Nobel Prize winner talks climate change with students

Nobel Prize winner talks climate change with students

Nov. 30, 2017

It’s a class for non-science majors, but Dr. Drew Crain believes his Biology 111: Fundamentals of Biology course includes so much consequential material for global citizens that he regularly invites a Nobel Peace Prize winner to present.

Crain, professor of biology at Maryville College, welcomed Tom Werkema, Jr., to class Nov. 20, where his presentation “The Science of Climate Change” was heard by more than 40 students. Designed as an introduction to basic biological concepts, Biology 111 encourages students to develop three competencies: the ability to apply the process of science; the ability to use quantitative reasoning; and the ability to use modeling.

“My syllabus states that ‘Students will develop the skills necessary to understand and critically use the scientific mode of inquiry to explore the natural world and, in doing so, will understand the importance of scientific literacy for the liberally educated individual,’” the professor said. “I’m certain that any student in class today will attest to the importance of scientific literacy in our world today.

“I hope my non-science major students will appreciate that the topics we are studying are important, whether we are discussing mitosis and cancer, evolution and antibiotic resistance, or CO2 emissions and climate change,” he added. “Having a Nobel Peace Prize winner deliver the climate change lecture reinforces this point.”

Werkema, who holds degrees in chemical engineering and business administration, built and ran chemical plants for 20 years and is an internationally recognized expert on climate change and ozone depletion science and politics. Along with other members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. (The prize was awarded jointly to IPCC and Former Vice President Al Gore.)

Crain learned some years ago that Werkema had retired to Blount County and asked him to participate in a panel discussion about science and religion. Since then, Werkema has spoken to Crain’s students on four occasions.

On Nov. 20, he took students through PowerPoint slides with data showing a dramatic increase in the levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in recent years compared to levels over thousands of years of history. He made connections to global warming and rising sea levels and talked about the consequences of environmental changes, noting that most changes “effect the least able citizens of the world in a negative way.”

Werkema acknowledged that scientists aren’t in agreement about how much humans are responsible for climate change but said there is consensus that the Earth is getting warmer, and models show temperatures of the atmosphere and oceans rising for the foreseeable future.

“… one thing we can agree on is that we are conducting a massive experiment on a global basis,” he added.

The key for citizens, he said, is to decrease their energy consumption, since research exists that links an increase in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to energy production and use.

As a follow-up to Werkema’s visit, Crain led a discussion Nov. 27 about actions that students can take to lead more energy-efficient lives. Steps ranged from driving 10 percent less to planting trees to provide shade.

“This discussion is a perfect transition to the next topic in the class, which is sustainability,” he said. “Later in the semester, I will have Bruce Guillaume, MC alum and director and founder of Mountain Challenge, explain how a 169-year old building on the Maryville College campus was made energy efficient through the LEED certification process.” 

Student inspired to be ‘more mindful’

Lana Linebarger, a sophomore psychology major enrolled in Biology 111, plans to pursue a law career and represent victims of crimes. She said she enrolled in Crain’s class to fulfill a core curriculum requirement but also because she was interested in the topic.

When Werkema’s visit was announced, Linebarger, from Afton, Tenn., said she was excited about the opportunity to hear from a Nobel prize winner and researched his career prior to the visit.

“I was not familiar with his message before his visit, but my research allowed me to conclude his expertise on climate change and ozone depletion would be noteworthy,” she said.

Linebarger said his presentation inspired her to be “more mindful” of her carbon footprint.

“I was most captivated about his statements regarding methods of indicating temperature from the past such as CO2 levels in petrified wood and ice cores from Vostok. To truly realize our contribution to rising levels of CO2 is to examine this evidence with a goal of reducing anthropocentric damage to our Earth in the future,” she said. “I am inspired to be more mindful of my energy use and take the initiative to live cleaner with energy saving strategies or products.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.