Climate Science and Action workshop

My previous post in this blog was on the idea to design teaching materials for viral climate education. I’m happy to report that this project turned out to be successful! The key to success was teaming up with the right people. I was lucky to have met Jan-Marcus Nasse, an environmental physicist and science communicator, who was independently thinking about a similar idea. Together we explored the topic of climate change science, politics and action and created 2.5 – 3 hours workshop materials including a 1.5 hours lecture with a discussion session as well as an hour long interactive role game World Climate developed by Climate Interactive. I dare to say that our materials are not only comprehensive and backed up by solid science, but also visually appealing, due to the contribution of Alberto Bailoni, who made our initially messy slides beautiful. Finally, we received feedback from our friends and colleagues, which helped us to further improve and clarify the content.

Here is the result:

This is the content of our workshop:


So far, we ran this workshop 3 times: at EMBL, University of Heidelberg, and LCOY conference and made a video of our lecture. We hope that anyone who is passionate about the topic and would like to educate their colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members can use our materials to do so.

A couple of concluding remarks concerning future work. First, from the discussion session we have learned that our lecture did not cover an important aspect people were interested in: economical consequences of climate change. This is an area where we have no expertise and would be happy to team up with a professional to extend the materials.

The second remark is related to the audience. Although we had fruitful and deep discussions and got lots of positive feedback from the audience, there is still one aspect where we failed. Initially we aimed at attracting sceptical people having doubts about climate change and its anthropogenic origins, so that we could answer their questions and evoke an open debate in a safe and comfortable space. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in it. There were almost no provocative or disagreeing comments/questions from the audience, which means that sceptics either did not attend the workshop or did not feel comfortable to speak up. The first option seems to be more likely.

There was a very different situation at the implicit bias workshop last year, where the discussion was quite heated and some of the audience reactions were clearly negative. My hypothesis is that the topic of gender bias and equality, quotas etc. bothers people much more, because it is now on the agenda of most of the research institutions, which implies certain policies concerning everyone. At the same time, despite the recent progress in public awareness, the topic of climate change remains rather marginal in our everyday life. If someone does not believe in it, then they have little motivation to explore and discuss it further. This situation might however quickly change, if institutions start introducing offsetting policies and other regulations.

In any case, a better strategy to invite climate sceptics to the debate is needed.


Viral climate education

When attending the Climate Neighbourhoods conference, I noticed that one of the most discussed questions was: How to raise awareness about climate change and motivate people to do climate action outside of the bubble of those already immersed into the topic? I hear the same question over and over again from my friends and colleagues.

There exist numerous educational videos on climate change and related issues, and these efforts are very valuable. However, only an already motivated person will spend time on watching the videos and educating themselves on climate science, climate action, politics around climate etc. But how to we reach people who are not yet engaged or sceptical about the issue?

There exist trainings for climate activists like, for example, the Climate Reality Project. However, such trainings require a serious committent and are aimed at people who plan to be actively involved in climate action on a long term.

How can we make it simple for people caring about environmental issues to share the climate facts with their colleagues, neighbours, family members? My suggestion is viral climate education. In every workspace and community, there is at least one person well informed and passionate about climate change. If we can equip this person with educational materials, they will be able to run a workshop or a discussion on climate issues.

This idea came to me after I learned about Valerie Aurora’s workshops on diversity and inclusion. Valerie has prepared brilliant teaching materials on the topic and freely shared them with the community, which allowed people to run similar workshops by themselves in their workspaces. My colleagues and I have had positive experience running it at our institution.

It’s crucial that such workshop provides a space for every participant to speak out, ask questions and express any kind of scepticism. Ideally, the workshop should be interactive and allow participants to work in groups, discuss, and actively engage themselves into exploring the topic.

I would include the following topics into a climate workshop: 1) climate science facts and forecasts, 2) impact of climate change on humans, 3) action for tackling climate change (on the levels of countries, institutions, and individuals), 4) climate action success stories.

Climate change games could be a perfect interactive component. For example, the role game World Climate Simulation looks like a good option. There are also online games focusing on climate change, e.g. Biodiversity and ecosystems or Drift. Developing a fun educational climate change game might be a good challenge for the Climathon we are organizing this year.

