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  • Destenie Nock

Prisons and Climate Change: Culturally Relevant Teaching During a Pandemic

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

How are the demographics of the US prison population linked to climate change? In this post I will discuss how I am using my class at Carnegie Mellon University to produce socially responsible engineers. I will also highlight a new grant I received.

September 16, 2020

By Destenie Nock


We are three weeks into my journey of teaching during a pandemic and navigating professor life. As a professor at a research focused university my main job responsibility is graduating PhD students, and doing cutting-edge research. While 70% of my job is focused on research, the 30% related to teaching the next generation of engineers and scientists is a part I take super seriously. One thing I really love about Carnegie Mellon is that we value training our students to think about how what we learn in class connects to larger social objective like the Sustainable Development Goals. So in my class I am being challenged to think about how the math we are learning (estimation techniques, cash flows, etc) connects to climate change and other societal issues. I also know that as a teacher I am also tasked with making the class interesting for both me and the students. Sometimes people have asked me why I worry so much about making the class interesting. I respond with “Have you ever watched a TV show that is boring? Right now with online teaching I am like a TV show. If it’s interesting, then they might keep coming to class, and they might actually remember something.” So in this blog I will discuss three things:

  1. Incorporating culturally relevant topics in a math heavy class

  2. Making the class interesting for them and me.

  3. Some life updates

Culturally Relevant Teaching

The goal of culturally relevant teaching is to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have meaningful opportunities to experience quality instruction that consistently incorporates cultural components to support learning. So in a nutshell this approach requires being deliberate about getting to know and understand the knowledge and experiences students have acquired outside of school, along with respecting, valuing, and using these “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) when teaching. In addition to providing culturally relevant teaching I believe one of my roles as a professor is to produce socially responsible engineers. This means I have to know where the students are coming from, and help them see how engineering technologies and decisions are linked to larger societal problems.

This semester I am teaching an economic decision making class called "Civil Systems Investment Planning and Pricing". In my first week of classes I asked all of the students to fill out a survey on their career goals, and their view on the most important challenge our society is facing today. An overwhelming proportion of the class stated that the biggest challenge we are facing is climate change. Using this information about their views of the world, when we were talking about information visualization, I put up the following bar chart and asked them, "What is this graph showing us? How is the demographics of the US prison population linked to climate change?"

Figure 1: In class I asked the students to explain how graph relates to climate change.

Many of the students had shocked looks on their face. I reminding them of the prime rule in my class, "It is ok to say I do not know, and I just ask for your opinion." When I didn't get any volunteers I called on someone who had their zoom video off (just to find out if they were sleeping). This led to 3 students raising their hand to go next. In our discussion the students came up with some great responses I hadn't thought of. Some of them included:

  1. Since prisoners cannot vote they are not able to choose who they think should help lead the fight against climate change, and their voices will not be heard.

  2. It is harder to get a job with a criminal record so these people might experience more poverty, which could mean they are not able to adapt to climate change.

  3. Because people are trapped in these buildings they are not able to control their environment, and are often placed on the front lines of fighting climate change. For example in California often they use prisoners to fight wildfires.

I then used their response to lead into a discussion about how the 13th amendment abolished slavery for everyone but criminals. There is a direct link between the mass incarceration problem in the USA and the fact the prisoners are used to make mattresses, sew clothes, road signs, car parts, and a number of other things we use everyday. Many of these people are in jail for non violent crimes. So we must ask ourselves who is profiting from this new form of slavery, and how do we make sure the technologies we build as engineers does not exacerbate this problem. We must also remember that this new form of slavery is linked heavily to climate change and the fires in California. To read more about prisoners fighting wildfires you can check out the Marshall Project.

It is important to include social justice concepts in engineering classes because the goal of engineering is to solve problems. Think about all of the math you learned in school. While you might have retained some of the equations, most people do not retain more than 40%. Especially with the ease of being able to search for the formula online. While math equations can be found online, how to solve society's problems cannot. That is why we need to teach people how to think critically about the information they are seeing in the world, and what it reveals about injustices in society.

Making class interesting

With online classes I have realized that keeping students engaged is doubly hard. If all I do is read lecture slides people will fall asleep, or just not come to class. While some people solve this problem by taking attendance in class I have adopted the active learning approach. Using active learning involves creating a set of hands on activities. This can include having small group discussions, solving a puzzle, voting, class debates, etc. This is where the first time teaching gets doubly hard, because now I have to know the content and know enough about societal problems to make the math interesting.

Some important things I have learned are that:

  1. Google slides and Google Docs really help people collaborate. I use a standard PowerPoint for my lecture, but the interactive part is sometimes a google doc or slides that everyone in the class can edit. A convenient example of the slides will occur right after this list.

  2. In class it is better to take your time on 1 - 2 detailed engaging examples than to go through 4-6 examples quickly.

  3. You will only have time to teach half of what you think you can get through.

  4. If no one laughs at your joke, you should laugh at it yourself.

  5. The majority of people will not read the assignment before class, but if you assign it in class then people will complain. You are better off assigning it before hand and having a reading quiz.

Google Slides and Docs go a long way in helping make the class interactive, especially since the apps can be downloaded to a phone. In my class we have used Google Docs to help breakout groups draft summaries of abstracts, and summarize key points in class. While Google Docs is helpful I think Google Slides is the more versatile of the two. I have used Google Slides to have the class make bar charts, complete surveys, and get an overall sense of how the class is feeling.

We have used Google Slides to survey the class. Figure 2 shows the results of me asking which technology the students would choose to be. We had an overwhelming number of concrete folks.

Figure 2: Surveying the class to get to know them.

In class we were working on estimation. To show the class how to use a survey to help estimate the number of TVs in the USA we took a survey to see how many TVs were owned by their families (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Using Google Slides to make bar charts and survey the class

We have used Google Slides to compare problem answers from the breakout groups. Figure 4 shows the estimation ranges of different breakout groups.

Figure 4: Groups share their results of estimation calculations

I have also used Google Slides to do a quick class check in. These check ins have been used to see how the class feels about their coding skills, and general well-being. An example is in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Class check-in about how people are feeling.

The last thing I do to help keep the class interesting is singing about what I am doing, the Facebook video of it is here. This is not on purpose or planned. I believe life would be better with waiting music at designated times. Since my life is not actually a musical, sometimes I have to improvise.

Life Updates

While the first semester of teaching has been stressful I have had some success with grants. Corey Harper and I received a grant from the Block Center to investigate how autonomous vehicles could help transport essential workers during the pandemic. We will explore how autonomous vehicles could be used to transport essential workers during the pandemic. In light of the recent global pandemic, our project aim is to break down the socioeconomic conditions and demographics for essential worker populations across sectors. Our team will then create a cost-benefit analysis and a list of policy recommendations outlining how autonomous vehicles could help alleviate the effects of disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic and provide a more equitable means of transportation.

With grants comes papers....My paper on energy transitions in Ghana received a revise and resubmit. This means I am one step closer to having a published paper on how local perspective in sub-Saharan Africa differ from international perspectives.

Last life update of this blog is that I got a new puppy...she is so cute, but definitely too smart for her own good.

Thanks for reading. If you want to keep up to date on updates feel free to subscribe below or follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor in Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department as well as in the Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. She loves working with students because of the direct impact she can have on helping people get to where they want to be in their career. Her goal this semester is to make her class culturally relevant, which she hopes will help produce culturally responsible engineers. She holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned an MS from Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics at North Carolina A&T State University. In her free time she has had to learn some new social distancing hobbies. During COVID she has rediscovered her past self which reminded her that she loves to paint, sew, and go for walks in the park.

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