It’s late in the day, but at the 60th parallel in July, the sun still hangs high. A canoe slices slowly through the watery reflection of a mountain of ice looming ahead. The boat carries its passengers through a narrow passageway and into a silent cavern. Sheer blue walls rise up on all sides, bringing to mind a grand cathedral.
But this is no manmade structure. Sheridan Glacier has sat for millennia near this spot, about 25 miles from Cordova, Alaska. It seems ancient and unmovable, but like the boat, it too is moving slowly. In fact, the pace of the glacier’s change has increased exponentially in the past few decades, with potential consequences more dramatic than the still waters surrounding it would suggest.
In the canoe sit Mark Blaine and Torsten Kjellstrand, faculty members with the University of Oregon (UO) School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC). As they gaze up at the uneven aperture of sky above, a small drone hovers into view. The drone’s operator, SOJC senior Evan Norton, has spent all week using this cutting-edge tool to capture spectacular footage.
Norton is one of more than 75 students who have traveled to Cordova with Blaine, Kjellstrand and their colleagues Deborah and Dan Morrison over the past two years for the UO SOJC’s Science and Memory project. In sites around Oregon and Alaska, these students learn how to report on complicated scientific topics while they explore the wilderness, collaborate with researchers, interview salmon fishermen and native Alaskans, and work long hours in harsh conditions. They blog about the effects of climate change they witness — both ecological and economic — and tell innovative multimedia stories based in research and science.
For SOJC students and faculty alike, the experience has been transformative.
“Science and Memory has changed my life,” said Deb Morrison, Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising. “Going to a place and seeing issues of resilience and how ecosystems are affected, it becomes a part of your character. And to see that change in our students and faculty has been an amazing experience.”
Of all the conundrums facing science today, climate change is perhaps the most frustrating. To reverse the alarming trends scientists see in the data, they must convince much of the population to change its ways. But to reach people already overwhelmed by daily life, a glut of conflicting information and persistent belief systems, they need more than data. They need story.
This is where journalism comes in. A good science reporter can transform dry facts into an emotional experience strong enough to change minds and habits.
Yet climate change reporting presents challenges to journalists as well. “Journalism hasn’t dealt particularly well with complex problems,” said Blaine, journalism area director and senior instructor. “Because we’re on that 24/7 news cycle, we’ve developed a habit of going to the lowest common denominator and oversimplifying. Science and Memory strives to explore topics in a way that’s long-term and complex, through a lot of different angles, media and platforms.”
A prime example of this experiential learning project’s unique brand of science storytelling is “Will You Change?,” a student-produced video that was shortlisted at the 2016 One Screen Film Fest. The piece combines spectacular footage with watercolor paintings created onsite by student Taylor Richmond.
“Although we often default to video, multimedia is a wide range of things,” Blaine said. “Watercolor is a perfect metaphor that relates back to what we’re covering. It lets you visually address history and scale in ways a photo can’t.”
Mirroring the practical, problem-solving mindset of Cordova’s residents, the students commandeered an old fish cannery building on the property of the Orca Adventure Lodge, where the group stays each year, to film the watercolor portions of the video. “The front half of the building was ripped off in a snowstorm, and the lighting was really cool,” Blaine said. “So we rigged cameras to the rafters.”
Student Paige DePaepe created the typeface for “Will You Change?” and other videos, including “The Odds,” which chronicles the lifecycle of a salmon, and “The Wetland Ballet,” about the Cordova community’s connection to the environment. “Paige didn’t find a typeface she loved, so she just made one,” said Blaine. “That’s a story she can tell to a potential employer. Instead of just: ‘Here’s a clip. Make a bunch of assumptions about what I did,’ she can say, ‘We had this problem, and I wanted to get this look and feel. Here’s how I contributed.’”
Learning in a Far-Flung Place
In the stories of Science and Memory, the land is both a character and a plot point. No roads lead to Cordova, a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Copper River Delta. The only way in or out is by boat or float plane, and no one comes here without a reason.
For most of the town’s 2,200 residents, that reason is the salmon fishing industry. Ever hear of Copper River salmon? They come from Cordova, one of the most valuable fishing ports in the country.
“These people have a daily hands-on experience with the natural world they’re living in,” Blaine said. “Climate change is not a belief system for them. It’s their life.”
For the students, Cordova’s uncompromising and breathtaking landscape offers an ideal balance of inspiration and challenge. “Everywhere you turn, it looks like a picture from a travel magazine,” Guru Amar Khalsa, a student in the 2014 Science and Memory cohort, wrote in an email. “Everything is vibrantly green and incredibly huge. It can be harsh and sometimes impossible, but it’s worth it.”
