Our Annual Theme: Climate Action – Designing for Environmental Justice

This year’s competition theme is here! We are excited to announce that our students will be working on the theme of  Climate Action: Designing for Environmental Justice. Our middle and high school student teams will be identifying and working with a client in their community to ensure equal access to environmental resources and protection from environmental threats for everybody. This theme involves a wide range of industry partners, community scientists, technologies, and support. Students will address clients experiencing environmental health conditions like asthma and allergies, impacts of drought on crops or other livelihood, food scarcity, impacts of wildfire, flooding, extreme weather,  power outages due to weather, prolonged heat exposure, and lack of access to cooling, clean water, green spaces, and more. They will also work with clients like air quality engineers, environmental engineers/techs, farmers, fire scientists, first responders to natural disasters, sustainability managers, and more! Through an interview, our young inventors will discover a challenge their client experiences and will use invention to create a product to address that need. They will then pitch their product at a series of community showcases (Demo Day) and competitions (MESA Day) throughout the school year. We can’t wait to see all the innovative ideas our students will bring to life this year through the invention process!


Equity Above All

MESA’s mission to bridge the equity gap in stem fields is translated in the way we select our yearly theme. Issues of justice are at the center of the Climate Action: Designing for Environmental Justice pathway. The theme centers on environmental justice, a movement started by primarily individuals from underrepresented groups seeking to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities. The primary goal is to ensure that everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards so that we may live, play, work, and learn safely within our communities. 

Every year, billions of tons of CO2 is released as a result of coal, oil, and gas production into our atmosphere.  Greenhouse gasses that are produced by human activities are at a record high. If we don’t slow global emissions, temperatures could rise to more than 3° Celsius above pre industrial levels by the year 2100; 2° Fahrenheit is roughly 1° Celsius. 

While this might seem small, this is a significant increase in overall accumulated heat and would cause irreversible damage to our ecosystems. The extra heat drives regional and seasonal temperature extremes, intensifies rainfall, reduces snow cover and sea ice, and drastically changes habitat ranges for plants and animals. High temperatures have already caused damage, but as secretary-General António Guterres said at the 2019 Climate Action Summit, “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win”.  

Accessibility to environmental health and protection is  heavily influenced by socioeconomic factors such as racism, classism, ableism and sexism. The impacts of environmental threats interact with and worsen existing societal inequalities. Our approach to climate action is intersectional, as it takes into account the disproportionate ways BIPoC communities are impacted, while also centering and empowering the voices and practices of Indigenous communities. We recognize how the root causes of the climate crisis are white supremacy, colonization, and patriarchy. Our students, historically underrepresented in STEM fields, bring diverse, necessary, and  innovative perspectives to the issue.

In the last few years, here in Oregon, disproportionate environmental impacts on communities of color have been documented in multiple studies. More specifically, research has shown that areas with the highest proportions of low-income people and people of color accumulate the most heat and consistently face more barriers to cooling as a result of discriminatory urban planning. Additionally, research shows how racial and ethnic minority communities are far more vulnerable to wildfire than predominantly white communities.

Environmental Justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Everyone deserves a fair chance of living their healthiest life possible, from your home, school, place of work, and places you enjoy (like the lake to swim in or the forest to camp in). 


How Can You Get Involved?

There are many ways you can get involved and support our students as they work on this theme. Do you fit the client description and want to collaborate with our students to have them address a particular issue you are experiencing? Become a client by reaching out to us at ormesa@pdx.edu

Want to work directly with our students and provide valuable input and empowerment as they design their inventions? Become a mentor by applying here! Applications open until October 31st.

We are also preparing to host our annual MESA Talks, expert panels that start the conversation around different social justice issues within our community. Are you interested in participating as a speaker or know someone who would have a great input around issues of environmental justice? Email us at ormesa@pdx.edu

There are more opportunities coming up to make a difference, keep an eye on our volunteer page to get involved, or make a donation today. 

Helpful Resources


  • Like other climate emergencies, heat wave hits the poorest Oregonians hardest, OPB (July 29, 2022)
  • Victims of Oregon’s historic wildfires face tough tradeoffs: To rebuild or leave?, OregonLive (Aug. 07, 2022)
  • Climate Changes Health: Vulnerable Populations – American Public Health Association
  • K-12 Resources for teaching Climate Change – PCC
  • People & Public Health – Changing climate conditions have implications for the values, identity, heritage, cultures, and quality of life of the Northwest’s diverse population – US Climate Resilience Toolkit