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The 2020 Virtual Dialogue of Civilizations Program on Climate Change Science and Policy

By Auroop R Ganguly, David Deeter

The 2020 Dialogue of Civilizations at Northeastern University started out as an oxymoron in a world turned upside down by the novel coronavirus. We wondered how a “virtual study abroad” might look like and what that would mean for our students. While we were unable to travel to our original destination of Tanzania, we were able to provide a unique and interdisciplinary experience for our students, one quite unlike a typical virtual course. Though scaled down, our Climate Dialogue still retained an interdisciplinary flavor: the roster included civil and environmental engineering, environmental science and economics, as well as business and supply chain, majors and minors. Many wondered how we could provide an international cultural immersion to our students without being able to leave our homes, and how could we provide the experiential learning needed for the mock-up simulations we call “climate war games”. To meet this challenge, we developed a highly innovative curriculum in which participants learn from and work with professors and students from across the globe.

Typically, our Climate Dialogues comprise two such war games, the first focused on regional adaptation with students forming teams to represent regional (or intra-national) stakeholders; and the second focused on regional contributions to mitigation with students forming teams to represent international stakeholders. Our typical Climate Dialogues attempt to provide a comprehensive view of climate science, engineering, economics and policy. The Dialogues are intense. Here are samples from our typical Climate Dialogues: 2014 to India, 2015 to India, 2016 to India, 2017 to Singapore and Indonesia, 2018 to Peru and Brazil (Phase I-II and Phase III-IV), and 2019 to India and Nepal.

A Virtual Climate Dialogue

For our 2020 virtual Climate Dialogue, we made a few changes to the curriculum keeping in mind the differences and opportunities provided by a virtual environment. The first major upgrade was based on a partnership with Professor Udit Bhatia (a recent Northeastern alumnus: PhD 2019 from the Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory [SDS Lab] in Civil and Environmental Engineering) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar (IIT-GN) in Gujarat, India. Prof. Bhatia, who already had experience in this Dialogue as a teaching assistant, curriculum developer and lecturer, now officially join as a co-instructor. Furthermore, five engineering students from IIT-GN joined our Climate Dialogue, which already has five students from Northeastern University (NU) in Boston. The nationalities of the ten students included US, India and China. In addition, two students with undergraduate degrees from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, one in Civil Engineering and another in Industrial Engineering, joined the program to the extent possible. The ten students from NU and IIT were divided into five teams, with each team having one student from NU and one from IIT.

A Global Learning Experience

The courses retained the academic curriculum to the extent possible. We covered climate science and engineering in the first course, with an emphasis on climate models, data sciences, uncertainty analysis, along with translation to engineering design and operations. We were even able to incorporate a couple of guest lectures by NU GIS expert Bahare Sanaie-Movahed, along with discussion on risk mapping for COVID-19. The adaptation war games, which typically rely on our international experiential learning, were replaced with social entrepreneurships. Each NU-IIT team developed and presented an idea for a climate related social entrepreneurship with topics ranging from emergency management and ecosystem restoration to supply chain, financial risks and high-tech. Two guest lecturers, Dr. Evan Kodra (NU SDS Lab PhD 2014 and currently CEO of Boston-based startup risQ) and Prof. Sourav Mukherji (professor of organizational behavior and researcher in social entrepreneurship at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore), were crucial in this regard. We covered climate adaptation and policy in the second course, with methods in network science for urban infrastructure and coastal ecosystems; and briefly touched upon topics in behavioral science and environmental economics. The nine guest lecturers were drawn from across the world and had different levels of experience and expertise (from recent graduates to professors, practitioners, a CEO and a science adviser to the president of a nation) in an attempt to provide the students a comprehensive view of global best practices in climate resilience. Besides Dr. Evan Kodra and Prof. Sourav Mukherji mentioned earlier, the guest lecturers included the following: Prof. Rajarshi Majumder, professor of economics in India; Francisco Mendes, a civil engineer from Brazil; Shahed Najjar, currently with the Jordanian Embassy in the US; Lindsey Bressler and Rose Leopold with the Cadmus group in Washington, DC; Riddhi Samtani who originally hails from the island of Sint Marteen; and last but certainly not the least, a friend of our Climate Dialogue, Prof. Kemal Taruc, a recent NU Fulbright as well as a professor and policy adviser in Indonesia. The nine guest lecturers brought interdisciplinary expertise and experience from around the world and were instrumental for the success of our 2020 virtual Climate Dialogue. The students used their lessons learned and discussions within and across teams to represent cities or regions in US and in India for the final climate war games. Each team, comprising one NU and one IIT student, examined specific themes, such as ecosystems (Florida Everglades and the Sundarbans of Bengal) and high-tech (Silicon Valley and Bengaluru), with each team focusing on one city or region in the US and one in India. The final result from the virtual climate war games was a climate policy document which was shared with the guest speakers.

We look forward to our 2021 Climate Dialogue, currently planned for about a month in French Polynesia during Northeastern University’s Summer I (May and June 2021). We hope we will have left COVID-19 far behind by then. We missed Tanzania this year, but 2022 is not too far off, given how time flies!

Figure Caption: While a virtual study abroad (see Inset) provided unique challenges, our 2020 online Climate Dialogue identified new opportunities. Guest lecturers (e.g., top left: Prof. Sourav Mukherji speaks about social entrepreneurship) from around the world helped us appreciate global best practices in climate resilience. Online technologies helped us teach (e.g., bottom left: explaining the nuances of climate model uncertainty) climate sciences and engineering, including coding tutorials (e.g., bottom right: Prof. Udit Bhatia demonstrating random walk and Lorenz attractor codes in Python). The NU-IIT, Indo-US student teams pitched their social entrepreneurship (e.g., top right: a student team pitching their entrepreneurial idea) and presented their war games perspectives.   

Related Faculty: Auroop R. Ganguly

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering