among them: “How do we meet the fear and anger that students are feeling, and the desire to ‘do’ that students are expressing?” “How do we support people who challenge the status quo?” “As we create these new educational experiences, how do we ensure that a diversity of students can participate in them?” “How do we align tenure and power structures to center communities in the development of this work?” and “How radical a change is MIT willing to make?”

Kate Trimble, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning, remarked on the thorniness of those questions in closing, wryly adding, “We’ll answer every last one of them before we leave here tomorrow.”

But in sharing best practices and lessons learned, the tone was overwhelmingly hopeful. Trimble, for example, led a series of discussions highlighting 10 climate education programs already developed at MIT, the University of California at Davis, the University of Michigan, Swarthmore College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and McGill University, among others. Each offered new models by which to weave climate justice, community partnerships, and cross-disciplinary teaching into classroom-based and experiential learning.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, opened the symposium on the second day. Invoking the words of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres upon publication of the IPCC’s sixth synthesis report last month, she said, “the global response needs to be ‘everything, everywhere, all at once.’”

She pointed to a number of MIT research initiatives that are structured to address complex problems, among them the Climate Grand Challenges projects — the proposals for which came from researchers across 90 percent of MIT departments — as well as the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium and the MIT Energy Initiative’s Future Energy Systems Center.

“These initiatives recognize that no sector, let alone any single institution, can be effective on its own — and so they seek to engage from the outset with other research institutions and with government, industry, and civil society,” Zuber said.

Cobb, of Brown University, also spoke about the value of sustained action partnerships built on transdisciplinary research and collaborations with community leaders. She highlighted Brown’s participation in the Breathe Providence project and Georgia Tech’s involvement in the Smart Sea Level Sensors project in Savannah.

Several speakers noted the importance of hands-on learning opportunities for students as a training ground for tackling complex challenges at scale. Students should learn how to build a respectfully collaborative team and how to connect with communities to understand the true nature and constraints of the problem, they said.

Engineering professor Anne White, who is co-chair of the MIT Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with implementing the Fast Forward plan, and MIT’s associate provost and associate vice president for research administration, moderated a career panel spanning nonprofit and corporate roles.

The panelists’ experiences emphasized that in a world where no sector will be untouched by the impacts of climate change, every graduate in every field must be informed and ready to engage.

“Education is training; it’s skills. We want the students to be smart. But what I’m hearing is that it’s not just that,” White reflected. “It’s these other qualities, right? It’s can they be brave … and can they be kind?”

“Every job is a climate job in this era,” declared MIT graduate student Dyanna Jaye, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

John Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative at MIT, moderated a panel on structural change in higher education, speaking with Jim Stock, vice provost for climate and sustainability at Harvard University; Toddi Steelman, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University; and Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability at Brown.

Steelman (who is also a qualified wildland firefighter — a useful skill for a dean, she noted) described a popular course at Duke called “Let’s Talk About Climate Change” that is jointly taught by a biogeochemist and a theologian. The course enrolled around 150 students in the fall who met for contemplative breakout discussions. “Unless we talk about our hearts and our minds,” she said, “we’re not going to make progress.”

White-Hammond highlighted one trait she believes today’s students already have in abundance.

“They’re willing to say that the status quo is unacceptable, and that is an important part of being courageous in the face of this climate crisis,” she said. She urged institutions to take that cue.

“If we have to remake the world, rebuild it on something radically different. Why would we bake in racial injustice again? Why would we say, let’s have an equally unequal economic system that just doesn’t burn as many fossil fuels? I think we have an opportunity to go big.”

“That,” she added, “is the work I believe higher education should be taking on, and not from an ivory tower, but rooted in real communities.”

The MIT Symposium for Advancing Climate Education was part of Earth Month at MIT, a series of climate and sustainability events on campus in April.

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