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New program to study wide-reaching effects of climate change

David McKinney/University Relations

Faculty and staff learn about wheat harvesting at the farm of Don Steeples, senior vice provost, near Palco as part of the Wheat State Whirlwind Tour. The Steeples farm will be one of many remote locations of study as part of a new interdisciplinary grant that will study the effects of climate change.

A groundbreaking new training program for graduate students at KU is exploring the impact of climate change on Earth's biology, ecology and social systems. Known as C-CHANGE (Climate Change, Humans, and Nature in the Global Environment), the program's goal is to develop experts in science, engineering and policy who will become tomorrow's leading voices on the "grand challenge" of climate change.

The debut C-CHANGE class began this fall for an initial cohort of five trainees who are graduate students in biology, geography, geology, public administration and sociology.

"This is a program for students who are in doctoral programs now, but who wish to make their training more interdisciplinary, focusing on global climate change," said Joane Nagel, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology, who is heading C-CHANGE. "Students will take classes that will be taught by geoscientists, social scientists, engineers and bioscientists. They will come away with their own disciplinary training, but also with coursework, ideas and perspectives that combine all of these disciplines."

A $3 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the new program, the first such grant awarded in the state of Kansas. Over the next five years, 22 doctoral students will complete the C-CHANGE curriculum to receive a special certification on their doctoral degrees. Still more students will have access to courses and activities of the program as IGERT associates.

C-CHANGE trainees will roam the globe to better grasp implications of Earth's changing environment. Fieldwork destinations for the students include communities in Kansas, a retreating ice sheet in Greenland and a changing Monarch butterfly habitat in Mexico. In their courses and fieldwork, trainees will get hands-on research experiences and cross-disciplinary skills.

"Climate change is a global phenomenon and the way scientists study it varies according to where you are in the world," said Nagel. "These different settings allow different kinds of data to be collected and different understandings of how climate change is going to shape local systems."

The program extends beyond KU to include faculty, students and facilities at Haskell Indian Nations University where students and researchers will work together on projects investigating climate change in indigenous communities. Trainees also will take part in advanced scientific work underway across the KU campus at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, Biodiversity Institute and Institute for Policy and Social Research.

Unique C-CHANGE coursework will stress collaborative classroom study that connects a range of climate change disciplines to focus on problem solving.

"Our first course is titled 'Climate Change, Ecological Change and Social Change,' and it's being taught by a climate historian, a biologist and a geologist," said Nagel. "We'll meet once a week this semester, and we'll include in the course a trip to the Land Institute in Salina and to Senior Vice Provost Don Steeples' wheat farm in Palco. We'll have a chance to compare perennial agriculture with annual agriculture, and see how climate change is likely to affect plants and farming in Kansas."

C-CHANGE students also will complete a summer internship in climate policy.

"They might go to Washington, D.C.," Nagel said. "They might go to Topeka and they might work for a government agency or an NGO or a private foundation that's focused on climate policy."

Nagel said the C-CHANGE initiative will produce graduates who grasp the implications of climate change from many scientific and cultural perspectives. Equally as important, they will have enough firsthand familiarity with environmental issues to make a positive difference in their careers as academics, researchers and thought leaders.

"They want to know what's going on geologically, biologically and socially from a science policy perspective and with land use," said Nagel. "They'll get to see on the ground how scientists measure and understand climate change. They might get any one of these chances in a course of study in a discipline -- but they wouldn't get all of them. And that's going to make them very well-rounded scientists."

The establishment of the C-CHANGE program was marked with a reception on Tuesday, Sept. 23 in The Commons on the Lawrence campus. Event organizers produced a "green" event that had minimal impact on the environment.

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