‘Inside the Greenhouse,’ students hone a message

Student Clara Boland (left) speaks with Rebecca Safran of ecology and evolutionary biology during the course “Inside the Greenhouse," an innovative course at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Noah Larsen.

By Clint Talbott

Clara Boland didn’t fully appreciate coal’s role in her life until she did some digging. That meant going to Paonia, a small town in Western Colorado, which has mined coal for more than a century.

Boland’s aim was to create a short documentary film for a course on conveying climate science through film. Her journey began in Boulder, where young people called coal “yesterday’s fuel,” dirty and toxic.

Longtime Paonia residents like Alan Austin said it’s easy to “sit in our ivory towers and look down at coal miners.” Actual life in a coal town is not, he said, so black and white.

As Boyd Boland, Clara’s father, said on screen, coal fuels the American dream, providing good-paying jobs. “Without coal, I don’t think this community could survive.”

Boland acknowledges that burning coal produces greenhouse gases and harmful airborne particulates. “But when you’re here, those problems are somebody else’s problems.”

In the film’s final scene, Clara Boland strides across a small mountain of coal. She says that the North Fork Valley— a tightknit area that feels more distinctly western than the resort towns on the other side of McClure Pass—needs a “shift in thinking,” and that Paonians can create safe, new jobs in clean energy.

It is early February. Boland and her professor, Rebecca Safran of ecology and evolutionary biology, are guest speakers in a new course at the University of Colorado Boulder that aims to explore innovative, creative and effective ways to convey climate-change science and its implications.

That course, called “Inside the Greenhouse,” takes Safran’s concept and runs with it. It is team-taught by two faculty members: Beth Osnes and Maxwell Boykoff from theatre and dance and environmental studies, respectively.

These disciplines seldom rub elbows. But in this course, cross-disciplinary teaching—collaboratively analyzing issues from the disparate lenses of social science, natural science and the arts and humanities—is intentional.

Maxwell Boykoff, assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a recognized expert in media representations of climate science, illustrates a point during class. Photo by Noah Larsen.

The goal, Boykoff notes, is to “reach people where they are”

The course is an experiment, one of several interdisciplinary courses supported by the Gordon Gamm Fund, named after local philanthropist Gordon Gamm.

Boland is addressing the class that hopes to learn from her, as she herself has learned. In retrospect, she says, her film’s conclusion might be a stretch. “I don’t think a community like Paonia can easily make such a huge shift.”

As Professor Safran noted, it is a challenge to convey scientific information on climate change in a way that “doesn’t just spell depression.” Osnes and Boykoff see that challenge and, have, from their respective disciplines, addressed it.

Disciplinary cross-pollination

Todd Gleeson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explains that cross-disciplinary interaction of two faculty members “creates opportunities for new scholarship, research, and creative works that may not happen in the absence of these courses.”

That description fits here: Osnes and Boykoff each has a distinguished academic record. Together, they make a synergistic powerhouse.

Besides teaching and researching in the Department of Theatre and Dance, Osnes, a former Fulbright Scholar, has a lead role in an award-winning 2011 documentary called “Mother: Caring For 7 Billion,” which features the contrasting lives of Osnes and an Ethiopian woman and which effectively frames the population explosion with these individual narratives.

Boykoff is the author of a 2011 book—“Who Speaks for the Climate?”—which has been called a “path-breaking” analysis of mass-media representations of climate science.  He is a fellow in CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and a senior visiting research associate in the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. His research has been cited in Science, Nature, The New York Times, CNN and Columbia Journalism Review.

Coached by these two experts, small groups of students enrolled in “Inside the Greenhouse” will create two “compositions”—original expressions ranging from “choreopoems” to a video montage.

After creating both compositions, each group will choose one to revise and polish, drawing from feedback from the class, the professors and an outside expert panel.

Then collectively, the whole class will create a 30- to 40-minute program—also called “Inside the Greenhouse”—which will include work generated by students and will feature excerpts from an on-stage interview with a “high-profile public figure who has been wrestling with questions regarding climate science, policy and the public.”

Brainstorming communication

That’s all yet to come. But on this day in class, the students observe Clara Boland’s work before describing their concepts for their own compositions.

One group, for instance, assembles at the front of the room and describes its concept: following a person who wastes energy all day. Then, the students say, the scenes will rewind, and the protagonist will make different choices—to conserve energy. At the end, there might be a message that each person can make easy, meaningful choices.

Beth Osnes, assistant professor in Theatre and Dance, engages with students during the class. Photo by Noah Larsen.

Osnes observes that in a short video, only one artistic device should be employed. That will help drive the point home, she suggests. Further, she notes, it’s not clear why the protagonist would change her behavior.

Perhaps the pivotal scene would involve a “drop-dead gorgeous guy” who’s conducting survey about energy usage. A dreamy dude, Osnes suggest, could motivate behavioral change.

Another group of students proposes a variation on a series of commercials from Liberty Mutual, an insurance company. The original commercials depict a series of selfless acts that appear contagious. The tagline is “Responsibility. What’s your policy?”

Boykoff, an expert in climate communication, says being overly earnest could be a “pitfall” that could keep the message from being effectively heard.

Osnes, whose expertise is communication from the stage, concurs: “If using clean energy doesn’t look like fun, that won’t work. Showing somebody freezing in a yurt won’t work.”

Before the class departs, Osnes challenges the students to commit fully to the project. “Let’s do this for real,” she says, emphasizing the point with a quotation from the poet Mary Oliver:

“What is it you’re going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Behind the scenes

Gordon Gamm suggests that such a learning environment fosters critical-thinking skills and enables academic disciplines to be enriched by perspectives from other disciplines.

Gamm is an attorney, but has “interests in a number of disciplines.” He was a philosophy major and taught high school honors math before becoming a lawyer.

He was in a Ph.D. program in communication science and linguistics after receiving his law degree. In law school, he studied comparative law—how legal systems in nations throughout the world resolve civil disputes.

In an interview, he highlights discipline myopia with the example of Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman who, while testifying before Congress, acknowledged that he had been wrong in subscribing to libertarianism for his entire economic career. The evidence of the 2008 economic collapse convinced him that markets are not self-correcting, that regulatory oversight is necessary.

Greenspan exemplifies the perils of discipline myopia, Gamm says.  Similarly, he offers examples in several academic disciplines of their being stymied by artificial boundaries. Thus, “bringing people in from another discipline is a refreshing way of revitalizing them.”

Gamm is eager to see the results of the interdisciplinary program. Meantime, he says the Osnes/Boykoff course seems a fitting way to highlight a productive intersection of theatre and environmental science.

“It’s a good marriage.”

For more information about supporting academic programs, contact Carroll Christman, senior director of development at the CU Foundation, at 303-541-1450 or carroll.christman@cufund.org. For more information on “Mother: Caring for 7 Billion,” see http://www.motherthefilm.com/. For more information on “Who Speaks for the Climate?” see http://www.climatescienceandpolicy.eu/2012/01/who-speaks-for-the-climate-boykoff-tries-to-make-sense-of-media-reporting-on-climate-change/

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