I’d be grateful for any feedback on this idea. Would you participate in creating education materials? Would you run such workshop if provided with the materials? Would you attend such workshop?

Climathon 2019 in Heidelberg

This year, I’m co-organizing a Climathon in Heidelberg. Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. On October 25th, 2019, there will be 24-hour climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators will gather together to tackle local climate challenges.

Climathon 2018 map

In preparation to a Climathon, cities identify their climate challenges. The main idea is that realistic and effective solutions developed by the Climathon participants are later implemented by the local partner organizations. Here are some success stories:

  • London: mobile air pollution sensor enabling better coverage over the city area (link)
  • Washington: picking up durable goods (e.g. furniture) and reselling for lower price (link)
  • Zurich:  an app for offering unwanted food to your neighbours (link)
  • Cork: a transport app that awards citizens discounts in local stores based on the carbon savings they make (link)
  • Manchester: sustainable drainage systems and community parkland architectural planning (link)

To set up climate challenges, we are currently communicating with local organizations including the Heidelberg Office of Environmental Protection, Trade Supervision and Energy, the Heidelberg Center for the Environment at the Heidelberg University, the Carbon Neutral group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, car sharing company Stadtmobil, Momentum Novum, Ökostadt Rhein-Neckar e. V., as well as other organizations and companies interested in the climate-related issues.

Climate challenge ideas we started discussing so far:

  • solutions for multiple-location conferences, with the goal of reducing flight CO2 emissions; run the same conference simultaneously at different locations
  • modelling and predicting car usage and CO2 emissions based on the data the local car sharing company Stadtmobil
  • connecting tree bloom to local microclimate and climate change dynamics
  • an educational climate change game
  • a sustainable behaviour campaign on the local campuses

I’ve already learned so much from these discussions. For example, that growing CO2 emissions in Heidelberg are mainly caused by overseas tourism. And which streets in Heidelberg are most dangerous for cyclists. And that there are repair cafés in the area. And what are the issues with the university campus traffic. And how waste separation is organized at EMBL. This list goes on and on and I’m looking forward to learning more.

Ally skills

Last week, Malvika Sharan, Sofya Mikhaleva and Paul Gerald Sanchez invited me to co-organize a session on ally skills as a part of the Women’s Day at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The concept of the ally skills training was originally developed by Valerie Aurora, a former Linux kernel developer. Valerie has designed extensive and well structured materials offering guidelines for learning and teaching how to step up and use our social advantages to support others in workplaces and communities. Here is Valerie’s talk on the topic.

Let me cite some of the definitions introduced by Valerie.

Privilege: an unearned advantage given to a person or a social group. Oppression: systemic, pervasive inequality present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege and harms those with fewer privileges. Target: someone who suffers from oppression. Ally: a member of a social group who enjoys some privilege and is working to understand their own privilege and end oppression.

Each of us can be a target or an ally depending on the context. For example, in the gender bias context I’m a target, whereas in the LGBTQ or racial context I’m privileged. Valerie is teaching how to recognize oppression and consciously act as an ally.

Most of the diversity and equality initiatives are aimed at changing the behaviour of targets (e.g. special scholarships, programs and mentioning for the under-represented social groups). Valerie points out that it’s efficient to focus on changing the behaviour of privileged people. Privileged people acting as allies have more power and influence as well as more time and energy as compared to targets. Moreover, they are not penalised for “diversity-valuing behaviour” and not accused of jealousy, but are rather seen as altruistic, giving, and kind.

Following these ideas, we set up an 1 hour ally skills session. After an introduction of the basic concepts, terminology, and motivation, we did a short empathy exercise. Everyone was asked to stand up, look around and think of something nice about any 3 people in the room. Then the main part of the session started.

The participants were split into 6 groups from 4 to 6 people each. Each group received two scenarios to discuss. Here’s an example scenario:

A woman you don’t know who is using a wheelchair is near your group at a conference. She is alone and looks like she would rather be talking to people.
What would you as an ally do?

Looks easy, right? Just invite her to join! But if we think deeper about it, questions arise. Does it make a difference that it’s a wheelchair user? Does it make a difference that it’s a woman? Can we even assume that it’s a woman without knowing the person? What is the best way to invite the person to join?

