Iowa State University Launches Cutting-edge Climate Science Major
November 28, 2022

Starting this semester, students at ACE member Iowa State University can major in climate science, a degree just a sprinkling of colleges across the country offer.

As climate change intensifies, the university is amplifying its efforts to understand and mitigate its effects. Iowa State is building on its robust geological and atmospheric sciences (GEAT) curriculum to focus on a subject college-age Americans are particularly concerned about and empower them to be part of a solution.

GEAT faculty hope that more institutions will follow Iowa State’s lead.

“Maybe we’ll be an example to other universities,” said Kristie Franz, professor and chair of the GEAT department, to the Ames Tribune. “I think the more students we get studying this topic, the better understanding we have of the challenges we face. It can only benefit society.”

Several students, both freshmen and upperclassmen, have already expressed interest in the major. Freshman Daniel Musel told Iowa Public Radio that the opportunity to major in climate science influenced him to attend Iowa State.

GEAT faculty are optimistic that the number of climate science majors will swell over the next few years.

“I think it’s a pretty good expectation that we’re gonna certainly get dozens of students, ultimately, who are majoring in this,” William Gutowski, a professor in the department, told the website AccuWeather.

The climate science curriculum is multidisciplinary and wide-ranging. It includes courses in geology, meteorology, oceanography, climate systems, and sustainability, as well as in economics, communication, and statistics. Students will concentrate in one of six “pathways”: advanced climate science; climate, food, agriculture, and biodiversity; data visualization; design and planning for sustainability; policy and human behavior; or science communication.

“We want to produce scientists who have a core understanding of the climate but are trained in a diversified way so that they can apply that science in different ways,” Franz explained to Iowa State Daily, the university’s student newspaper.

The program is likely to evolve over the next several years, adding experiential learning opportunities like study abroad, research, and internships. The curriculum itself is adaptable, with the potential to change to meet student demand or reflect changes in the underlying science.

Bringing the major to fruition has been a multiyear process, which began when GEAT faculty realized that Iowa State already offered all the courses a climate science major would entail. Serendipitously, John Graether, a philanthropist with ties to the university, was exploring how he could advance education about climate change. After learning of the department’s intent to add a climate science major, Graether pledged $2.2 million to Iowa State. This gift facilitated coordination of the major, hiring an additional professor, and is expected to fund experiential learning and scholarships.

Graether believes the new major will yield students “with not only the knowledge to meet the needs of a world under pressure from climate change, but also with the empathy and skill to convince the public of the stakes,” he said to the Iowa State University Foundation.

Franz anticipates the curriculum’s breadth will prepare students for the world they’ll inhabit after they graduate, she told Link, the magazine for Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a very different type of major, but I think it’s a major for the current century.” ​