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Engagement Lab Leading Cross-College Collaboration to Battle Climate Change

The Emerson Engagement Lab is working with colleges and universities throughout the Boston area to energize students and communities around addressing climate change.

Faculty from Emerson, Harvard, Northeastern, MIT, Wheelock, and Boston Architectural College (BAC)—all members of the Boston Civic Media initiative run out of the Engagement Lab—are piloting a cross-campus curriculum this fall that will use classroom projects and partnerships with local nonprofits to come at the problem from various angles.

“We’re trying to move the conversation forward around civic media in…undergraduate education…by showing there is a very specific type of media practice…that is intended to bring people together on civic issues for the common good,” said Gabe Mugar, research associate at the Engagement Lab.

Depending on their area of expertise, faculty and their students will attack the problem from an academic, environmental justice, scientific, or data and research perspective.

At Emerson, Professor Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Lab, will teach a class on Games and Social Change as it pertains to climate. Assistant Professor Jon Honea will partner with the Mystic River Watershed Association for his course, Science in Translation, about interpreting and communication scientific information. BAC is teaching a course in design as a tool for social change; Northeastern is offering Climate Change and Society; and Harvard will present a lecture series, Arts for Global Health.

In the spring, Associate Professor Paul Mihailidis will teach Persistence in Civic Media Action, Associate Professor Wyatt Oswald will offer a course on Communicating Climate Change, and a faculty member from MIT will teach Data Storytelling.

“There are a variety of different lenses on issues, but I think we’re hoping to find some shared common ground,” said Assistant Professor of Journalism Catherine D’Ignazio, who will be participating through her data visualization course this semester.

The consortium is also hoping to get students at the undergraduate level thinking about climate change beyond the abstract, said Mugar.

Part of that will come from partnerships with nonprofits and non-governmental organizations that are already working on the ground to address the science and social ramifications of climate change. Mugar was charged with matching faculty who wanted a community partner.

Susan Jane, director of communications and the media literacy program at Wheelock College, learned last week that her Media as a Tool for Social Change class would work with LivableStreets Alliance, a Boston-based organization that advocates for more sustainable, equitable, and safe transportation options. Her students will help create a public information campaign for LivableStreets’ mission using civic media.

Jane admits she is no climate change expert, but because her students are interested in “making media for the common good,” and Wheelock’s mission is to improve the lives of families, the curriculum is right in her wheelhouse.

But beyond what her students will get from the class, the Boston Civic Media group has been invaluable in her professional development, Jane said. Wheelock is a small institution, and Jane is one of two people in her department, so it can be challenging to get new information.

“Every time I engage with a cohort, I learn a ton about what’s going on out there, and it really makes me feel more connected to what’s happening,” Jane said. “It shows me I’m not alone in this work.”

The focus this first year is building a strong stable of courses that does examine ways climate change can be addressed at the city level, but doesn’t overwhelm faculty who are already over-committed in many cases, D’Ignazio said.

Students are able to take courses at other institutions in the cross-campus curriculum if they’re so inclined, and they’ll interact with their counterparts at other schools through an end-of-semester showcase of work from across the consortium.

But if the program is successful, it could lead to a whole new level of engagement across the city.

“One of the things we aspire to if the pilot works out and we can keep the program going [is] we can really develop a shared laboratory,” D’Ignazio said. “What if a student could do a kind of climate change minor where they’re taking a bunch of classes at different institutions and can really embed themselves in the community?”






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