Before starting the discussion, the groups were asked to select a gatekeeper responsible for interrupting people who were speaking too much and asking people who weren’t talking as much if they wanted to speak. Our goal in this session was to simulate an ideal comfortable space for discussing most difficult topics with mutual respect so that every voice was heard. We suggested the participants to pay attention to the dynamics of the conversation and be mindful about it.

It often happens that targets feel uncomfortable speaking publicly. Although it’s totally fine to be an introvert and to have no need to share, nobody can represent people’s interests better than themselves. Therefore it’s important that every person has a chance to speak and be heard when they need it.

Since we had only 1 hour for the whole session, we could afford only 15 minutes for group discussions. This definitely proved to be not enough; the recommended time for an ally workshop is at least 3 hours. After the group discussions were over, each group briefly presented their solutions and we further discussed them all together. During this last part of the session organizers were giving further recommendations and pointing out interesting patterns. For example, in a few cases the groups were assuming that a protagonist of a scenario was a man, although the scenario was introduced in a gender-neutral way.

Overall, the participants were coming up with well thought out solutions and the atmosphere was very positive and productive. We hope that this experience will motivate them to act as allies in their work environments and communities.

Academic punk

Despite common stereotypes, punk subculture has much more to offer than aggressive music, spiked mohawks, and ripped clothing. While punk covers a spectrum of social and political ideologies, one of its cornerstones is non-conformism. Punk challenges social agreements and hierarchies and reminds us that no rule is holy. Rules and agreements have been made by people, are relative, and should be revisited and revised. In this sense, punk goes back to the anarchist philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. A proper punk performance is supposed to be illegal and provocative.

In authoritarian countries, punk action art is often used as one of the few available forms of political protest, e.g. the Pussy riot performance at 2018 FIFA World Cup Final. In the countries with more freedom of speech, illegal guerilla art can still be a powerful form of political and social expression, e.g. punk climate activism of Extinction Rebellion or installation of Snowden’s statue.

Following the punk footsteps, my friend Alberto Bailoni and I made a performance focusing on diversity and inclusion in academia. Many of you have probably seen the staff boards hanging in the university hallways. They usually look like this, especially in STEM:

Explicitly hierarchical, mostly white men as professors and group leaders, women as secretaries. The lower you go down the academic hierarchy, the more diversity appears. We believe that the reason for this situation is, among other things, the implicit bias (read my post on this topic).

To draw attention to the issue, Alberto and I entered some of the university buildings in the night and shuffled the pictures on the staff board aiming at introducing diversity in every academic group. We also left a QR code pointing to the implicit bias studies and test. This was the result:

As far as we know, the pictures were rearranged back the next day. But we hope to have caused a few discussions on the topic.

Non-conformism in academia

I’d like to start this conversation with a 4min video of interviews with my friends.

As I was mentioning in my post on diversity of perspectives, in the western academic system scientific findings and results are valued more if they lead to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research if they want to get funding. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable. It turns science into a race, a competition rather than a collaboration.

This situation might be perfect for competitive scientists, but I hear over and over again that many others are unhappy with it, because it adds lots of stress and destructs their focus. If publications, citations, and obtained funding are the metrics to evaluate scientific achievements, then we end up with the system that trains scientists to be good at publishing and securing funding rather than at doing research relevant for our planet and society.

New metrics have been proposed such as social media outreach or number of software downloads and the discussions go on and on (cf. 1, 2, 3, 4). These discussions are important, because the metrics are necessary for foundations distributing money and for employers hiring and promoting scientists.

However, changing metrics does not change the situation. If we, scientists, mostly care about looking good with respect to the metrics, then what we ultimately care about is our career and comfort. An alternative is as simple and natural as telling the truth — do not care about metrics. Any metrics. Let us leave it to those who are evaluating us: supervisors, foundations, communities.

If we stop thinking about metrics, we get a freedom to focus on important things. On why we are doing science in the first place. Publish only when the results are in a good shape and ready to be shared and not because someone can scoop us or because funders are demanding publications. Do not care which journal we publish in. Be happy instead of jealous when learning that someone has already solved the problem we’ve been working on. Collaborate only with people we like and respect rather than aim at having a publication or a project proposal with a ‘big shot’. Write honest project proposals and spend obtained funding on achieving the project goals rather than juggle with hot topics and keywords to get money at any cost and spend it on something else. Share all our code and data instead of sitting on it.

