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Science Prof Wins $340K NSF Grant for Climate Simulation

CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga Aims to Reach 3,000 College Students Nationwide

Engineering faculty take part in the World Climate Simulation Photo by Ed Brennen
Engineering faculty participate in the World Climate Simulation, which Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga will be introducing to 3,000 college students nationwide thanks to a $340,000 NSF grant.

07/18/2017
By Ed Brennen

Nearly 35,000 people in 74 countries have haggled over issues like carbon emissions reductions and temperature rise by taking part in the World Climate Simulation over the past two years. The role-playing exercise, developed in part by UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative Director Juliette Rooney-Varga, teaches participants the complex dynamics of United Nations climate change negotiations.

Thanks to a three-year, $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Rooney-Varga will begin introducing the simulation to 3,000 college students in Alabama, Maine and Massachusetts this fall.

The research project is a collaboration with the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization that works to expand opportunities for more than a million low-income, first-generation college students each year through its federally funded TRIO student support programs.

The goal of the study, Rooney-Varga says, is to determine whether first- and second-year college students who take part in the simulation are more likely to become engaged with sustainability initiatives on their own campuses.

“We know people say they want to learn more and do more, but we don’t know if they actually follow through,” says Rooney-Varga, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Our hypothesis is that simulations can motivate action informed by science across political divides.”

Rooney-Varga will run the simulation for students and faculty at three pilot schools this fall: the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Maine and UMass Boston. The research group, which also includes CCI members Victoria Kurker and Phyllis Procter, will then track and measure the outcomes of the students who did the simulation against control groups on each campus that did not.
CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga leads the simulation Photo by Ed Brennen
Climate Change Initiative Director Juliette Rooney-Varga has updated the World Climate Simulation to account for the United States' recent political shift.

In Year 2, the project will expand to more institutions across the country. “We’ve set a target goal of reaching 3,000 students over the life of the grant, but we’re hoping it’s much higher than that,” says Rooney-Varga, who expects that once faculty have been taught how to run the simulation on each campus, they will be able to implement it on their own and share data online.

Rooney-Varga says they are targeting institutions that have both a TRIO program and are members of Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS program — the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

Shifting political climate

The role-play exercise, which Rooney-Varga has helped develop through her work with Climate Interactive, takes into account current climate change science — as well as global politics. Given the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, Rooney-Varga had to rewrite the simulation’s briefing statement to reflect this shift. 

“Even though the U.S. has initiated withdrawal, we’re technically still at the table. The reality is the process will take three years,” says Rooney-Varga, who already noticed a profound shift in negotiations while running the updated simulation for a group of executive MBAs this summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where she was on sabbatical for the past year).

“What we saw was, just like in the real world, the shift in the role play was away from the U.S. and toward China,” she says. “The Chinese delegation ended up getting barraged by everybody because they really hold the keys. They actually ended up locking themselves in a room to have a conversation away from the group. And the U.S. team was kind of off on its own and irrelevant.”

Rooney-Varga, who recently ran the simulation for the director of wargaming at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., has grown to realize its importance in reaching a broad audience.

“We initially thought we’d target top-level policymakers and that would get the job done,” she says. “We were naive.”