University of Miami: New class aims to foster climate-savvy leaders

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When she got a message last spring about a new class focused on climate resilience, University of Miami senior Sophie Walenta was itching to sign up. The more the marine affairs and ecosystems science and policy major read about the course, which is interdisciplinary, problem-driven, and discussion-based, the more intrigued she grew.

“I’d never heard of a class so upfront and modern,” she said. “It’s an urgent class, where the instructors are using an interesting way to go about problem-solving that is so relevant for our generation.”

To engage students as much as possible, the class is utilizing a flipped learning method, where the content is taught through a series of high-definition, cinematically choreographed lectures filmed across South Florida’s landscape with some of the University’s key climate faculty members sharing their niche of research.

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During a break in class, students get a chance to travel to places like Antarctica, Greenland, and others through a short 360-degree documentary presented on virtual reality headsets. Photo by Ali Habashi/University of Miami.
Walenta is one of just 36 students enrolled in the first offering of the course, which is taught by 13 experts from across the University. Instructors include some of the University’s most renowned researchers in climate modeling, extreme weather, coral reefs and coastal protection, sustainable building, resilient cities, climate driven migration and disaster management, climate justice and environmental law, as well as geographic information systems, data modeling, and visualization. The course was conceptualized as part of the University’s Climate Resilience Academy that launched last spring, and faculty members hope to offer the class again every semester, adding new instructors and new modules as the course evolves.

“We are fortunate to have world-class faculty at the University who are eager to share their expertise with our students through this class and to guide them toward finding viable, sustainable ideas to help our nation tackle the many unforeseen issues that we will face in a changing climate,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost.


Students watch the film segments and tackle their assigned readings before the in-person discussion-based class. Then, at the start of each weekly three-hour class, they have a virtual field trip with an industry expert. For the first class, Amy Clement, climate scientist and professor of atmospheric sciences, introduced the students to University alumna Stacy Aguilera-Peterson on Zoom about her role as an ocean policy specialist for the National Science Foundation and previously, in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

For the remainder of the course, students work in a group to help answer a climate-related question using a design thinking approach. This critical thinking process—streamlined through a shared online platform—helps students collaborate to narrow the problem, and then winnow down a list of ideas into the most impactful interventions, considering various stakeholders and even some unintended consequences.

“Climate and Resilience issues are often complex and involve a great deal of uncertainty,” said Ali Habashi, assistant professor of cinematic arts, award-winning filmmaker, and one of the principal creators of the course. “We are working to teach our students a way to embrace that uncertainty and have a solid workflow that would allow them to move forward with small, careful but meaningful steps—to develop evidence-based habits, while also understanding the importance of teamwork and collaboration for problem solving.”

Habashi and a team of current and former students cinematically produced the educational content for the class this summer. For example, Clement distills some of the major developments in climate change science while riding her bike up the Rickenbacker Causeway to the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science.

“How do we build a resilient community? We don’t have all the solutions yet. We have to build them and that’s what’s so exciting about this class,” said Clement, who has been teaching and doing climate modeling and research for more than 20 years. “You are going to be part of thinking about solutions and designing them for the future.”

In another segment, architecture professor Sonia Chao talks about resilient urban and building design practices while walking around the Perez Art Museum Miami, which was constructed using some of these methods. Later, she chats with Jim Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County about climate policies and adaptations already in motion locally. Marine biology professor Andrew Baker takes students on a tour of the local coral reefs and explains the biology as well as the existential threats to this species in warming oceans.

Tropical meteorologist, co-chair of the Climate Resilience Academy, and professor of atmospheric sciences Sharanya Majumdar speaks with a senior forecaster at the National Hurricane Center about how tropical storms and hurricanes will change as the climate warms. Anthropology professor Louis Herns Marcelin takes a car ride through Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, while chatting about gentrification and climate migration with a community leader. And Katharine Mach, professor of environmental science and policy, interviews Jane Gilbert, the nation’s first chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County, to discuss the challenges ahead.

As part of the class, students will also learn to sift through climate data and glean meaningful insights from it. Data scientists and geographic information systems experts Chris Mader and librarian associate professor Timothy Norris, along with associate professor of journalism Alberto Cairo, an expert in data visualization, will lead three different data literacy classes and guide students through a capstone project where they use the University’s Coral Gables Campus as a living laboratory to understand, evaluate, and assess the relationship between trees and heat. Through the project, students will utilize these new skills to create a visualization and to make recommendations to University administrators that could help increase the resilience of the Coral Gables Campus.

Toward the end of each class, students present potential climate-informed interventions for Miami that could be implemented today. In the first class, while one group thought sustainable public transportation would be a way to mitigate global warming trends, other groups proposed adding urban forests throughout the downtown area. Sophomore Hannah Heath, who is studying marine science and geology, said she was invigorated by the chance to brainstorm strategies to moderate the impacts of climate change.

“I am glad that UM is including students in this conversation because a lot of our lawmakers are older, and we have a lot of innovative ideas. So, it feels good to have our opinion heard,” she said.

Sophomore Bailey Byers is also motivated by the course. Byers, who is studying architecture, wants to make sustainable and resilient design a focus of his time at the University.

“It’s time in history to do this,” Byers said, referring to the creation of the class. “Learning more about climate resilience is one of my passions, so it’s exciting to see the University implement it in a course.”

Chao designed the course along with Habashi and other members of the Climate Resilience Academy’s education committee, including Norris, engineering professor and associate dean of student affairs Derin Ural, and Matt Acevedo, the University’s director of learning innovation and faculty engagement and executive director of information technology. Chao said she is excited to work with undergraduate students of all disciplines and envisions the class as part of the first-year experience at the University.

“In the same way that English and math are fundamental to a student’s higher learning experience, this course can teach them to become more resilient to climate realities, be it as individuals or as part of their community,” said Chao, who is also associate dean of research in the School of Architecture, co-director of the Master of Professional Science in Urban Sustainability and Resilience, and co-founder of the University’s Center for Urban and Community Design. “We hope that this class will make for great climate leaders. But at the very least, these students will be climate savvy and through the course they can see how they can contribute to developing solutions and driving needed change. This is chapter one of the Climate Resilience Academy, with many more to come.”

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