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Teach-In Takes On Challenge of Communicating Climate Change

From Film to Rap Music, Students Mold Message

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Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, standing, moderates the discussion at the Climate Change Teach-in.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Greenhouse gases. Global warming. Climate change.
These terms have been part of the modern lexicon for the past two decades, and their cause and effect have been well documented and explained in popular literature and film. Yet challenges persist in convincing the general public about the scientific validity of global warming. Many are skeptical of the notion that human activities are driving global climate change.

A recent survey shows that the number of Americans who believe in global warming went down from 79 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2008.

“Clearly, we have a communications problem, and clearly, we have to address that,” said Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, the writer/producer/director of the PBS media project, “Earth: the Operators’ Manual,” funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Haines-Stiles was the featured speaker at this year’s Climate Change Teach-In, one of two events recently held on campus that tried to address how to effectively communicate the science of climate change to ordinary people. The other event was a two-day Carbon Smarts Conference.

The Climate Change Teach-In on Oct. 20 was hosted by UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) as part of a NASA education project led by biology Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga.

From Feature Film to Rap Music Video

“The Teach-In, which focused on the interface between science and communication, attracted 400 participants, including UMass Lowell undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, high-school students from five area school districts, community members and online viewers,” says Rooney-Varga. 
Haines-Stiles gave an engaging multi-media presentation entitled “Old Media, New Media:  the Promise and Perils of Communicating Climate Change,” in which he talked about communicating climate change science and renewable energy solutions. He also gave a behind-the-scenes view of how a major media project is produced and filmed.

Students from UMass Lowell and Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School presented short videos on climate change that they created through the NASA-funded project. The videos ranged from a spoof on the “Mr. Mayhem” Allstate Insurance commercials to a rap music video, a newscast, an experimental film piece and public service announcements.

“Producing the videos was definitely a challenge, greater than anything I could have imagined,” says UMass Lowell biology graduate student Elizabeth Adams. “The three-day time constraint was difficult, but having to find a way to convey climate change science, policy and solutions in a minute and a half and in a format that any general, non-scientific audience can understand was definitely our greatest challenge.”

The video “Inheritance” that Adams and her students partners — Cecelia Hunt, Kathryn Haughn and Joseph Fontana — put together is on YouTube.

“Communicating the issue of climate change is so important, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to do,” says Adams. “If we cannot communicate the science effectively, how can we expect anyone to understand the severity and urgency of this issue?”
For more information about the Climate Change Initiative and the Teach-In and to watch other student-produced videos, go to