Real-Time Poll Questions Help Students Engage with Issues

Students listen to presenters at the Climate Change Teach-In Image by Ed Brennen
More than 300 students learned how communities can make an impact at the 2017 David Lustick Climate Change Teach-In at Cumnock Hall.

By Ed Brennen

A lot of students were on their phones texting during the 2017 David Lustick Climate Change Teach-In at Cumnock Hall.

Which is exactly what organizers wanted.

This year’s teach-in, “Building Communities for Climate Action,” added an interactive element where audience members could vote in periodic polls on climate projections.

For instance, Boston’s Commissioner of the Environment Carl Spector told students that the city hit 90 degrees or higher an average of 11 times each year in the 1990s. He asked students to guess how many such days there would be in the 2070s.

As students texted one of six choices, a real-time bar graph of their votes fluctuated on a screen behind Spector.

Juliette Rooney-Varga sits with speakers Vanessa Rule and Carl Spector Image by Ed Brennen
CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga, center, sits with Climate Change Teach-In speakers Vanessa Rule and Carl Spector.

“The answer is 25 to 90 days,” said Spector, who explained that the wide projection range is due, in part, to the uncertainty of future greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s affected by how we, as a global community, are going to behave.”

Sophomore exercise physiology major Connie Couture was among the more than 300 students who attended the teach-in. The South Hadley native said the interactive element helped bring the information to life.

“It was good to get everyone involved,” said Couture, who was particularly struck by a poll question on the projected sea level rise in Boston in the next 80 years (spoiler alert: it’s between 2.5 and 7.5 feet).

“That was really shocking and scary,” Couture said.

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney speaks at the Climate Change Teach-In Image by Ed Brennen
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney talks about the university's commitment to achieving carbon neutrality at the Climate Change Teach-In.

Now in its eighth year, the Climate Change Teach-In is named in memory of Assoc. Prof. David Lustick, who died of cancer in 2016. Lustick was a founding member of the university’s Climate Change Initiative, which co-sponsors the event with the Office of Sustainability.

“I know David would be looking down on us today, doing the work that he felt so passionate about, and be so proud,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told the audience before thanking CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga and her team for their work.

“We have some of the most cutting-edge leaders in the world here on our campus directing our sustainability efforts,” Moloney said. “The work we are doing in sustainability education is making us a poster child to say that, yes, we can have an impact. And events like the Climate Change Teach-In are integral to that impact.”

A student takes a photo while Vanessa Rule speaks Image by Ed Brennen
A student takes a photo during Vanessa Rule's presentation at the Climate Change Teach-In.

Joining Spector as a keynote speaker was Vanessa Rule, co-founder of Mothers Out Front, a national organization that seeks to “mobilize the power of mothers” to ensure that politicians and decision-makers represent the interests of children when it comes to climate policy. Rule has worked at the grassroots level for more than a decade pushing for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“I think the speakers gave everyone a much better understanding of how citizens can work at the citywide and local level to keep moving America forward on climate change,” said junior biology major Sean Cloran, president of the Climate Change Coalition, one of several student groups that had information tables set up inside the Cumnock auditorium during the event.

Students also used their phones to take part in a simplified version of the World Climate Simulation, a role-playing exercise that teaches participants the complex dynamics of United Nations climate change negotiations. Rooney-Varga, who helped develop the simulation, divided the students into three groups (developed countries, rapidly developing countries and slowly developing countries) and had them vote on policies that would affect greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature change.

Carl Spector speaks with student Emma Hargraves after the teach-in Image by Ed Brennen
Boston’s Commissioner of the Environment Carl Spector speaks with student Emma Hargraves after the teach-in.

“It’s a privilege for us to have the opportunity to meet with so many students and talk in this way,” said Rooney-Varga, who thanked CCI Communications Coordinator Phyllis Procter for making the event a success.

Emma Hargraves, a senior English major and student liaison to the Office of Sustainability, agreed that it’s important for students of all majors to stay educated on climate change issues.

“I thought it was excellent,” she said. “It’s awesome that we’re a university that’s really taking the lead on climate change.”