Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, UW Biology, graduate students, and members of the PCC climate education team lead high school science teachers on a 2-day field trip to Mount Rainier National Park. Participants had the opportunity to learn first hand about monitoring projects, sampling methods and mountain ecosystems in a changing climate. Photo by Miriam Bertram.

If September 20’s Climate Strike showed us anything, it’s that the world’s youth is passionate about climate change and willing to face it head on. But how can this generation alchemize raw energy into practical climate solutions? Last time I checked, “Convincing an Entire Species to Change its Ways 101” wasn’t on many course lists.

At University of Washington, however, students can study climate change through the Program on Climate Change. Formed in 2001, PCC’s mission is to provide “a framework of intense cross-disciplinary collaboration that furthers research and education in climate science.”

PCC students take courses from a variety of departments within the College of Environment to earn either a climate minor or graduate certificate. This approach allows students to collaborate with students and faculties in many departments while maintaining their focus on climate issues.

Dr. Miriam Bertram, staff person for the PCC, said incoming students have changed drastically in the 19 years since the program began.

“We started doing this mostly for graduate students who had never really had a chance to study climate change,” said Bertram, who is a big fan of taking her own glass jars to grocery stores to avoid using plastic. “Now, incoming students have totally different educational backgrounds. They’re taught to be leaders and they have more know-how and energy to reach out to the community.”

Community outreach

This change has allowed the PCC – with around 300 graduate students and 55 faculty – to expand its reach into K-12 education and the community. As part of their capstone projects, PCC graduate students create publicly available climate curriculum for high school and introductory college courses and run workshops for teachers. They also give presentations on climate topics in classrooms, churches and other community settings.

Educational material created UW Atmospheric Science Outreach featuring PCC student Greta Shum and Oliver Watt-Meyer.

“Those are really productive interactions,” Bertram said. “I think there’s more and more climate material getting into K-12 programs, but those teachers have never been taught it before, so how can they teach it? Part of what we do is try to teach the teachers.”

Bertram said students come to UW specifically for the Program on Climate Change, drawn to the opportunity to work across several disciplines and make connections in the community.

This is particularly exemplified by student group Climate Science on Tap and its spin off Schooner Series. These groups, in collaboration with Cascadia Climate Change, organize public climate discussions in relaxed settings like breweries and tap houses.

“The PCC and its member departments strongly believe in the importance of communicating science with the public, especially with news media.  We work together across disciplines to do this because we face multidimensional challenges that will only be solved by diverse teams.” 

A statement from the UW Program on Climate Change.

What’s next for PCC students?

Through interdisciplinary studies and community outreach, PCC students make connections with climate professionals which can help jump start their careers.

Bertram said those with a graduate certificate or masters often go to state or government agencies dealing with environmental issues, heading later toward policy. Another chunk, often the PhD’s, stay in academia as professors and researchers. It’s not uncommon for PCC students to make valuable professional connections through their capstone course.

“We get plenty of capstone project ideas from industry professionals who have noticed a gap in the knowledge,” Bertram said.

Upon looking back, Bertram said the program’s creators were really forward-thinking in identifying the need for community outreach.

“People ask me what the program is, and it’s taken a long time for me to figure that out,” Bertram said. “It started out as a graduate program in interdisciplinary climate, but because of that outreach piece it’s become a passion for people.”

Bonus: Get to know PCC’s newly appointed director, Becky Alexander.