What It’s Like at Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains

July 19, 2021

By Phebe Pierson and Adam Cooper

From June 27 to July 9, we welcomed our first-ever cohort of students into the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program. The program, in partnership with Putney Student Travel, welcomed 80 students from around the United States to the Castleton University campus in Castleton, Vermont. The students participated in a two-week program to mobilize action, drive impact, and affect change in response to our warming planet. Students engaged with faculty and staff from the Columbia Climate School and learned about cutting-edge research and innovations in action. Students also got a chance to meet, collaborate, and build partnerships with like-minded peers and tap into their collective strengths for action.

The full group of Climate School in the Green Mountains students and instructors.

Below is a glimpse at what students experienced in the first few days of this new program, and the fun and educational activities they took part in.

Days in the Life

On the first full day of activities, the students woke up in time for a 7am breakfast, and the day was already heating up. After breakfast, they split into their two groups. Group 1 absorbed a deep dive lecture by Lisa Goddard, a climate scientist at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, whose research areas include near-term climate change, climate forecasts, and the assessment of climate prediction tools. She kicked things off with a session on the science of climate change, the basics of global warming and Earth’s energy balance, the greenhouse gas effect, and the main culprits of climate change. Goddard’s second session focused on climate projections and modeling — specifically how climate projections are made, how we anticipate climate variability to make adaptation decisions, and how predictions could be brought into climate plans to help reduce the impact of climate change on various communities.

Group 2 stayed outdoors in the shady grass behind one of the classroom buildings on campus, surrounded by leafy trees and a gazebo. Their instructors led them in an activity that they’d be working on for the next couple of days, called Your Climate Story. This was focused around understanding how climate change is affecting their own homes and communities. The instructors designated areas of the lawn with labels such as “agree,” “disagree,” “sometimes,” etc., and proceeded to read out statements that the students could evaluate based on their experiences in their lives and communities. For example, one statement was “My home is at risk due to climate change”; students sorted themselves into the various groups based on whether this statement accurately described their experiences. Instructors asked them to share, getting input from various groups around the lawn.

The responses for this question varied greatly. Students in the program came from all over the U.S. as well as a few other countries, so there were some who were affected by drought and wildfires in California; some from Miami who were impacted by hurricanes and flooding; and others whose homes had not yet directly been impacted by climate change. The exercise made evident the wide variety of ways climate change is impacting lives around the country and the world, and how it is being perceived by students growing up in these conditions.

The two groups switched places and then broke for a short lunch. After their meal, the students again split for two activities. One group returned to work on their climate stories — this time in the air conditioned Campus Center — and the other went to a lecture by Art Lerner-Lam, senior advisor to the co-founding deans of the Columbia Climate School and a seismologist by training. Lerner-Lam taught an intro to sustainability, covering the basics of the discipline and emphasizing the importance of a systems approach.

That afternoon, the students broke into multiple small groups to enjoy some non-academic activities or free time. Some lounged on campus or played lawn games; another group walked around the Castleton sports fields and to the edge of the forest, where they investigated the health of the creek just out of view of the fields. Instructors Pam McWilliams and Kristin Nakaishi (educators in Denver and Philadelphia, respectively, during the academic year) explained to the group that depending on what invertebrates they found living in the creek, they could make an educated guess as to how healthy the stream was. Certain freshwater stream creatures only can survive in the cleanest of waters; others are much more resilient.

Armed with cheesecloth, buckets, and coffee filters, the creek group jumped in the water and started turning over rocks and looking closely at the bed of the creek. It didn’t take long for the first students to yelp and show off what they found. Multiple crayfish were spotted, a few with eggs or baby crawfish nestled under their tails — a surprise to everyone, including the instructors! The group also saw a couple of stoneflies, slugs, and snails. Based on their observations, they were able to determine that the Castleton creek is extremely healthy.

That evening after dinner, the students trekked downhill to Castleton’s fire pit, set beside a beautiful pond and surrounded by forest on one side and a view of campus on the other. With help from Laurel Zaima from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the group got the fire started in preparation for a fireside chat with Art Lerner-Lam. After the group settled in, he talked with them about what strategies they’d been using in their communities to fight climate change, what they saw working, and what they wanted to improve. He emphasized the importance of working together with others who are already in the space, and building off of movements that are already happening. When the talk concluded, the students swarmed the s’mores supplies as the sun set and the day finally started to cool off.

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On Wednesday, the students’ second full day of programming, they spent their morning and afternoon blocks split between Lerner-Lam and Laurel Zaima. Lerner-Lam taught a lesson on achieving sustainability; meanwhile, Zaima taught an interactive session on how climate change is affecting different geographical areas in different ways. Zaima, a marine science and biology educator at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, worked with students to understand how climate change is impacting their communities. By reading through the National Climate Assessment, students collaborated in teams to understand the impacts affecting different regions of the U.S., used the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit to explore hazards/assess risk/prioritize and plan/take action, and began to put together communication action plans for tackling climate change.

In the afternoon, the students chose from a variety of extra-curricular activities. One group went on a short hike with instructor Zach, collecting ferns, moss, and other plants that do well in damp environments, so that they could construct their own closed-loop glass terrariums. Back on campus under the open-air pavilion, they filled glass jars with soil and charcoal, and nestled their finds on top.