It is also the Land of the Midnight Sun. In summer, daylight lasts for 18 hours, nearly all of them working hours. “All day you’re running around in the field. Then you come back, have dinner, talk through someone’s story and read until you go to sleep at 1 or 2,” said Blaine. “Then you get up in the morning — at 5:30 because the light makes it hard to sleep — and do it all again. It’s totally engaging, exhilarating and exhausting.”
In addition to adventure tourists, Cordova draws scientists representing a variety of interests. The Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the salmon population. The federal government sends in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service. Settlement money from the Exxon Valdez spill, which happened nearby, contributes to the local Prince William Sound Science Center’s research. Even the tribal elders of the nearby native village of Eyak have hired their own scientists.
The young journalists get to tap into this scientific mother lode by riding along on research missions. In return, the researchers get access to high-quality video and photography of their work. “We offer researchers photos and videos that we already capture as part of our process — showing how to tag a juvenile salmon, for example,” said Blaine. “For researchers going to a conference, those images can be really valuable.”
Field trips also provide problem-solving opportunities you won’t find in any classroom. “I was pushed into so many new experiences,” Khalsa wrote. “But nothing compares to wading upriver, camera in hand, shadowing a team of ridiculously cool female scientists as they look for dead salmon to cut open, all while avoiding bears. You never know how you’ll respond to a situation until you’re thrown right into the middle of it.”
Logistics and Lessons Learned
Blaine and Dan and Deb Morrison piloted Science and Memory in 2013, when they used a small Forest Service grant to take one student to Cordova. Since then, the group has raised funding from a variety of internal and external sources, including the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center, The Boiler Family Fund for Experiential Learning and the Nancy and David Petrone Faculty Fellowship Fund, among others. This, plus about $1,500 each student chips in, pays for room and board, van rentals, shipping and gear ranging from camping supplies to high-tech multimedia equipment.
Three student cohorts will make the journey to Cordova in 2016: Two Discovery groups will spend 10 days exploring and sniffing out stories. Then a smaller Mastery team of handpicked seniors with serious multimedia chops will spend a month capturing footage and imagery with a more focused agenda.
“You need a group of students and faculty you know will work well together in the field,” said Blaine. “You’ve got to define what you’re going to do pretty clearly but leave room to experiment and explore and for serendipity, which is what journalism is anyway, or what it should be.”
When the first cohort returned with more than 4 terabytes of data, the teaching team decided to lead a production course each term where students polish their Science and Memory content into heartfelt and informative multimedia stories. “We have an unprecedented ability to capture imagery,” he said. “But then we realized we had to make it coherent and searchable. That was a big learning curve.”
Another major lesson learned is that simpler is always better. “If you’re going to schlep equipment around in adverse conditions, you need to pare it down,” Blaine said. “And you have to create systems simple enough that students will use them but not so simple that they have little organizational value.”
The most crucial process of all? File management. “We have three folders named Heaven, Hell and Purgatory,” Blaine said. “You put your stuff in Purgatory when you walk in the door because it needs to be backed up. If you’ve named it appropriately, then it goes to Heaven. If you haven’t, it goes to Hell. If you don’t follow these rules, you essentially haven’t done anything, because it will disappear in the chaos of information.”
The Next Adventure
For Science and Memory’s third year, the teaching team is considering acquiring 360-degree video equipment to experiment with immersive media. The program is also expanding its research component, as several other SOJC faculty members want to conduct their own studies in Cordova. And the project team is exploring trips to new locales, such as the Mississippi River Delta, where Louisiana State University recently opened a $16 million modeling facility.
“The Mississippi is arguably one of the most developed river systems around,” said Blaine. “What are the implications for that if the sea level rises and storms surge? We want to extend the program to find these kinds of contradictions in counterintuitive places.”
In the meantime, the project’s student work has begun to spread far and wide. In addition to the shortlisted film, Science and Memory footage has been featured in UO promotional material, including a national TV ad broadcast during the 2014 College Football Playoff National Championships.
The body of work makes for some unique and impressive student portfolios. “Our students have certainly used the imagery to great effect in getting jobs, because frankly, it’s beautiful,” Blaine said.
But the impact goes far beyond their resumes. “I learned how much I am capable of when somebody has that level of trust in me,” wrote Khalsa. “We transformed from students doing little student projects to serious, professional, adult journalists. By simply assuming I could create great things, I discovered I could.”
Andra Brichacek is a writer and editor for the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She has been creating content for print and online media for nearly two decades and has specialized in education since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @andramere.