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Do Documentary Films Play an Integral Role in Environmental Education?
Amanda Giddon is a rising senior at Duke University studying Environmental Sciences and Policy and Visual Media. Amanda is interested in exploring the intersection between the two disciplines.
Social movements are created out of social media interactions alone, and many students are opting to learn online, rather than in a conventional classroom environment. Accordingly, educators have come to a fork in the road: do we disparage screen time, and hope that today’s youth will cling to established teaching methods, or do we embrace visual media in our day-to-day lesson plans? How do we get students to listen, and more importantly, how do we inspire them to act?
This question is especially relevant to environmental education, which relies heavily upon the support and proactivity of young people. It appears that environmental activists are opting to embrace the shift. Environmental education and advocacy has adopted a digital channel to increase awareness and promote behavioral change—documentary film.
Researchers have begun to study what specific features make environmental documentaries compelling, informative and inspiring. Several recent case studies have made progress in identifying these operative characteristics, but there remain many unanswered questions about what makes for the most effective environmental picture.
One study by Tasod A. Barbas found that non-verbal, less conventional documentary was more effective in the development of environmental knowledge and feelings about insects than the traditional medium. Another study by Mo Bahk found that narrative films (in place of non-fictional documentaries) could also be an effective educational and motivational tool due to their ability to create suspense, their non-invasive ability to present environmental issues in “a natural setting of life experiences,” and their increased capacity to provoke emotional, empathic responses.
A study by Jessica M. Nolan evaluated the effectiveness of the renowned documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The results showed that after seeing the film, viewers exhibited significantly more knowledge and concern about global warming, in addition to an increase in motivation to reduce greenhouse gasses through behavioral change. However, after a one-month period only a few participants took substantial actions to reduce greenhouse gasses. Accordingly, this study confirms the public criticism that An Inconvenient Truth functions as a successful informational tool, but may fall short as a valuable motivational technique.
These experimental studies yield thought-provoking results, but are limited by sample size and highly specific conditions. The studies leave many stones unturned, spawning numerous opportunities for further research. Some important areas for further study include the duration of impact of environmental films, how the degree to which environmental documentaries assign blame for environmental issues affects the motivation of audiences to take action, and how documentaries of diverse subject matter differ in effect.
The film-to-film comparison is effective and insightful, but not entirely comprehensive. To more meticulously evaluate environmental pictures as an educational tool, the films should be measured against traditional teaching techniques such as assigned textbook readings and lectures. The lack of scholarship comparing formal teaching methods and digital media prompted my own experimental study.
To compare the educational value of environmental film and traditional classroom lecture, I split up a class of Duke University students into two groups. The control group received a lecture about smart growth technologies while the experimental group saw a documentary of comparable duration and subject matter, Build Green.
In response to the in-class lecture, many students suggested that the lesson be more interactive. Several students proposed that the teacher employ a Socratic technique, where the professor would ask the class to answer questions about smart growth before he or she continued on to explain the subject. Students also requested more anecdotal evidence from a range of international locations, in addition to more tangible examples of how to realistically implement smart growth technologies as a college student.
Students also found that the video lecture fell short in several capacities. Several students suggested that the video be supplemented by lecture notes to cover relevant topics that were not discussed in the film, in addition to a post-video group discussion to debrief about the lesson’s core concepts. A few participants also found the video to be too lengthy, and suggested that it be cut down in detail. Students suggested that making the video more relatable could also help hold their attention.
My experimental design comparing lecture-based lessons and film-based lessons illustrates that students are receptive to both modes of teaching. However, the feedback from both groups seems to suggest that a combination of lecture, interactivity and media support and reinforcement might provide an optimal mix of inputs to generate the most engagement and commitment.
These results are in tune with the onslaught of online learning, specifically the “flipped classroom” dynamic, where students watch video lectures outside of the classroom, and participate in discussion or do practice problems during the class period. Although these techniques are undoubtedly increasing in popularity and scope, more research should be done in regards to the teaching style’s relative effectiveness and motivational value. Further investigation can help revolutionize the way students perceive environmental issues, in addition to a range of other disciplines.
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California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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