Teachers Tackle Climate Change Through Film

High school students at Nederland Middle-Senior High School in Colorado participated recently in an innovative approach, outlined in a report from the National Science Teacher’s Association, to teaching students about climate impacts in their communities. For Nederland students, this meant exploring the nearby Arapaho Glacier which provides their drinking water supply.

Both the South and North peaks of the Arapaho Glacier. (Source: Greg Willis/Creative Commons).

The Arapaho Glacier is located north of Boulder, Colorado, within the Rocky Mountains. It stands as the largest glacier in the state at a quarter-mile long, a half-mile wide, and 15-feet thick. However, during the last century, the Arapaho has lost over half of its area and may be completely gone within the next 60 years. This fits within the pattern that many small glaciers are facing worldwide— rapid retreat.

The idea is to get Nederland students to engage with climate change, a complex and often abstract concept, by creating a “short, documentary-style film about environmental changes in their community” through a three-phase process. “This approach combines science learning with engaging storytelling and artistic elements, which makes it appealing and accessible to different types of learners,” according to the report.

Science Research and Film Production Phases with Tasks (Source: Science Scope).

The students begin with a research phase to obtain a strong foundation of scientific knowledge from which to conceptualize and map out the documentary. Experts and community members are incorporated during the production phase, where interviews, narration, animation, and student-recorded footage are gathered. The students then edit and build the final-cut of the film during the third phase— post-production.

Throughout the filming process, students were able to interview a glaciologist from the nearby University of Colorado as well as a local water manager. To personalize the assignment and topic further, students also participated in a hike in the mountains behind their school which offered views of the glacier, emphasizing its proximity.

Curriculum Gap

Even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-induced climate change is happening, this may not be taught to students studying climate science. Some states have started to require that lessons on climate change include human activity as a major cause, but “few, if any, have provided a road map for how to teach it, and most science teachers, according to one recent survey, spend at most two hours on the subject,” according to the New York Times.

The documentary-style approach outlined in the report not only fills a gap in curriculum but attempts to achieve learning goals better than other methods. “Videos can have greater impacts than hearing or reading about the topics, in part because seeing the dynamics of melting glaciers creates interactions and demands responses lacking in other forms of communication,” says Mike Passow of the Earth2Class Workshops for Teachers at Columbia University and the National Earth Science Teachers Association.

The need for a place-based environmental project of this type is apparent. For example, before the project began, none of the students were aware of the source of their community’s drinking water supply, according to the report. After the completion and film screening of their work, the students were more aware of the importance of the Arapaho Glacier to their daily lives and better able to inform their peers and local community members.

Student Support

Student feedback received at the end of the assignment was largely positive, indicating that students felt motivated and transformed. “The program made them more aware of climate impacts in their communities and inspired them to make changes in their daily lives to reduce fossil fuel consumption,” according to the report.

This is a key outcome. As Passow asserts, “Identifying the local issue of water supply fosters consideration of the global issue of changing climates.”

Simply put, this new approach may best be summarized by a catch-phrase that Passow took note of when he first began teaching in the 1960s: “The Real World Is Outside— Get into It!”

Check out one of the student-produced films below: