Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

How Polygence is Helping Students Tackle Climate Change

3 minute read

Key Takeaways

1. Climate change consistently ranks as a top issue for Gen Z

2. The number of Polygence research projects concerning climate change has increased 79% in the last year

3. Explore opportunities and resources to learn more about climate change and how you can get involved

infographic of how Polygence is Helping Students Tackle Climate Change
September 2023 hottest on record chart

This week, the 28th United Nations conference on climate change (COP28) is unfolding in Dubai. As usual, the proceedings have been contentious. How can world leaders be expected to drive towards net-zero carbon emissions, some commenters have asked, when the conference organizers themselves are hoping to ink new oil and gas deals? 

But in many ways, our leaders should be more motivated than ever to achieve the critical goal to “stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere” set at the original COP in 1992. After another summer of blistering heat and catastrophic wildfires, this September was the hottest ever recorded by a “gobsmacking” amount.

According to the U.N.’s own assessment, until now there have only been “baby steps” to address the underlying issues. That matches the prevailing sentiment of those whose lives will be increasingly affected by changes to earth’s climate. 

In fact, climate change registers as the issue of greatest concern for GenZ, the generation born roughly from 1997-2012. A 2021 study by Deloitte found that climate change and environmental issues were the top concerns for this group, ranking ahead of unemployment and healthcare. What’s more, an innovative study of more than 10,000 young people across the world found that climate change (and inadequate government response to it) are associated with feelings of anxiety and dread that affect mental health on a daily basis. 

At the same time, there are positive signs from both activists and legislators. Take the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which grew into one of the largest gatherings of native people in the Americas ever. It even inspired a waitress in New York to drive across the country, join the protest, and to launch an unlikely bid for congress when she returned home. 

That person–now Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–became an outspoken advocate for ambitious climate goals, taking a page from groups like the Sunrise Movement which aims to “to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” This agenda is gaining traction. According to Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, laws passed recently within the U.S. represent “by far the biggest federal push ever to reduce climate change.”  

How Polygence Students Are Making A Difference

As a research program that empowers young people to make a difference in the world, Polygence finds that climate change and environmental issues are motivating an increasing number of our students. Over the last year, we’ve seen a 79% increase in student projects that explored the topics of climate change, environmental science, and environmental studies. Research on national trends in college majors from Burning Glass shows this interest continuing into post-secondary education, where the number of environmental science degrees conferred each year has risen 24% since 2016

For these students, it’s especially meaningful to connect with expert mentors who share a passion for this important issue. Of the many mentors registered on our platform, more than 130 cite climate change as their primary area of focus, in fields ranging from impact investing and data science to marine biology and policymaking.

Mackenzie’s Solar Journey

Take Mackenzie. After studying environmental science, business, and sustainability at Penn State, she went to France to earn a graduate degree in viticulture and enology (aka wine making). There, she explains, “winegrowing is intricately linked with maintaining and promoting sustainable environmental ecosystems,” which helped her to frame the goals of her own career trajectory. 

She’s now a Portfolio Lead at QE Solar, where her team monitors, manages, and maintains huge solar projects. Although her background isn’t specifically in solar engineering, the knowledge and passion she’s developed in other studies and experience have helped her to become a leader in efforts to build a sustainable future. Having mentored nine individual Polygence student projects, she’s currently sharing her expertise in a Pod–a 6-week group class–on carbon sequestration techniques to fight climate change. “The discussions in this course knock my socks off,” Mackenzie recently shared. “The students are so incredibly intelligent and inspiring…One day, I hope we see this as part of every high school curriculum. Until then, I hope I make a small difference in their academic journey that will trickle down and help our Earth as well.” 

In addition to industry experts like Mackenzie, more than 30 Polygence mentors hold PhDs in some form of Environmental Science, introducing students to advanced research practices in the field. And these mentorships have led to some inspiring student projects.

Lily’s Biological Immortality Project

Lily, a high school senior from California, crafted an energetic, thought-provoking presentation on the question of human immortality by investigating longevity in the natural world. Exploring biological mechanisms of longevity found in hydra flatworms, Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, turtles, Aldabra tortoise, and lobsters, Lily examined “the evolutionary evidence behind why such mechanisms did not develop to promote negligible aging in humans.” Lily’s talk, “Keeping with the Dohrnii Jellyfish” was mentored by Sam, an MPH candidate at USC, and won first place at our March 2023 Symposium of Rising Scholars

Suraga’s Research On Greenhouse Gasses

Suraga, an 8th grader from California, also adapted a climate change focused research project for a presentation. Working with mentor Jacqueline, who holds a PhD in Ecology from Duke, Suraga explored which of the most common greenhouse gasses has the greatest warming effect on the planet. She conducted an experiment in which she filled bottles with greenhouse gasses and measured their change in temperature over time. Suraga also won first place in her edition of the Symposium of Rising Scholars, in part due to her demonstration of how creative scientific experiments can be designed and completed at home without the need for a lab. 

In fact, the project opportunities are endless since each is created by one of our students. Austin explored how switching to sustainable business practices can positively affect corporations and their social responsibility efforts. Connor wrote and published a statistical analysis of the correlation between rising global temperatures and frequency of wildfires. And Cecelia wrote a paper on how climate change affects animals in various marine ecosystems, from the Arctic to California’s Monterey Bay. Each of these projects is as unique as the student who created them, preparing them to make a difference in the specific ways they find most inspiring.

Where to find opportunities

When confronting a problem as pervasive as climate change, many of us might be left wondering where to start. With so many issues deserving of our attention, choosing which to focus on can be a real challenge. Fortunately there are lots of resources that can help shed light on the major issues at play and how we can get involved. A few good examples: 

At Polygence, our mission is to help students discover, explore, & share their passions with the world through projects. This makes it one of a small handful of programs dedicated to giving students opportunities to explore what's going on around them. 

For more information about these opportunities, here are some helpful links: 

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