New Media and New Messengers for Climate Change

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In a meeting with the superintendent of schools, where he and his colleagues at Brattleboro High School were discussing how they would meet core curricular values in their courses, science teacher Mike Auerbach had what might be called an epiphany. “One of our core values and learning expectations at Brattleboro High School is participation in the community,” Auerback explains. “I was sweating a little because I wasn’t sure how I’d meet that objective, and then I recalled the town energy committee’s idea, Project Atlantic,  where they wanted youth to interact with town energy committee members.”

The next semester, Auerbach’s students began making videos designed to introduce Brattleboro residents to new climate and energy-related ideas, technologies and methods at work—across the Atlantic, hence the name, Project Atlantic.  In three years, they’ve produced more than a dozen short videos on topics like district heating, biogas, wind, solar and other new energy sources, and waste management, building efficiency, and transportation solutions. “Each year we produce five or six, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less, 5- to 15-minute videos. Sometimes students will work individually and sometimes they’ll work in pairs, and they’ll take on a topic and produce a video on it,” he says.  In the semester that finished last month, students produced videos on the climate-negotiating meeting in Paris (COP 21), sustainable housing, and how individuals can influence energy issues with personal choices.

“Students often report that this is the most authentic educational experience they have had in high school,” Auerbach notes.  “They have been taken seriously, doors have opened for them, and they have faced down a very ambitious, open-ended project. Afterwards, they have been asked to present at conferences attended primarily, if not solely, by adults in the energy community.”

Project Atlantic received a Seed grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund to help expand the program’s outreach in Vermont “and possibly beyond,” says Fund Executive Director Julia Dundorf.  “A program like this that empowers young people to present energy and climate solutions that adults so badly need to hear is a win-win in terms of enhancing education beyond the classroom and educating the public.” The next phase, Auerbach says, will be to use the grant to find ways to get the good messages the students create out to the public, because the student’s work “is not widely viewed,” he says.

“We showed the videos at school and they’re seen by the town energy committee, but we need to build critical mass of support, to get other schools involved.” Auerbach knows first hand, however, how hard pressed teachers are to find the time to teach what they have to teach.  The solution, he feels, is to make the project so attractive that it becomes irresistible, not just to teachers but to school systems. “If I can get our congressman and senators and the governor on tape, talking to students about these solutions, it will build publicity, and get people to listen to us,” he believes. And there is good reason for Auerbach’s enthusiasm for this approach.

“One of the things that the public responded to well was when we had [Congressman] Peter Welch on camera talking about his Home Energy Efficiency Act,” Auerbach says, noting that he hopes he will convince Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Peter Shumlin to go on camera to answer questions posed by students.  “We just need very brief answers we would then put online, not only for the students who had asked a question, but for students at other schools who might be able to use that clip in their productions and give them a little more gravitas and a little bit of more of a punch.”

While he’s been working on getting that to happen for more than a year, Auerbach is realistic about time frame.  “All of our Congressional Delegation members are up for reelection…or running for President…right now.”  But he remains hopeful that his students can get “Bernie and Peter Welch and Patrick Leahy and Gov. Shumlin on a video promoting this.”  He would then distribute it to other Vermont science teachers so that they can then approach their own school districts.

“If they have the video, then they can say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ with the idea being that we would create a regional or at least a statewide competition that would culminate in a youth environmental film festival.” In the meantime, his students continue to create new solutions-oriented work to educate their fellow Vermonters, especially about what’s now happening more and more in this country, Auerbach says, where many states and cities have begun to take up ideas, proven in Europe, with good results. 

“So I’ve asked my students to start to see where towns and states have been able to do things with our tax and economic structure that are progressive,” he says. “So many of the ideas that were considered on the fringe 10 years ago are perhaps not quite mainstream, but they’re more in the yellow zone than the red zone and might be considered relevant in normal conversation.”

In fact, he says, there are so many good things going on in this country now that his students can share as they reach out to other students in other schools that it may be time to change the name of the project.

“We’ve thrown around the idea of maybe coming up with a different name that’s a little more user-friendly.”  He says there’s no consensus yet, but stand by.  Film at 11?

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