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Lights, Camera, Climate Change!

Student-produced PSA Videos Screened at Lowell Eco-Film Series

Students prepare to film their Climate Change PSA Photo by Ed Brennen
Quentin Spinney, second from left, discusses the scene with, from left, Hailey Terrien, Taylor Fossey and Sean Cloran while filming their climate change PSA at O'Leary Learning Commons.

05/02/2016
By Ed Brennen

The patient lay dying on the operating table. The gray-haired doctor was ready to operate, only to stop abruptly and announce his retirement. He then turned the scalpel over to his replacement, a child no older than 7, who was suddenly responsible for performing the life-or-death surgery.

The scene wasn’t real, of course, but rather the plot of a one-minute public service announcement video produced this semester by students in Environmental Biology Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga’s course Climate Change: Science, Communication and Solutions. 

The PSA, in which the patient represents Earth and the child represents the future generations inheriting the problem of climate change, was one of six student productions screened at the “Eco-Film Series: Night of Shorts!” on April 26 at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center. Organized by the Lowell Film Collaborative and the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, the event capped the monthlong Lowell Earth Day 2016 celebration.
Students edit their Climate Change PSA at O'Leary Photo by Ed Brennen
Students in the course Climate Change: Science, Communication and Solutions edit their PSA video at the O'Leary Media Lab.

Rooney-Varga, director of the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative, began the class project in 2010 after receiving funding from NASA for the Climate Education in an Age of Media (CAM) Project, which puts the tools of media-making into the hands of students. One of the first students to take part in the project, Tyler Arrigo, is now program coordinator for the Office of Sustainability. He suggested combining it with the Eco-Film Series this year.

“The video itself is the tip of the iceberg, and underneath that iceberg is a whole lot of work,” said Rooney-Varga, who requires every student to pitch their own PSA idea to the class before voting on the top six to produce. “In order to explain something in a compelling, engaging and really visceral way, students really need to have a deeper understanding of it.” 

Besides engaging students to learn about the science of climate change, Rooney-Varga says the project teaches them media literacy and empowers them to bridge the gap between science and the public’s understanding of the problem.

Students had one weekend to storyboard, film and edit the one-minute PSAs, using video, sound and editing equipment from the Media Lab at the O’Leary Learning Commons. Since nearly all the students are science majors, the 48-hour project was a crash course in filmmaking.
Students warm up with an improv exercise before making their pitches Photo by Ed Brennen
Before pitching their climate change PSA ideas to the entire class, students loosen up with an improv exercise.

“I think ours turned out pretty well, considering the time limitation,” said senior biology major Brian Ferolito, whose group’s PSA, “Castaway Earth,” portrayed “a guy in a flooded, dystopian city with a Wilson-like volleyball.”

“We’re not film majors — we’re very much amateurs — but it was a lot of fun,” said Ferolito, who added that his biggest takeaway from the project is that “the situation is pretty dire, and there should be more of a sense of urgency.”

Freshman biology major Sean Cloran, who played the gray-haired surgeon in the “Operation” PSA, enjoyed tackling the subject in an unexpected way.

“If you hear the same message over and over again, it gets boring,” he said. “If you can shock people a little bit, it helps.”
Students plan their PSA video shoot Photo by Ed Brennen
Seniors Aaron Meneghini, left, and Tom Linnekin plan their next shot while filming their PSA on a Saturday morning at O'Leary.

Cloran, who donned a fake moustache and surgeon’s bandana purchased at a local party store, also enjoyed stepping outside his comfort zone.

“I’m not used to acting or public speaking, so I definitely pushed my boundaries,” said Cloran, whose group also included junior biology major Quentin Spinney, senior biology major Sydney Falcone and senior biology and math major Hailey Terrien.

“Students are a really effective messenger about climate change science because they have moral authority,” Rooney-Varga says. “They’ve done less than us to cause this problem, and because they’re younger, they’re going to bear the brunt of it. It’s empowering them to have a voice in that discussion.”