Climate Leaders @ Penn: The Blueprint for Interdisciplinary Climate Education

Sid Radhakrishna

Author: Sid Radhakrishna is a 2nd year MBA student at the Wharton School and the founding chair of Climate Leaders @ Penn. Sid served as an MBA Associate with Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion venture capital fund launched by Bill Gates that is dedicated to investing in transformative climate innovations.

Last July, I traveled to Denver for the ARPA-E summit, the premier conference for energy and climate innovation. There, I bumped into Jessica Grzyb, a Penn graduate student in chemical engineering whose studies focused on advanced battery chemistry. As a Wharton MBA student, I was interested in ways to finance and scale cleantech innovation. It became clear that there was so much we could learn from each other.

But why did it take a summertime conference 1,700 miles away from Philadelphia for us to meet?

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As globalization and the internet were for the generations before us, the impacts of climate change are far reaching and will only grow. To implement bold climate solutions, we will need millions of leaders like Jessica and myself collaborating across disciplines. Furthermore, employers that hire from places like Penn are increasingly taking climate action and need skilled graduates who are equipped from day one to help their organizations solve for climate risks and opportunities.

However, our nation’s universities vastly under-serve students in providing support for future climate leaders. There is no standard educational model being deployed with the speed and scale needed to match the urgency and scope of the climate crisis. And few harness peer-driven, professionally-focused learning models that cultivate the networks we will need to drive lasting cross-sector change. This gap puts society at massive risk of being ill-equipped to overcome the greatest challenge of our generation.

My conversation with Jessica spurred me to research effective student-led, interdisciplinary learning models at peer institutions.

One was Harvard’s Climate Leaders Program, a student-led and faculty-advised fellows program supported by the Harvard University Center for the Environment. In just two years since its launch in 2018, it has brought together 76 students from across Harvard graduate schools to develop skills and relationships that further their climate-related professional endeavors.

The other was the MIT Energy Club. Founded in 2004, it started as a weekly meetup for students interested in energy. It quickly blossomed into the largest student group on campus and catalyzed the creation of the MIT Energy Initiative.

When I returned to campus last September, I sought to create something similar at Penn. With support from Jessica and Katie Pitstick, a graduate student in landscape architecture, I facilitated a day-long workshop open to all Penn grad students. Over twenty of us gathered, focusing on one guiding question: “At our 10-year reunions, what type of climate education ecosystem do we want to see exist at Penn?” The 10-year timeframe was selected carefully— it coincides with the 2030 deadline set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by which humanity needs to take significant action to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe.

That day, we launched a University-wide student organization called Climate Leaders @ Penn (CL@P). We defined a mission to create a thriving ecosystem where Penn graduate students could be at the forefront of interdisciplinary leadership on climate change.

Pictured above: the Climate Leaders @ Penn board, March 2020. Left to right: Gautam Suresh (MSE’21), Jen Lessick (MES’21), Richa Agarwal (MES’21), Nic Renard (WG’21), Jessica Grzyb (MSE’20), Katie Pitstick (MLA’20), Sid Radhakrishna (WG’20). Photo credit: Jeff Turben (L’21)

Over the ensuing fall semester, we took several foundational steps. We organized educational programming such as a dinner conversation with Penn faculty to discuss how graduate students could take professional action on climate change. We represented the graduate student voice among key constituencies, like advising the Wharton Deans’ MBA Advisory Council on their initiative to help Wharton strengthen its climate offering. And through our students-only Facebook group, we aggregated and promoted the multitude of climate-related events happening across campus.

To better understand the climate needs of Penn graduate students, we launched a school-wide survey that received responses from 104 students representing 7 of Penn’s 12 graduate schools. Most startling: only 5% of students felt that Penn’s existing climate programs and opportunities met their needs and expectations, and only 13% were satisfied with opportunities to collaborate and build networks across Penn’s graduate schools.

The data made clear how we could best respond to this glaring need: 85% of respondents indicated they would apply to a climate fellowship run by CL@P. Students indicated that the outcome they valued most was joining an intersectional community and lifelong network of potential collaborators.

Students also signaled that such a program could be a significant differentiator for the University. Over three-quarters (79%) believed that the creation of a climate fellowship would signal Penn’s commitment to solving the climate crisis. Almost two-thirds (65%) felt that the existence of a climate fellowship would have set Penn apart when they were selecting graduate programs.

Thus, we moved forward with plans to launch our fellowship in Fall 2020. The student-led, faculty-advised program will provide focused support to approximately 24 of our best and brightest climate leaders from across Penn’s graduate programs. It will consist of interactive conversations with subject matter experts—many of whom are Penn faculty and alumni—career-focused professional development, and social events that build critical networks.  Participants will dive deep into topics such as sustainable cities, cleantech innovation, climate politics and public policy, and the intersection of climate change and public health. To build our curriculum, we leveraged proven models such as Harvard’s Climate Leaders Program and the Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellowship Program. The latter has equipped over 500 young professionals from across sectors with the skills and expertise to lead the transition to an equitable, decarbonized, and resilient energy ecosystem.

To execute our program, we focused on building an enduring organization that can carry the work forward. In the 2020-21 academic year, CL@P will be led by three co-chairs from Wharton, Engineering, and Arts & Sciences, and seven board members who extend our representation to Law, Design, and Medicine. Our team’s interdisciplinary nature will help us bridge across silos and broaden our reach across campus.

CL@P is also actively exploring collaboration opportunities with research centers across the University, such as the Environmental Innovations Initiative that was recently launched by the Penn Provost’s office. Faculty we have spoken with are incredibly excited about our model and have expressed interest in supporting its evolution going forward.

With over 200 general body members across Penn’s 12 graduate schools, CL@P has become Penn’s connective tissue and collective voice for grad students focused on climate change. We envision our fellows program alumni collaborating over the next decade to make a significant impact on critical climate challenges by our planet’s 2030 deadline. And we are eager to share what we learn with other universities so students can scale our model nationwide.

If society is to successfully implement novel, enduring solutions to climate change, it is going to take all of us, whether we are technologists, investors, policymakers, architects, physicians, or environmental advocates. The scale and complexity of the climate crisis will overwhelm the capacity of any specific knowledge system or professional methodology. So why not start now?

Originally published on April 28, 2020.

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