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WPI Launches Pioneering Graduate Program in Community Climate Adaptation

The interdisciplinary, project-based master of science program will prepare professionals, versed in technology and the social sciences, who can help communities prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change
March 23, 2021

Rising sea levels, supercharged storms, persistent droughts, and raging wildfires: the effects of rising atmospheric temperatures are already apparent, and will likely become more prevalent in the decades ahead despite efforts to curb or reverse global climate change. Recognizing a growing national need for professionals with the expertise to help communities and organizations adapt to this new reality, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has launched a first-of-its-kind master of science program in Community Climate Adaptation.

The interdisciplinary program draws on the university’s more than half-century of experience with project-based learning and its pioneering undergraduate Global Projects Program. It is offered jointly by WPI’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Integrative and Global Studies, and housed within The Global School, the newest of WPI’s four academic schools. The 30-credit program includes 10 credits of project work (the Graduate Qualifying Project), with the final credits completed in the third semester. 

Most existing graduate programs on climate change focus on either its science or its policy implications. WPI’s program, however, will immerse students in an emerging field that begins with the assumption that the world is locked into a warming trend that will continue for decades to come (nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in just the last decade and a half and several more degrees of warming are predicted by the end of the century). Therefore, it is vital that communities around the globe become more resilient and able to adapt to the inevitable impacts of a changing climate.


“Just as the field of public health emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to address problems of epidemic infectious disease, we now need to train a workforce that understands how to help communities adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and move forward in sustainable ways,” said Sarah Strauss, professor of integrative and global studies, who co-directs the program with Jeanine Dudle, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Reflecting the highly transdisciplinary nature of climate change and the challenges it poses to cities and towns around the world, students in the program will gain expertise in a number of fields, including engineering, social science, and the physical and biological sciences. They will learn to use that knowledge as they seek to understand the complex network between resources, environment, climate, and people in a community or region. With this approach, students will be better equipped to work with community partners—governments, businesses, and nonprofits—to find solutions appropriate to local contexts.


Grants and Funding

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Start Expanded

Students entering the program will be assigned to interdisciplinary cohorts that integrate students with technical and social science backgrounds. Each team will be assigned to one of WPI’s global project centers using a process that takes into consideration the skillsets of team members (including technical expertise and foreign language proficiency); a Massachusetts project center will always be among the choices. The teams will work together at the project sites on interdisciplinary projects that may focus on a broad range of themes, including water resources and quality, loss of land and economic impacts, actual and projected problems of infrastructure inadequacy, differential health and social impacts, and extreme weather events. The specific site and process issues associated with a team’s project will inform the rest of their graduate program.

“Graduates will have developed comparative, collaborative, and holistic understanding of critical global problems, and they will be well equipped to solve them,” Dudle said. “The teams will learn that their capacity for problem solving depends not on everyone bringing the same skillset to the table—however broad that may be—but rather on learning how to work together and with local communities to bring about positive change.”

“We expect that this focused degree program will provide great value for students through a unique participatory experience that is rarely found at the graduate level,” Strauss added, “as well as generating a strong foundation for faculty research and enhanced institutional impacts in the communities where we live and work.”


Students in the program will benefit from the diverse expertise of the program’s 20 faculty members, whose wide-ranging research interests include energy, global environmental change, water quality and treatment, natural materials and their interaction with the environment, urban geography, livelihood studies, global justice, and human-environment geography. “Students can work with faculty across the university to gain collaborative and comparative perspectives on climate change adaptation strategies,” Dudle said.

The market for climate change adaptation education is strong, as are the prospects for employment in the field. TalentDesk, a job search website, projects that the profession of climate change/environmental scientist see an 11 percent growth rate while the profession of climate change analyst will see a growth rate of 12 percent. Graduates of WPI’s program are expected to find employment opportunities in state and local governments, NGOs, businesses preparing for a climate-impacted future, state and national parks and historic monuments, and local and regional branches of federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service.

WPI’s Community Climate Adaptation program, which will begin in the Fall of 2021, is open to students with a bachelor’s degree in social science, environmental studies or science, the physical or biological sciences, or engineering. “The program is designed to integrate opportunities for learning and expanding knowledge of both technical and non-technical backgrounds, and we encourage students with a wide range of academic and practical experience to apply,” Strauss said.

For more information about the program, visit https://www.wpi.edu/academics/study/community-climate-adaptation-ms.