UW News

April 12, 2019

For 17 years, UW program has provided an interdisciplinary nexus for climate research and education

UW News

The UW’s Program on Climate Change was created in 2002 as a way for researchers in oceanography, atmospheric sciences and Earth and space sciences, then often located in separate colleges, to meet and collaborate on issues related to climate change.

Back then, climate science was not as politically charged as it is today.

Over 17 years, and since the 2008 launch of the UW’s College of the Environment, the program has evolved into a campuswide, interdisciplinary, student-driven program on climate change research, communication and action. A recent article in Eos, published by the American Geophysical Union, looks back at the program’s unique history.

“A lot of schools have created a climate master’s degree. We’re really trying to give students who are getting disciplinary degrees the added benefit of the climate community and content,” said Miriam Bertram, who has administered the program since its launch. “It’s a very different program, so trying to explain it to people deserves more than two sentences.”

The program incorporates both traditional academic elements and more outwardly-focused, community-focused aspects.

Central to the program is a graduate certificate that allows UW students to add an interdisciplinary twist to their graduate education. Each student must take an introductory climate science course, that’s now available in three options for students with different levels of mathematical background.

people in front of poster

Poster sessions and informal discussions are part of the Program on Climate Change’s annual graduate climate conference, shown here, and its summer institute.Jennifer Hsiao/University of Washington

The departments of atmospheric sciences, oceanography, Earth and space sciences, marine affairs and civil and environmental engineering are, of course, well represented. But the certificate program also attracts students in the Department of Philosophy, the Evans School of Public Policy, and even the Foster School of Business.

“This model works because climate is such an integrator across disciplines. And it’s becoming more and more so,” said former director LuAnne Thompson, a professor of oceanography. “The PCC helps people get outside the disciplinary bubble, and that’s where a lot of the innovation is happening.”

Since the program began, each certificate student has done a climate-related outreach project. That effort is assessed and sometimes repeated to better reach a broader audience.

The projects run the gamut. A public policy graduate student studied the possibility of climate-induced migration to the Puget Sound region, and presented her paper to city and county officials who plan utilities infrastructure. In 2016, a graduate student in marine affairs created outreach videos filmed in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Other projects include meditation workshops focused on climate change, art projects, and presentations to union leaders on how climate change will affect working conditions in the future.

people on balcony

Faculty and graduate students enjoy the opening reception and late afternoon sunshine at the annual summer institute at UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. Previous directors LuAnne Thompson (left) and Chris Bretherton (right) are in the foreground.Miriam Bertram/University of Washington

Many Program on Climate Change events bring people together. An annual spring symposium, now in its third year, will take place April 27. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers will give short, research-based talks to an audience that typically includes undergraduates, faculty members and friends.

The program also hosts more regular events that are open to its members and the wider community. A recent gathering was a screening of a “climate fiction” film made by a retired oceanographer from the Applied Physics Laboratory. On Tuesday, April 16, the group will host a forum on new ways of communicating climate science to the public using social media.

Some graduate students have chosen outreach projects that contribute to the UW in the High School effort, creating curriculum for local high schools. A former graduate student made a recipe for creating an ice core that students could probe for chemical clues. Two current graduate students designed and taught a high school curriculum on geoengineering.

A current initiative by a UW faculty member and his graduate students is expanding a simple computer model developed to teach climate modeling in high schools. They will meet May 18 with middle- and high-school teachers to work on bringing the model to classes.

“It’s important that these workshops are two-way,” Bertram said. “The researchers are presenting their content, but they’re also learning from the teachers, who might say: ‘That’s not going to work in my classroom.'”

In 2011 the program launched an undergraduate minor in climate that includes a seminar series focusing on a different climate-related topic each year – this winter looked at sea-level rise. While the seminar topic is intended to be of interest to the broader UW community and program members, those enrolled in the minor do writing assignments, including blog posts, a literature review and a one-page policy document.

Graduate students in the program organize an annual climate conference sponsored by the program and other UW departments and units, with increasing levels of funding from the National Science Foundation. That conference now alternates between the UW and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is open to graduate students at both institutions. Last fall’s event, held at UW’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest, was the biggest yet.

“The students are more self-organizing than ever before,” said program director Cecilia Bitz, a professor of atmospheric sciences. “I think their vision of what they can do in the world is much bigger.”

Even as the program takes stock and looks back at its history, organizers are continually experimenting. A recently developed “climate postdocs group” hosts weekly coffee meetings for UW postdoctoral students working on climate change.

“There are not many institutions that have a large enough community of climate-related faculty and students to convene something like this,” Thompson said. “The most important element, I think, is creating this intangible community around climate.”

Other co-authors of the recent Eos paper are founding director Jim Murray, a professor emeritus of oceanography, and former director Chris Bretherton, a professor of atmospheric sciences.


For more information, contact Bertram at mab23@uw.edu or 206-543-6521 and Bitz at bitz@uw.edu.