A three day simulation of the Parliament of World Religions teaches students about the role of faith groups in addressing climate change.
- to provide an opportunity to study religious teachings related to nature and the environment
- to investigate ways these teachings might contribute to practical policies and actions by persons and communities of faith in the face of destructive climate change
- to intensify the learning experience by simulating the work of delegates to a real world deliberative body.
Class: RELI E-1525: Active Learning Weekend: World Religions Face the Climate Crisis
Introduction/Background: Over the course of three days in April, students engage in a simulation of the Parliament of World Religions in order to craft international protocols on climate change. Students uphold the beliefs and practices of their designated faith traditions while working to negotiate issues of technology, theology, culture, politics, economics, and ethics by the deadline of Earth Day.
Prerequisites: Previous courses in religion, earth science or ecology and/or personal experience in addressing climate change are desirable but not required.
Assignments Before Activity
- Student "delegates" were required to read an online textbook prior to the weekend: the Fall 2001 issue of Daedalus, "Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change?”, which features chapters on the teachings and actions of the faith traditions represented in the course (link here).
- Students were also required to familiarize themselves with eight core websites that offer up-to-date information on climate science, international policy negotiations, and the teachings and activities of religious faith bodies. The full list of websites is included in the syllabus.
- A week before the simulation, students are able to express a preference for which delegation (Buddhist, Christian, Confucian/Daoist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim) and topic (technology, theology, culture, politics, economics, and ethics) they are most interested in.
- Finally, students write a three page “Delegate’s Brief” describing their credentials (academic background) as relevant to the climate crisis, and detailing three actions that faith groups can take to address the issue. This brief is due at the beginning of the first day.
Set-Up for Activity
- Students met in a sequence of plenary sessions in a case study room with amphitheater seating, and breakout groups in a large classroom tables for the six working groups of four each.
- The 24 students were divided into Faith Caucuses representing six traditions: Christian, Buddhist, Daoist/Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim. Each group was paired with someone with knowledge of the religion (e.g. a professor or religious leader).
- The instructor arranged a surprise visit from two tribal leaders of the Nipmuk and Potomtuc people from Western MA, which supplemented the representation of world faiths.
Day 1 (Friday, 5 PM – 8 PM)
- Students gathered at 5 pm on Friday to present their "Delegate Briefs" and introduce themselves to other delegates.
- The instructor introduced the delegates and guest Faith Leaders and provided an overview of the weekend. Then, the instructor accepted a prearranged Skype call from Dr. Alice Bean, a fellow with the Secretary's Committee on Religion and Global Affairs, US Department of State. Dr. Bean had contacted the Extension School to express interest in the course and request that the student delegates' findings be filed with her committee for reference by the State Department. During the call, Dr. Bean, a physicist on leave from the University of Kansas, greeted the delegates and entered into a dialogue on the overlapping roles of science, government, and religion in addressing the climate crisis
- Dr. Timothy Weiskel gave an opening address that incorporated footage of his testimony before the Secretary General of the United Nations, as well as highlights from his website and research, here.
- Students met as six caucuses for the first time and began to outline their duties in producing successful caucus reports over the next two days.
Day 2 (Saturday, 9 AM – 5 PM)
- The day began with a panel presentation from the faith leaders assisting with the simulation on Saturday morning.
- Then, students continued their work together, with input from the faith leaders.
- The instructor and teaching assistant also circulated among the caucuses to offer guidance as needed. The teaching assistant offered a brief tutorial on group writing strategies half-way through the weekend.
- Saturday is the Sabbath as practiced by the Jewish Caucus, who refrained from using computers to do their work.
- The Saturday meal was catered so that the caucuses could continue working and developing interpersonal relationships.
- Students broke for one hour of traditional "healing and empowerment practices" related to the environment: prayer, meditation, chanting in Sanskrit, and singing in Hebrew, led by the guest faith leaders.
- The interruption of "Breaking News," announced loudly throughout the weekend and detailing natural disasters and political and religious developments from the press and scientific and sectarian publications, also imparted a real-world jolt to the otherwise orderly, virtual proceedings.
- Some student caucuses reported staying late and arriving early on Saturday and Sunday to polish and strengthen their reports
Day 3 (Sunday, 9 AM – 1 PM)
- Students finalized their caucus reports then presented them before the full assembly of the virtual Parliament of World Religions on Sunday. The presentation of reports at the final plenary offered each delegate an opportunity to speak on the segment of the report that they authored or researched. There was ample time for questions and answers from the full parliament
- The surprise appearance of the Native American leaders during the final plenary – asking respectfully why they had not been invited, given their devout stewardship of the land for hundreds, thousands, of years – was deeply inspiring to the delegates and the guest speaker whom they "interrupted."
- Prof. Christopher Ives closed the weekend with an address on “Faith and the Climate Future”.
After the Activity
- Following the live presentations and active, at times heated, discussions of what needs to happen in the future, student dispersed to reflect on the weekend and to compose their final paper, a Press Release with the following elements:
1. A news summary of the simulated Parliament of World Religions, with a description of the purpose of the meeting, the delegates and speakers, and a summary and assessment of the outcome.
2. An analysis of the deliberations of the caucus on which the student served, describing difficulties and the role of religion and history in decisionmaking.
3. Discussion of how the student now views their initial proposals in their original Delegate's Brief in light of the deliberations of their caucus, and what predictions they have for the future.
- An executive summary of the students' Caucus Reports and Press Releases as sent to the United States State Department, as requested by Dr. Alice Bean. The students' writing may be appended to the summary, pending review by the instructor. Students are copied on this final transmission.
- Students are graded pass/fail based on the Delegates Brief, participation in the Caucus Report, and the Press Release.
"Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change?" edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, here
Comments and recommendations from the instructor:
- Educational research has shown that active learning, role play, collaborative group activities, oral communication, interpersonal and inter-group dialogue, and face-to-face, real-time interactions intensify cognitive functions such as receptivity to and retention of new information, problem-solving, imagination, and the application of theory to praxis in a wide range of fields.
- Create scenarios that are sufficiently reality-based to activate latent knowledge and motivate purposive participation. Science fiction or fantasy settings may appeal to some audiences, but challenges faced by contemporary communities are more likely to appeal to students who see their education as preparation for life and careers. Finding the balance between empirically-grounded action and out-of-the-box imagination may require some fine-tuning of potential settings for active learning in the university setting.