IRI@AGU: Teaching Climate & Society

Cynthia Thomson, Assistant Director of the MA in Climate and Society program.

Cynthia Thomson, Assistant Director of the MA in Climate and Society program.

Headed to AGU? Find the full schedule of IRI staff presenting here. 

The Climate and Society Master of Arts program at Columbia University works at the intersection of climate science and environmental policy, blending social and physical sciences in an innovative 12-month program. With more than 250 alumni entering different sectors like energy, disaster mitigation, and climate research, among others, the program has formed an interdisciplinary foundation for today’s climate leaders. In focusing its students on the generation and communication of climate information to society at large, the program enables students to bridge the gaps in science and policymaking processes. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the program’s assistant director, Cynthia Thomson has created a presentation, “Teaching the Intersection of Climate and Society,” about the program’s development since its inception. Read the Q&A below to learn more, and attend Thomson’s presentation if you’re going to AGU.

Has the program evolved from its original design? If so, how?

I’ve been involved with the program both as a student and as the Assistant Director for over five years, and I feel like the program is continually evolving. It’s the benefit of having a relatively small program with a relatively small staff (two Co-Directors and an Assistant Director). We continually reflect on the program and evaluate what we think is working well, what we think is missing or what might need to be changed.

One of the biggest changes we’ve made is the size of the class. When the program first started in 2004, approximately 15 students enrolled. In 2008, we increased the class size to 40 students. I think this can mostly be attributed to an increase in awareness of climate. We quickly saw a rise in interest in our program and met the demands by increasing our class size.

From what areas of study does the program tend to draw students?

One of the most unique aspects of our program is the broad range of academic and professional backgrounds the students bring to the program. We generally end up with a class that is evenly split between social science and natural science backgrounds. And then every now-and-then we get a wild card like a musician or clothing designer. The diversity of backgrounds really does allow students to look at climate from a wide verity of perspectives.

Working “at the nexus of social science, climate science and public policy,” how has the program integrated different disciplines into a cohesive curriculum?

This is where being at Columbia University has really helped the program; we draw a lot from the other graduate schools at Columbia. The program’s core curriculum, provides students with a sound background in climate science. For the policy and “society” components, we draw on courses from other schools, including the School of International and Public Affairs, the Mailman School of Public Health and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which students enroll in for electives. We allow students to take the classes that are of interest to them as electives. I think this really helps because students are, in a sense, in charge of their own curriculum. I like to say that we give students the climate background, and they get to choose which part of society they wanted to focus on!

Your talk will highlight key components of the program. One of these is a new course you’ve developed called Applications in Climate and Society. How does this course add value to the core curriculum?

Something the program struggled with since its inception was preparing students for the workforce: we knew it was important, but couldn’t quite figure out how to incorporate it seamlessly. This is where the idea for Applications in Climate and Society came from. I had the idea to have alumni who work in the climate field teach a course about the practical uses of the degree. The class covers some basics like resume writing (no, seriously, everyone needs help with that) to more abstract matters like the real tasks of climate practitioners. One of the highlights of the course is the chance for students to partner on a project with an outside organization (NOAA and AlertNet, to name a couple).

Another key component is providing students hands-on activities with climate professionals. What has made for successful experiences with these activities – for both students and professionals alike?

With a degree as unique as the Climate and Society degree we have found internships to be invaluable. They allow students to put their degree to use and see what type of work is available in the climate field. Internships also have the benefit of giving students work experience before they enter the workforce, which can be a big advantage. Likewise, the organizations that students work with are often very appreciative of the work our students do. Every year I get requests for interns that are “just as great as last year’s.”

Alumni from the program work for non-profits, academia, and in the public and private sectors. What are some ways that alumni are bringing climate information to these areas?

Our alumni are really doing great things! We have a few who, by nature of their jobs, really help disseminate the impacts of climate on society to the public. Eric Holthaus at Slate and Andrew Freedman at Mashable come to mind. We also have alumni outside the media spotlight working on some really exceptional things. For example, we have an alum working with the Red Cross /Red Crescent Climate Centre who looks at the potential to finance humanitarian action based on weather and climate forecasts. The IRI is another organization where our alumni are having a huge impact. From the development of map rooms in the Data Library to using and designing financial instruments for climate risk reduction to communicating the impacts IRI is having across the globe, our alumni are really leaving a mark at the IRI.

What is the greatest challenge for this program, and what will it take to overcome it?

One of the complaints I get a lot from students is how depressing it can be to work in the climate field. It often feels like progress is slow moving, if it happens at all. I’m optimistic about it. Recent events such as the People’s Climate March and the agreement between the U.S. and China make me think that change might be coming. Keeping our students feeling optimistic and empowering them to be climate leaders can be cahallenging, but we are totally overcoming it!

Katherine Peinhardt and Elisabeth Gawthrop edited this interview for length and clarity.