Of course, this honesty comes at a price:

  • you might not end up at the most prestigious institution, which means less resources of any kind
  • you might have less world class colleagues to work with
  • you might have difficulties obtaining funding
  • you might never get a stable position or get it only quite late in your career

To sum up, less resources, opportunities, and stability. But in return we can do science, be true to our values and focus on things that matter. From what I’ve seen throughout my academic career, there are two options to make it happen.

The first option is to adapt to the existing environment. Refuse to play the game where everyone plays it. This is pretty much what I’ve been doing so far. Choosing a non-competitive and non-pushy supervisor who is happy with the idea of a flat hierarchy. Not conforming to any manipulations. Leaving the group when realizing that it goes in the direction I don’t want to take. Although this approach requires confidence and determination, I neither had much difficulties nor felt disadvantaged.

The second option is to find a perfect environment or to create it. This is what I would like to do now and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to join Homeward Bound. Through the program, I hope to connect to like-minded people and start meaningful projects together.

In the following months, I’ll be working on a series of interviews with non-conformist scientists to offer role models to those who’s sick of playing the game, but doesn’t see any alternatives. If you have time to chat with me about this topic, please drop me a line.

Diversity of perspectives in STEM

Last week I was talking about computer science, implicit bias, and climate change to high school students of my friend Lisa Mason, a native Hawaiian STEM educator and scientist working on the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Lisa’s goal as a teacher is to decolonize STEM in her classroom and create authentic cultural spaces for learning. Lisa wants her students to develop their sense of place in Hawai’i and to feel empowered through science. She offers them numerous extracurricular activities applying what they learn in the classroom in authentic settings, e.g., native tree planting and forest restoration, watershed maintenance, hiking, fishpond studies. Watch Lisa talking about her vision.

The purpose of my talk, similar to most of my talks on the Big Island, was to inspire students to learn computer science and consider a STEM career. The problem of the low numbers of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders going into STEM-relevant careers is well known and discussed. However, it is mostly discussed in terms of barriers preventing students from succeeding in the academic environment. I invite you to look at it from a different point of view.

In the ‘western’ science, the main focus is on acquiring knowledge, at any cost. The acquired knowledge is valued even more if it leads to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable.

As I learned from my Hawaiian friends and university colleagues, for most Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, their local community is in the center of their value system. Science and knowledge are important as long as they give back to the community. While ecological thinking is relatively new in the western world, it has been deeply embedded into the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders cultures for centuries.

Hawaiian students willing to pursue an academic career might feel strongly conflicted. The requirement to market themselves contradicts Hawaiian values. They are doing science not to become famous and make a career, but to support the community. How is it important for the community if they are writing papers and giving presentations at conferences? The western scientific paradigm forces us to detach ourselves from any cultural and personal background to be objective, which contradicts Hawaiian identity. The western academic excellence system is built in a way that does not encourage a connection to a place. To be a successful scientists means, among other things, to work at a top institution. Local colleges and universities serve as filters for more prestigious places. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Berkeley — this is where everyone wants to end up. Being good at science and staying home, with a strong connection to your local community and environment, is considered to be a kind of downshifting. Watch my friend Misaki Takabayashi talking about these issues.

According to Misaki, academia currently fails to embrace true diversity, because it focuses on appearances rather than perspectives. Nowadays you can get into academia no matter your gender or skin color (of course it’s still not equally accessible to everyone), but you should leave your values and perspectives at home and adapt to the system. This is what I believe should change. Not only different approaches to knowledge, but also different values and perspectives can strongly benefit science especially with respect to making it serve our planet. Hawaiian and other indigenous values are not barriers for doing science. It’s western academia that surrounds itself with barriers.

I was trying to communicate to Lisa’s students that STEM and computer science can help them to care about their environment and communities. At the same time, their unique cultural and individual perspectives are very valuable for science and academia.

Watch my friends from around the world talking about diversity and sense of place.