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York College professors help students dive into climate change

January 16, 2019
Chemistry students and their faculty advisors travelled to Poland for Climate Change Conference.

Dr. Keith Peterman can name nine reasons climate change is important to him — his nine grandchildren. For Dr. Greg Foy, it’s his three children and two grandchildren.

The pair of York College of Pennsylvania professors focus on research regarding climate change literacy and education, and since 2010, they’ve been taking students to an international climate change conference.

“This is a civilization challenging issue which requires recognition of a problem before you attempt to solve a problem,” Dr. Peterman says. “There’s a strong need that we must address it now.”

The two Chemistry professors serve as the organizers for a program that allows students to attend the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as delegates of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

While the program and conference are a mouthful to say out loud, the goal is simple, Dr. Peterman says: to have students speaking with students and work together toward a solution.

Peers teaching peers

A group of eight students from different institutions travel to the UNFCCC, which is on a different continent every year. The student delegates write blogs ahead of the conference on topics such as “Climate change and the 2018 senate elections” and “Climate change is science and not politics.”

The students continue to write blogs during and after the conference on their “Students on Climate Change” website. They use social media such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to share their messages, then pass those accounts to students who participate in the program the next year.

When students come back from the conference, they present at an ACS national meeting. So far, Dr. Peterman and Dr. Foy have published two books, with a third in process, that feature student-written chapters.

“We’re really proud of the project,” says Dr. Foy, an associate professor of Chemistry. “We think it’s doing important things for the future of the planet.”

Expanding worldviews

Dr. Peterman believes the program expands students’ global perspectives on issues such as climate justice, climate economics, climate science, and more. Some students have gone to graduate school for climate studies or work for companies and organizations focused on sustainability and climate change mitigation.

It’s not only the students who take part in climate change education and discussion, Dr. Foy and Dr. Peterman contribute blogs for a number of platforms. They attend the UNFCCC as credentialed press with The York Daily Record/Sunday News

Students must apply and get a student membership with the ACS and pay their own way, but they don’t need to meet any particular major requirements to participate.

“I’ve seen a list of maybe 100 different majors,” Dr. Peterman says. “Mathematics, biology, chemistry, forensic chemistry, environmental science. We even have one going this year who is international studies.”

The path forward

The range of majors is an indication of how the two professors would like to grow the program. Dr. Foy says he and his wife are working with Dr. Peterman to develop additional educational tools for climate science literacy for everyone from high school teachers to civic groups.

Dr. Foy believes the solutions to climate change must involve the future, and the next generation will need to carry it out. He hopes to see his generation institute policies that move climate change mitigation in a positive direction.

“We can start that rolling now,” Dr. Foy says. “We’ve got a generation who understands it — that generation can then carry it forward.”

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