Planet Forward multimedia seminar immerses students in environmental storytelling

Summer Seminar scholars address some of the most underreported stories about our environment, including biodiversity, justice, mapping, and water through multimedia storytelling.
Summer Seminar scholars address some of the most underreported stories about our environment, including biodiversity, justice, mapping, and water through multimedia storytelling.
Related Topics:
Colleges & Education, Science Communication

On June 2, the Planet Forward team welcomed the 2024 Summer Seminar scholars to George Washington University for an immersion in multimedia environmental storytelling. Eight students from Planet Forward’s Pillar and Consortium schools came to Washington, D.C., for a week of hands-on learning in multimedia storytelling and mentoring by environmental media professionals, researchers, scholars, and leaders.

This year’s Summer Seminar cohort is covering a wide range of environmental stories, from examining how a conservation organization is expanding how we care for both birds and people by including a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, to the experiences of a penguin researcher in Antarctica who has documented climate change, to a carbon capture scientific innovation for water desalination plants, and a collaborative mapping tools for resilience in the Global South. The enthusiasm these students share for the environment and for telling stories creatively is truly impressive. Importantly, none are journalism students yet they are eager to tell stories to increase public understanding.

“These students are passionate about the planet and determined to raise their voices and have a positive impact,” said Frank Sesno, founding director of Planet Forward. “They know that storytelling is a vital form of communication. It’s incredibly gratifying to see them weave data, text, and media to tell compelling, creative, and memorable stories about important environmental issues.”

My colleague, Aaron Dye, multimedia editor and producer at Planet Forward, co-taught the course. His leadership and passion for documentary filmmaking helped students envision how they could capture stories through interviews and bring creativity to their multimedia stories. “Students are increasingly seeking to make environmental stories more engaging, more captivating, and better looking. By putting a camera in their hands and saying, ‘Go make a plan to film this researcher and turn their work into a story,’ we’re helping to build all sorts of analytical and communication skills with the students.” 

Mykal Bailey, Howard University, and Planet Forward multimedia editor Aaron Dye review framing for documentary. (Elena Mantilla)

Each year, Planet Forward works closely with students from a variety of majors who attend the Pillar and Consortium schools in our network. This is the second year for the Summer Seminar, which is designed as a master class to deepen student knowledge of storytelling formats and environmental issues. Pillar and Consortium schools in the Planet Forward program include liberal arts colleges, state universities, historically Black colleges and universities, public polytechnic universities, and graduate schools of environmental studies in the United States and the United Kingdom.    

In the program, students paired up with a member of their cohort and worked closely throughout the week with the Planet Forward team, who provided deep expertise in journalism, storytelling, science and environmental communication, and multimedia skills. 

The week unfolded as a master class in environmental storytelling. The early part of the week included sessions on responsible reporting, including interview preparation, conducting the interview, and setting the stage with proper lighting and framing. 

Students interviewed Dr. Elizabeth North, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who discussed her novel research on capturing carbon and improving air quality while addressing freshwater security. In another session, students interviewed Dr. Naamal De Silva, vice president, Together for Birds,at the American Bird Conservancy, who subsequently led an urban walk focused on justice and equity. Students captured the contemplative urban experience on video and in photos, learning to enrich the multimedia narrative of the story.

Students Maya Teiman, of Middlebury College, and Shannon Taylor, of the University of Arizona and an Indigenous Correspondent Program alum, explored the importance of mapping frontline communities affected by climate change. “I was surprised by how hard it can be to access data for mapping in different regions,” Teiman said. The team highlighted the need for mapping as a solution for understanding how communities are affected by climate change worldwide, drawing from their interviews with experts like GWU geography professors Dr. David Rain and Dr. Richard Hinton. “GIS is a very strong tool,” Taylor said, adding, “I believe that utilizing GIS helps bring social and climate issues to light.”

Maya Teiman, Middlebury College, adjusts lighting for a mock interview. (Elena Mantilla)

Students took over the podcasting studio for an audio interview with Ron Naveen, CEO of Oceanities. Teesside University’s Danny Nicholson, who worked on the story about the impact of climate change on the Antarctic, said, “I learned from Ron that as humans, we can learn a lot from penguins!” 

Danny Nicholson, Teesside University, and Abbey Leibert, SUNY-ESF prepare for their podcast interview with penguin expert Ron Naveen. (Elena Mantilla)

Participants in the immersive seminar sharpened their media skills and gained a deeper understanding of environmental storytelling, leaving them well-prepared to complete their first multimedia story to include original reporting, video, audio, photography, and graphic design elements. 

Planet Forward will publish stories from the 2024 summer cohort throughout July and August. 

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