Program White Paper: Global Change Initiatives

MS in Global Change Initiatives (Online; Hybrid)

PROGRAM DESCRIPTION: the MS in Global Change Initiatives is a unique, interdisciplinary program designed to train the next generation of international leaders committed to applying scientific, technological, policy, and management solutions to  social and environmental challenges across the globe. Depending on previous experience and interest, students could select from one of four tracks: Applied Science, Legal and Policy Studies, International Project Management, and Change Leadership. The program culminates in students completing a collaborative field project in one of five regions:

  • Africa
  • East Asia and Pacific
  • Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Middle East and North Africa
  • South Asia

In addition to required core and track courses, students could elect to take intensive language study at one of five site locations.

THE LANDSCAPE: while there are several interdisciplinary programs dedicated to addressing international social and environmental problems across the country, these programs are almost exclusively face to face, and tend to be situated either within public policy programs, or as extensions of programs in environmental studies or engineering. For example, Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center offers an additional interdisciplinary concentration for graduate students in biology or engineering seeking to focus on one of five specific “challenges” (habitat loss, introduction of non-native species, pollution, disease, and climate change).

The University of Minnesota’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change offers a Master of Development Practice for students interested in pursuing careers in international development, with a particular emphasis on problems of poverty, social justice, and sustainable development.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University serves as a research center devoted to supporting sustainability studies, and brings together a number of interdisciplinary masters and PhD programs from across the institution–including an MS in Sustainability Management through the School of Professional Studies. As part of its Executive Education Program, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard offers a series of non-credit seminars for Leaders of Nonprofit and Non-Governmental Organizations.

What would make the Global Change Initiatives program in SPS unique is that it would brings scientific and technical disciplines, public policy, law, and change management together within a single framework. With fully online and hybrid options, the program would also appeal to a broad cross-section of both domestic and international students seeking to collaborate on addressing issues of global importance.

STRATEGIC ADVANTAGES: the MS in Global Change Initiatives would be a signature program for SPS, building on and complementing the work of several existing programs, including the Master’s in Public Policy and Administration and the Master’s in Global Health.  Similarly, the program would resonate strongly with the work supported through the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern, which offers graduate and undergraduate students opportunities to engage in a number of international research, service learning, and exchange initiatives.

As part of the proposed program, students might be required to complete an international field project. In support of this work, students would have the option of completing intensive language and culture instruction through one of several affiliated educational partners in each of the regions. Both of these aspects of the program would be enhanced by the outstanding efforts of both Northwestern’s Study Abroad Office and Council of Language Instruction.

Faculty for the program could be drawn from across the university, as well as from working practitioners from across the world.

TARGET AUDIENCES: delivered in both fully online and hybrid modalities, the MS in Global Change Initiatives would potentially appeal to both domestic and international students across multiple disciplines and sectors. Several courses in the program would certainly appeal as electives for current Northwestern graduate students and staff. Another audience would be students and working professionals in technical and scientific disciplines looking for an alternatives to a Master of Applied Science degree. Indeed, while “applied science” is currently suggested as one of four tracks, another option might be to market and offer the program as an MS/MASc.


The program would be designed around several key curricular features–culminating in a cohort based field project.

The Core: all students would complete a series of core courses designed to introduce key concepts and research on global challenges and change. Some possibilities include:

  • History of Globalization
  • Social Entrepreneurship in International Contexts
  • Theory and Practice of Global Change
  • Managing Global Initiatives

The Tracks: students would complete several courses specific to their particular track. Some possibilities include:

  • Applied Science: Engineering Ethics and Sustainable Solutions; Biotechnology in Agriculture and Society.
  • Legal and Policy Studies: Environmental Justice; Law, Policy & Communities;
  • International Project Management: Developmental Planning; Logistics and Global Resource Development.
  • Change Leadership: Organizational Perspectives on Global Development; Leadership in Non-Profit Organizations.

Capstone Project: as an integral part the Global Change Initiatives program, students work in teams to complete a field project designed to address a significant social, technological, or environmental challenge in one of six regions.  Teams are free to independently propose and pursue a project, or partner with one of several participating organizations/sponsored initiative. For example, teams could potentially work with organizations such Engineers Without Borders or The Rainforest Alliance.

While numerous models exists for coordinating collaborative service projects, one very successful initiative that might provide a useful framework is Design for America, a network originally spearheaded by faculty in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering that supports cross-disciplinary student teams from around the country as they formulate and complete projects aimed at addressing complex challenges in real-life contexts.