After dinner that night, students had free time and Zaima held office hours under the pavilion. Students were working on Climate Action plans for their hometowns, which they were set to present at the end of the week, and some wanted help with their work. Zaima sat at a table with the group while the sun set over the forest and sports fields and answered questions and gave feedback, addressing the group as well as more specific questions.

On Thursday, the students got a change of pace with a field trip. After breakfast, they boarded buses that took them on an hour and a half drive into downtown Burlington, VT, where they spent the morning shopping, eating, and wandering about town. After lunch, the group headed to Burlington Electric, the municipal power company for the City of Burlington. General Manager Darren Springer presented to them about the company, detailing where the power comes from (100% renewable!), incentives they offer to their customers for saving power, and how they balance rising prices while keeping customers happy. Darren also detailed how climate change has altered consumption patterns: Vermont used to use more energy in the winter than the summer, due to heating needs, but now that has switched as winters have grown milder and summers have grown hotter.

The students had dozens of questions for Darren about every aspect of the business, from policymaking to how they maintain their renewable resources, and how their office is working to be more sustainable internally. He had solid answers for everyone, satisfying this curious group of students.

The next stop in Burlington was the University of Vermont, where the students were treated to a panel discussion featuring energy professionals from across sectors in Vermont. After introductions by Suresh Garimella, the president of the University of Vermont, panelists discussed policies and initiatives taking place in Vermont that have led the state to becoming a leader in renewable energy and clean power. The panel was moderated by Jared Duval of the Energy Action Network and featured Carol Weston (director of Efficiency Vermont), Darren Springer (general manager of Burlington Electric), and Liz Miller (VP of Sustainable Supply and Resilient Systems and chief legal officer of Green Mountain Power).

Coming to a solution in a collective is a lot more challenging than it appears. Over the next few days, students deepened their understanding of climate science issues by role playing. They negotiated relationships with peers in experiential lessons to develop climate solutions while not sacrificing their own character’s values. Students also studied their relationships to climate change—as culprits impacting the climate, as recipients adapting to climate change, and as agents influencing positive change. Many students thought they already had an understanding of the ways their lives intersected with our climate, but we challenged them to see more complex layers in their own climate story.

A sample community climate action plan

In another off-campus excursion, the students visited Blane De St. Croix’s exhibit, “How to Move a Landscape,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Students considered the interplay of art and climate science, interdisciplinary relationships, and geopolitical landscapes as part of this excursion. Many of the exhibit’s works were inspired by research expeditions that St. Croix accompanied.

The second half of the program started with Tom Chandler and Joshua DeVincenzo of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia. They covered topics with the students ranging from protecting community assets and whole community approaches to disaster response, to strategies for disaster response and recovery. On the morning of July 6, students walked into a noisy classroom hall with the panoramic sounds of radio calls and updates from an audio recording from an actual Emergency Operation Center (EOC). Moments later, they were assigned to carry out the typical roles in an activated EOC responding to a fictional hurricane hitting Castleton’s Campus and surrounding area. The simulation was a lesson in responding to risks and hazards.

Through long-term resiliency and preparedness stages, the exercises from Chandler and DeVincenzo challenged students to consider the way they responded to climatological events. Many of the subjects they covered and the simulation exercise mirrored the content they use across the country to engage communities in disaster preparedness. In their seminar about responding to climate deniers, Chandler and DeVincenzo discussed the complexity of the external world and gave students pointers on finding common ground with people who hold different world views.

The arrival of Lisa Dale, lecturer in the Undergraduate Major in Sustainable Development at Columbia University, signaled the conclusion of faculty visits, and a tour de force of educational programming. She led seminars in science policy and science communication in addition to hosting a climate change negotiation simulation.

Her session on climate policy began with an interactive lecture on the fundamentals of climate change policy. We explored the importance of both international and domestic policy layers, and considered the differences between mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Once students understood how international climate treaties work, we launched into a mock U.N. climate negotiation exercise called the World Climate Simulation. Students were assigned a country or interest group to represent, given briefing materials to help them prepare, and guided through two rounds of negotiations. Meanwhile, Dale played the role of U.N. leader. By the end of the 3+ hour session, the group had succeeded in developing proposals that would potentially limit global warming to 2 degrees! They were engaged, animated, and committed to their assigned role; perhaps more importantly, this experiential learning activity was fun and memorable. The simulation’s message was clear: continuing business as usual was not going to get us there.

Dale’s later session on climate communication was intended to help students both communicate science more effectively and become more aware of their own challenges in learning new scientific information. We explored scholarly models that offer different pathways for communicating, and we considered some insights from psychology about how people learn new information. Students were then guided through an activity to communicate a scientific finding of their choice in one minute. After sketching out their talk and practicing with a peer, several brave students performed their piece for the group.

After 12 days of faculty-led workshops, students developed passion projects to address the effects of climate change in their hometowns. Delivered as three-minute pitches, presentations targeted policy, infrastructure, and the environment. Ten students were selected to present their work to Columbia Climate School faculty and leadership in late July, and we cannot wait to share their ideas with you all!

Looking Ahead

The Columbia Climate School team has been blown away by the passion, engagement and knowledge of all of our participants, and we have learned so much from them through our various lectures and workshops. We look forward to involving another group of students in this pre-college program in summer 2022. We are also planning additional climate education programs in different locations, so stay tuned for more information. We are so excited to see what comes next!

To learn more about the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program, please contact Cassie Xu (cassie@ei.columbia.edu)

Media Inquiries: 
Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
marieda@ldeo.columbia.edu
845-365-8151