Climate Change Project Update

Preparing Graduate Students for 21st Century Climate Conversations

Graduate students at the University of Washington are becoming skilled in interdisciplinary climate science and finding opportunities to collaborate outside the academy.

By , , James W. Murray, Chris Bretherton, and Cecilia Bitz

The focus of graduate education is to train students to become experts in their disciplines. However, the current generation of students must also be able to address interdisciplinary problems, including environmental, social, and policy-related challenges related to climate change. To be successful, they will need to engage broadly both within and outside the academy. Although there are federally funded programs to help meet this need, such as the Integrated Graduate Education Research and Training (IGERT) and National Science Foundation Research and Training, resources at hosting institutions are generally not available once funding ends. Another approach is for faculty from distinct disciplines to include students in collaborative programs and support students as they step beyond their research.

The Program on Climate Change (PCC) at the University of Washington (UW) is an example of a collaborative effort that works across disciplines to address climate change. Courses, seminar series themes, and the annual summer institute topic are created in consultation with faculty across departments. The PCC was launched in 2001, funded through the University Initiative Fund to support cutting-edge interdisciplinary programs. The emphasis then was on integrating expertise and improving communications across the fields of ocean, Earth, and atmospheric sciences. The Program on Climate Change is now a place for experts in a single discipline to expand their knowledge base into professional cultures outside their own fields. Individuals from across the University of Washington participate in PCC programs, whether they are faculty defining new initiatives together, undergraduates undertaking the climate minor, or postdocs organizing a workshop. The PCC continues with modest support from the College of the Environment.

In the program’s first year, faculty retreated for several days to describe their climate research and identify potential themes that could create linkages across research groups and inform future faculty hires. The five themes identified were (1) learning from the past, (2) determining the fate of greenhouse gases, (3) predicting future climate, (4) assessing the impacts of climate change, and (5) interpreting current changes. Recent summer institute themes reflect the emergence of new climate research across UW. The 2014 summer institute focused on “Climate Variability and Uncertainty,” and we invited physical scientists, psychologists, and public policy experts to explore topics together, including sources of uncertainty, extreme events, and how people interpret uncertainty. In 2017 physical scientists explored “Climate Change and Population Health” with civil engineers and global health professionals. These faculty-led summer institutes show students how scientific inquiry extends across disciplines and the importance of informal interactions in developing relationships that contribute to future collaborations.

The PCC is led by a rotating faculty member and an advisory board with representatives from seven departments from four colleges and three research institutes, with two elected graduate student representatives. In 2016 PCC graduate students organized into a self-governing board, providing opportunity for graduate student voices and ideas from academic programs across UW to be heard and supported.

Stillaguamish, counting fish and measuring temperature and dissolved oxygen
Graduate students snorkel survey the Stillaguamish, counting fish and measuring temperature and dissolved oxygen. Credit: Cleo Woelfle-Erskine

Graduate Students Leading the Way

PCC students represent diverse fields, including quantitative climate modeling, observations, ecology, engineering solutions, and policy. Initially seeded by six to seven 9-month fellowship awards a year, only three are now awarded because of a reduced budget. Nevertheless, the number of graduate students who participate and identify with the PCC is rapidly growing, with a listserv that currently reaches over 400 students. This organized student body experiments with new programming and in 2017 initiated a 1-day symposium at UW—now an annual event—at which graduate students, postdocs, and a few undergraduates shared their research and outreach activities with peers and faculty.

Another student-led initiative is the Graduate Climate Conference (GCC) envisioned by those returning from one of the early PCC faculty-led summer institutes. The first annual GCC was held in 2006 at the Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest on the flanks of Mount Rainier, and the conference is now hosted alternately between UW and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accommodating 120 U.S. and international students. The 2018 GCC included sessions on atmospheric science, policy, changing oceans, the cryosphere, ecosystems, and human dimensions and workshops on communication and outreach. In a feedback survey, attendees expressed that they were more comfortable asking questions during talks in the GCC setting, when faculty are not present. The workshops’ primary purpose is educational, providing participants with exposure to climate science outside their subdiscipline.

