Three questions on teaching environmental justice with Chris Rabe

ESI has a new team member: Chris Rabe, who is being brought on as a Postdoctoral Associate in Environmental and Sustainability Education. Chris is a longtime teacher with a doctorate in higher education, who will help us administer and refine our expanding programs in the MIT undergraduate curriculum—beginning with our new grants for faculty to infuse sustainability teaching into their classes, and more rigorous study of how students receive this learning.

To introduce Chris, we asked him three questions about teaching climate and sustainability at the college level.

What draws you to education as a lever for supporting climate and environmental solutions?

I have been an educator for my entire career.  For most of my career, I have taught English as a second language, and composition to immigrants and international students.  However, around 2010, I became personally interested in environmental issues, especially in relation to sustainable agriculture and food justice.  During the courses I taught, I began integrating environmental content and realized that it was resonating with my students. I believe sustainability, environmental, and climate justice content is culturally relevant among students from different racial, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, as it speaks to many different experiences around the world that deal with the intersections of environment and social justice.  I see this kind of education as a tool to find common ground across geographic and cultural borders and share our own unique experiences.  We need everyone from around the world engaged in the climate crisis to find realistic and context dependent solutions.

What kinds of content or approaches have you found to be effective for teachers creating environmental justice classes at the college level?

In my dissertation research, which sought to understand environmental justice instruction at the undergraduate level, the main finding was that all faculty participants espoused and implemented community engaged instruction in their courses. Different methods for community engaged teaching included: the invitation of guest speakers, site visits/collaborative projects with community organizations, and even participation in activist events. Students would often have to present, write essays, or develop useful material for local organizations as course deliverables.

When observing classes with community engaged instructional approaches, there was a noticeable increase in student engagement, and faculty were able to show clear examples of how student projects created impactful social change outside of the classroom.  This kind of instructional methodology allows for students to meaningfully experience how their learning can impact real world change through participation with local, or global community members.

What aspects of the student experience of environmental justice and sustainability lessons do you think it’s important to learn more about as you undertake your work at ESI?

Although I learned a lot about faculty instructional practices in environmental justice courses during my dissertation work, there is still very little work on student learning in relation to environmental and climate justice, and not much is known about student learning in activist and community engaged contexts.  Related to this, I am interested in understanding much more about how students develop climate justice literacy during coursework, the experience of climate activist student groups on campuses, and learning more about climate justice curriculum and teaching resources in general. I am also interested in learning about how faculty across disciplines can incorporate sustainability or climate justice instructional practices into their courses.