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Biology students participate in MIT
research project on climate adaptation

Dec. 17, 2013

Katie Blizzard of MIT leads a group of CCRI students Katie Blizzard of MIT leads a group of CCRI students in a climate adaptation workshop in which students played the roles of community leaders and city officials dealing with a flooding situation.

Students in Dr. Alfred Craig’s Biology in the Modern World class recently were put face to face with the worst-case scenario – figuratively speaking, anyway. They were afforded the opportunity to participate in a climate adaptation workshop with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the City of Cranston and the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve as part of the New England Climate Adaptation Project.

Led by MIT graduate student and project research assistant Toral Patel, the workshop was a 90-minute role-playing exercise in which students had to put themselves in the shoes of community leaders and key city officials of a fictional city operating in a time of natural disaster, such as flooding.

In this world – one that local residents will remember is not too farfetched at all, given the devastating floods of 2010 – participants are charged with navigating complicated issues and conflicting interests. Each participant receives instructions to play a role representing particular interests – for instance, the city planner, the chamber of commerce or a local nonprofit organization.

“As the next generation of leaders, it’s important that students are engaged in this kind of issue,” said Patel, who is only one of several researchers leading these workshops in Cranston as well as other towns in New England. “The student population makes for a really wonderful participant group because they’re open to this kind of discussion. They’re not couched in professional obligations, and they can get into the roles really easily.”

Craig concurred with Patel, saying that the student response to the exercise was favorable. “They’re learning about things that they might have to deal with once they leave school and become tax-paying citizens. Their homes may be threatened,” he added, saying that the workshop was easily accessible for his students, all non-majors in the field of biology.

In addition to the insight gained from their own participation, the CCRI students that took part in the workshop are now part of data that the project is collecting for its two-year research initiative. Patel explained that in the first year of the project, the researchers conducted extensive interviews with community leaders and key stakeholders in four New England cities and towns, developing the role-play simulations based on local risk assessment data. Each game the group developed was made relevant to a specific geographic area.

The workshop held at the college was the sixth such exercise in the Cranston area, Patel said, putting the students in company with a wide range of participants that includes teachers, environmental planners, engineers, developers, lawyers and state-level officials, among others. Ultimately, Patel said the data analysis from the project will be made public in the hopes that the general public – along with state and local officials – can see the ways in which they can have an impact in local communities struggling to deal with the effects of climate change. Hopefully, she said, communities that engage in these types of role playing exercises will be able to gather momentum to enact policy changes. The MIT group is working to see if the data from these workshops support that.

“One of the lessons we’re trying to get across is that it’s good to walk in someone else’s shoes, to try to empathize with their values and interests. Climate change discussions are often stalled by an inability to see the issue from another side,” she said.


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