Beyond these conferences, there are many ways in which the PCC inspires opportunities to go beyond the disciplinary research environment and provides the connections to do so. Examples include an ocean scientist assisting a high school teacher in developing a climate curriculum by incorporating data into a lesson on El Niño, a public policy professor advising a graduate student in atmospheric sciences on research briefs that require analyzing African crop data, and an atmospheric scientist leading a collective to build computer games that teach about climate change.

A Credential Is Born

As the PCC grew, so did requests for scientists to discuss climate change with the public. Students who were engaged in outreach were sharing their interdisciplinary perspective gained through three courses first introduced by the founders of the PCC: climate dynamics, global carbon cycle and climate, and paleoclimate. In 2008, students asked for a way to be acknowledged for completing this coursework and for their outreach efforts. PCC leadership responded by creating the graduate certificate in climate science (GCeCS). This credential certifies that a student has been exposed to multiple perspectives through coursework that was created by instructors from different disciplines, that students received professional mentorship on communication capstones, and that they explored opportunities for partnerships outside their research area.

Between 2009 and 2018, 40 students completed the certificate. Originally dominated by Ph.D. students in oceanography and atmospheric sciences, the program now has more students completing the certificate from the 2-year master’s of marine affairs program than from any other single discipline. This shift began in 2013 with the introduction of a new climate dynamics course option that did not require differential equations.

One of the strengths of the GCeCS is the flexibility of the communication capstone project that requires students to design a project, set goals appropriate for their audience, and evaluate whether those goals are met. Nearly one third of the capstone projects have resulted in new curricula for middle and high school classrooms, created alongside teachers and with the consultation of scientists in the College of Education. More recently, students have gravitated to creating and evaluating the effectiveness of visualizations for exploring climate impacts, infographics and story maps, and climate-themed games. The capstone projects are ways for students to learn while also providing those outside UW with greater access to current understandings in climate science.

Other Collaborations

The PCC connects some students with capstone projects and many with other opportunities to work across disciplines on current issues. In 2017 the Union of Concerned Scientists approached the PCC to create a science advocacy workshop on campus. Students who participated followed up with their own workshop 6 months later that was open to the UW community, designed to help scientists develop skills in communicating with policy makers. A second example was a significant effort between 2010 and 2014 when faculty, 18 graduate students, and a cadre of high school science teachers developed a curriculum for teaching climate science in the high schools. Graduate students participated for many reasons: Some received stipends from a grant from the NASA Global Climate Change Education program; some completed their capstone project by creating course materials, and some were simply giving back to the high school communities that had nurtured them. These efforts resulted in 28 semester-long or yearlong climate courses in 10 schools, reaching over 550 students between 2011 and 2018.


Addressing the challenges of climate change requires that we all contribute in new ways. The PCC is widely known as a place where researchers pursue and communicate answers to interdisciplinary climate questions. It is a place where students from all disciplines learn from multiple perspectives about how our climate has changed in the past, what we are currently experiencing, and how it is likely to change in the future. Throughout the last 16 years, graduate students have worked with faculty across boundaries to sustain a program that teaches all to collaborate in new ways. As graduate students influenced by the culture and training opportunities of the PCC go forth, they can confidently look to this network of collaborators, colleagues, and friendships as they take on new challenges.

—Miriam A. Bertram ([email protected]), Program on Climate Change, University of Washington, Seattle; LuAnne Thompson and James W. Murray, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle; and Chris Bretherton and Cecilia Bitz, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle

Citation: Bertram, M. A., L. Thompson, J. W. Murray, C. Bretherton, and C. Bitz (2019), Preparing graduate students for 21st century climate conversations , Eos, 100, Published on 07 February 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.