By Caitlin Looby, Climate Communications Writer

Stereotypical graduate students spend their days toiling away on esoteric details isolated inside the walls of an ivory tower. But at UC Irvine, a new educational program developed by ecology professor Steven Allison is breaking down these walls to help address climate change. Allison’s  Climate Action Training (CAT) program strives to prepare graduate students for relevant careers in climate and sustainability.

Reaching across campus

What makes the CAT program unique is its interdisciplinary approach. Graduate students from programs like Anthropology and Engineering learn and work alongside each other, bringing together different viewpoints and methods to tackle climate change.

Kelly Ramin, a CAT participant in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, believes that “by engaging with people in other fields, I’ve been able to see alternative approaches to combat the same problem.”

On the other hand, students in the social sciences see this as an opportunity to engage in discourse.

 “I now feel comfortable approaching someone in the hard sciences to discuss climate change, and I certainly wouldn’t have done that before,” said Master’s student Mark Newmann.

Climate solutions are not specific to a single field; it is important that scholars look beyond traditional academic boundaries. This inclusivity—a cornerstone of the CAT program—is crucial for finding effective climate solutions.

Danilo Caputo, an English student specializing in Shakespearean drama, observes that “no matter what disciplinary background you come from you have a set of skills that can be applied in unexpected and meaningful ways.”

Kelly Ramin doing field work in a river.

Ramin takes water samples in a river during her internship at the SCCWRP. This opportunity taught her about the culture and tempo of a non-academic institution while honing her scientific techniques.

Breaking academic walls

Besides its multidisciplinary focus, this program requires participation in a non-academic internship. Students intern with organizations relevant to their career goals, including the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), Caltrans, and UCI Regional Climate Resilience Project.

At SCCWRP, Danica Loucks drafted a literature review for an advisory report to the state water board. This internship gave her invaluable training in transforming scientific results into a format that’s useful to policy makers. She thinks that this process will also be helpful for her own anthropological research on how scientists communicate and cooperate.

Kelly Ramin mixed field and laboratory work during her internship at SCCWRP where she studied how bacteria and algae interact in a freshwater river and how this may affect nutrients. Aside from learning new techniques, Ramin gained a unique new lens from working outside academia.

Through his internship at Caltrans, Mark Newmann learned the basics of urban and transportation planning, giving him a new perspective on the agency.

“I thought of Caltrans to be mostly engineers and architects working on freeways, but now I see they are responsible for preserving and protecting the environment,” said Newmann. For instance, Caltrans employees make sure freeway onramp meters are timed correctly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Communicating the tough stuff

A key goal of the CAT program is training students to communicate effectively about climate change. Because of the sustained contact between disciplines, CAT participants can cross these boundaries more easily. With sharper awareness and skills, the trainees can tackle complex climate challenges with the public.

Being in the program teaches students to frame difficult topics in a way that the average educated layperson can understand, while considering people’s values and norms. After poring over the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report—an authoritative but dense academic treatise—CAT students recognized the value of climate messaging through op-eds or even works of fiction.

New outlooks

Across the UCI campus, the program is having downstream, positive effects. English student Danilo Caputo incorporated his new perspective into the writing class he teaches that explores climate change as a social issue.

“The CAT program has prepared to me to guide my students through the topic through scientific, political, and cultural contexts,” said Caputo. Caputo is confident that he can inspire students to take action on climate issues.

The CAT theme of inspiration through action is spreading across UCI’s campus. Students, research efforts, and community partners are all benefitting from the new mix of ideas. The CAT training model showcases what can be accomplished when diverse minds work together to solve a problem.

To learn more about the CAT program, and check out apps that the students created, visit Steven Allison’s page on our website.