Experiential Learning: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Amidst rising nuclear tensions and testing, our groundbreaking interdisciplinary course, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control, couldn’t be more relevant.

This team-taught course, created and taught by Professors Allen Sens (Political Science) and Matt Yedlin (Electrical and Computer Engineering)requires that students from the physical and life sciences, and the social sciences and humanities reach far beyond disciplinary boundaries and methods to gain a broader understanding of the history, politics, and scientific principles and practices of nuclear weapons and arms control.

The course pays particular attention to the political issues and debates, along with the scientific methodologies and verification practices associated with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). While the CTBT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, ratification by the United States, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and Israel is necessary before it can enter into force.


video credit: UBC Studios

For five students this June, the course’s novel approach extended into real-world, experiential learning at the CTBT: Science and Technology 2017 Conference (SnT2017) in Vienna. Here, the students presented their #CTBTcountdownchallenge, a social media campaign that reimagines the nuclear weapon security dilemma and the issue of trust between states, to raise awareness about the CTBT and to help push for its’ ratification.

photo credits: (c) www.annarauchenberger.com / Anna Rauchenberger


The UBC Contingent

Left to Right: Morgan Slessor, Veronica Tjokro, Veronika Ruskova, Allen Sens, Matt Yedlin, Bronwyn McCarter, Juan Bustamante
photo courtesy of Veronika Ruskova, Bronwyn McCarter

Professors Sens and Yedlin are regular attendees at the biennial SnT Conference, but this was the first time their students were invited to attend. The UBC student contingient was made up of two Mechanical Engineering students, Veronica Tjokro and Juan Bustamante, who are in their third and fourth years respectively; and three Political Science students, Veronika Ruskova and Morgan Slessor who are in their fourth year, and Bronwyn McCarter who graduated with a major in Political Science and a minor in Economics in May 2017.

The #CTBTcountdownchallenge

In the spirit of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the #CTBTcountdownchallenge aims to spread awareness about the ratification of the CTBT by creating viral content and urging others to take on the challenge. The challenge begins with two people facing each other with their eyes shut. They count down from ten, each with a cup of water in their hands, and they must decide to either throw water on their opponent before their opponent acts, or to trust their opponent and hold on to their cup of water – simulating the security dilemma that states face when nuclear weapons are part of the equation.

Prior to leaving for Vienna, the students secured the participation of UBC President Santa Ono in the challenge to help gain social media traction. At the SnT2017 Conference, they presented their challenge to conference attendees, and they were able convince the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, Dr. Lassina Zerbo, to take the challenge with them (full countdown video available here),

video credit: Miles Roston, Ethan Films

The SnT Conference Experience

At the Conference, the students also participated in the CTBTO Youth Forum, where they worked on advocacy measures for youth and young adults to promote nuclear weapons awareness and CTBT ratification. For Morgan Slessor, a conference highlight was, “working in the Conference Newsroom which was tasked with writing on the various panel discussions”. This gave him the opportunity work with a diverse array of members from the Conference Youth Group. For Veronica Tjokro, the chance to interview Princess Sumatra of Jordan, who is working to increase the awareness of the CTBTO, was one of her most memorable conference experiences.

New Perspectives, Renewed Hope

While the students were drawn to the Sen’s and Yedlin’s class for a variety of reasons (it stood out as unique, it offered a ‘flipped’ classroom experience, it came highly recommended from friends who had completed the course, and, it addressed their interest in international security), by the end of course, not only did they have a more robust and holistic understanding of nuclear weapons and arms control, but they had come to see ways in which science and politics are fundamentally intertwined when it comes to nuclear weapons, and how international organizations are working to collect and analyze data, and report nuclear weapons testing. (To learn more about the course and the topics discussed within the course, check out these course videos.)

For Veronika Ruskova, “the whole CTBTO experience altered my perspective of science in the international political sphere, changing the way I initially viewed the relationship between politics and science. After seeing how the two go hand in hand, discourse on the international stage needs both”. Post-conference, Ruskova found herself with two internship offers from international organizations, including the CTBTO.

With the conference and the course complete, Bronwyn McCarter remarked that for her, any conversation about nuclear weapons is incomplete until the CTBT is also considered. McCarter says she is optimistic that through public awareness “the topic of the ratification of the treaty will gain political traction, leading to the potential universal ratification of the treaty”. She notes that, “although the global nuclear situation is in an extraordinarily fragile state, and the CTBTO faces many challenges and obstacles, the optimistic and positive attitudes of people at the CTBTO  gave me hope, and made me excited to pursue my studies in Global Affairs [at the University of Toronto].” Her thoughts were echoed by Juan Bustamante, who explained that this experience “showed me that there is hope left for this increasingly scary world”.

The SnT2017 Conference experience was eye-opening and rewarding for the UBC contingent, who acquired first-hand experience and made invaluable connections within the international community that is working together to promote an end to nuclear testing, and a pathway towards a nuclear weapon-free world.

photos (c) www.annarauchenberger.com / Anna Rauchenberger, with the exception of second photo,  courtesy of Veronika Ruskova, Bronwyn McCarter