Associate Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens is embarking on a project that will transport student scientists to the Bahamas and challenge them to communicate their research to policy makers and the public, through film. The project is funded by a Mellon Presidential Discretionary Grant.
In “Carbonates Ancient and Modern-The Bahamas,” students will explore modern and ancient (Pleistocene and Holocene) carbonate environments on the Bahamian island of San Salvador while learning film techniques to share scientific content with a general audience.
Generally, Arens says, “science curricula do not prepare science students to communicate with non-scientists. We teach science students to communicate with scientific peers (through research reports, proposals, literature reviews, posters and technical presentations) but there are few opportunities to explore the particular skills and perspectives needed to communicate with the public.”
This coming January, however, Arens is integrating technology-based, narrative-building lessons into a course she is teaching collaboratively with Professor of Earth Sciences Diana Boyer of the SUNY Oswego.
As part of the course — whose focus will also encompass sedimentary geology, marine conservation, climate change and human impact — a beach cleanup service-learning project is planned; the creation of a short film documenting the cleanup will challenge students to bring the issue of ocean trash to the public in a fun, entertaining way.
Students will execute the project from beginning to end — including filming in the field, editing and sound. Using stop-motion photography as a medium, students will distill their scientific knowledge into key concepts and translate them into visual storylines. Students will then use time-lapse photography in the field and stop-motion white board animation to tell these stories.
Arens hopes the process will prompt student discussion of how the themes of the course and the “could be represented visually to an audience who may be unaware of the ocean trash crisis.”
In addition to professional critique, films will be screened to peers and made available on YouTube, and comments tracked to assess the effectiveness of communication.
“Communicating scientific concepts to a general audience requires scientists to step back from the details of their understanding to distill main ideas and then represent them in metaphor and example,” Arens says.