Environmental science students rise to storytelling challenge

Trailer for “Stream Macroinvertebrates, A Love Story,” by UC Davis student Kyle Phillips

By Sarah Yarnell

Every spring for the past 12 years, a class of a dozen or so UC Davis undergraduates ride a river in the American West for a learning adventure like none other in their college life.

Whether rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, plying the undammed Skeena in British Columbia or paddling the Kobuk in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, the educational strategy has charted the same course:

Take the pieces of environmental science that students learned sporadically in their introductory courses and apply them holistically to a watershed, so they see – usually for the first time – how they all fit together.

Academics call this a “capstone course” because it ties together the key concepts that faculty expect students to have learned in their major. The interdisciplinary emphasis is reflected in the course’s original über-syllabic name, Ecogeomorphology.

This year it’s called Ecology and Management of Sierra Nevada Rivers (ESP 190), the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences added a fundamentally new and unexpected class requirement: produce a short video documentary.

In addition to weekly lab write-ups on river surveying and sampling methods, field research logs (aka “flogs”), participation in three field trips and training for rafting Class III and IV rapids, students also were expected to tell a visual story on some aspect of this year’s destination, the Tuolumne River.

My colleague Joshua Viers and I knew this was a tall order for a 10-week course. None of our dozen students had formal training in filmmaking – nor did we. Storytelling skills? Most of us were schooled to write for scientific journals.

First-time video making was a gamble, but we had to at least try. We need to prepare young scientists to communicate with policymakers, the news media and general public. Gaining public support for scientific research is essential to their future and to their prospective role in policymaking.

“Sticking to traditional peer-review publications is not enough in this new world of diversified media and ever-shorter attention spans,” journalist Nancy Baron says in her 2010 book, “Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to Making Your Science Matter.”

Significantly, the videos were not to be scientific presentations but rather science stories. The students had to craft a narrative that related what they learned in their four-day raft trip down the Tuolumne to a current management issue in the watershed.

For example, how do the river’s dam operations affect aquatic species? What long-term monitoring data are needed for conservation strategies in the face of climate change? The videos were to be relevant to policymakers, credible to scientists and understandable to the general public.

We really had no idea whether we could pull it off. Yet, in the end, the students – most of them juniors and seniors – far exceeded our expectations.

Alyssa Obester did not let scientific jargon get in the way of telling her story on the link between river flows and the diversity of the riverine fish, birds, plants and mammals. She designed animated graphics to show “ecological succession” and used time-lapse footage to illustrate the dramatic daily fluctuations in flows on the Tuolumne River downstream of the city of San Francisco’s O’Shaughnessy Dam. Here’s a clip from Obester’s video:

Alison Whipple, a doctoral student in hydrology, gave viewers a better grasp of the likely effects of climate change on fish and other river species by using computer model simulations and focusing on a single river, the Tuolumne, as seen in this trailer for her video:

“It’s rare to see first-time videos work out this well,” said Samir Arora, who was recruited from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies to help on these and other video projects. “They’re good because they are scientists who already understand the material.”

Students also had well-developed scripts before they started shooting and practiced filming at nearby Putah Creek and the North Fork American River.

Every spring, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences brings together undergraduate and graduate students of biological and physical sciences and engineering to address issues in the conservation and management of Sierra Nevada rivers. Shown here are students in the Spring 2013 rivers class recording data and instructional video on the North Fork American River. Photo by Carson Jeffres

ESP 190 student Kristyn Hanson interviews UC Davis water sciences researcher Eric Holmes in a practice shoot on  the North Fork American River. Photo by Carson Jeffres

Arora coached them on script writing and video editing. They probably invested more time making the 5-8 minute video than they would have writing a project paper. But several said they extra time came with a big payoff – a product that would engage their family and friends.

“My family knows a little more now about dams and rivers, so that’s pretty cool,” said Mollie Ogaz, whose video shows how abrupt changes in springtime flows can destroy the eggs of the rare foothill yellow-legged frog.

“Had I written a paper,” Ogaz said, “they wouldn’t have read it.”

Sarah Yarnell is an assistant project scientist with  the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Her studies focus on integrating hydrology, ecology and geomorphology in river environments.

Further viewing and reading


The Bay Delta: A Grand Bargain?
Fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is one of California’s highest water priorities. But high costs and entrenched interests are making progress painfully slow. Everyone knows the system is broken and faces catastrophic risks. Can the water bonds get back on the ballot in 2014? Can a flexible system that takes water from different places in wet and dry years be packaged and sold to the public?

Bettina Boxall, natural resources reporter, Los Angeles Times
David Hayes, former Deputy US Secretary of Interior
Jay Lund, director, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

 Tuesday, Oct. 15
Location: Sheraton Grand, Magnolia Room, 1230 J St., Sacramento, CA
Time: 5:30 p.m. check-in, 6 p.m. program, 7 p.m. networking reception
Cost: $10 non-member, $5 members, FREE for students.

This program is underwritten by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Pisces Foundation and presented by Climate One in association with Capital Public Radio.

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2 Responses to Environmental science students rise to storytelling challenge

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