Real world education

Media project turns sixth-graders into climate change agents

Kali Warf, foreground, experiments with an audio-effects program during a lesson on sound editing in Caty Harris’ second-period science class May 25 at Bidwell Junior High.

Kali Warf, foreground, experiments with an audio-effects program during a lesson on sound editing in Caty Harris’ second-period science class May 25 at Bidwell Junior High.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Before starting a unit on climate change in her sixth-grade science class at Bidwell Junior High, Kali Warf hadn’t given much thought to water, glaciers or the atmosphere. In fact, she says she had no idea that freshwater supplies are diminishing, polar ice is melting and carbon dioxide is interfacing with atmospheric conditions.

This information—along with the connection between fossil fuels and carbon emissions, among other lessons—made a deep impression.

“It made me feel really bad and selfish,” Kali said during a momentary break in second period.

It also spurred her to action. Kali shared what she learned with her parents and two sisters. They now use less hot water and have planted more trees at their house, including one brought home from school by Kali’s 9-year-old sister.

Kali’s older sister, a Bidwell Junior eighth-grader, had studied a similar curriculum in sixth grade but hadn’t yielded the same passion for change. Perhaps that’s because Kali and her classmates participated in a new project piloted by her teacher, Caty Harris, and another Bidwell Junior science teacher, Paul Gudeman, this spring.

Harris and Gudeman challenged their students to channel their newfound knowledge into public relations campaigns. Each class would divide into small groups—PR firms, in essence—and create moving messages about climate change. The goal: to produce radio spots and print ads appealing enough to appear in local media, plus tweets for the school’s feed.

“We decided to give the kids this project where they can use research in a very applicable way to the world,” Harris said. “They really held on to that [conclusion that] climate change is real, we affect it and we need to change our practices. It’s been fantastic, and honestly, it’s some of the best work the students have done all year.”

Harris submitted a selection of the public service announcements to Chico community radio station KZFR 90.1 FM, which plans to run them. Harris said last Thursday (June 8) she had not heard a schedule; KZFR General Manager Rick Anderson did not have a schedule, either, but expressed enthusiasm about the spots airing.

During Harris’ second-period class May 25, she taught her students about sound editing software, including an effects program to enhance their recordings. Groups clustered inside the classroom and just outside the door. Some refined their scripts; others captured audio bites; others mixed pieces they’d already captured. Harris—who majored in communications/PR at the University of San Francisco—mingled among them.

“If I can figure it out, they can figure it out,” Harris said of the production work. “Half the time they’re better at this tech stuff than I am.”

Klaryssa Delgado, another of Harris’ students, had a similar experience to Kali’s with the climate change project. She also found the course of study eye-opening and inspiring.

“We never did anything like this before in any of my classes,” Klaryssa said. Not only did she learn new techniques, she got exposed to topics she hadn’t “gone over as much as in this class. I’m excited for it.”

The PR aspect—spreading what she’s learned to others, beyond her family and friends—matters to Klaryssa.

“People might get it, and they might do things to prevent [climate change effects],” she said. “So it might help us—but not as much if people don’t do anything about it.”

Her family members, like Kali’s, have started doing their share. Klaryssa, her parents and her two siblings have begun biking more. That’s something she wasn’t expecting when the unit began.

Nor were the teachers.

“It’s a really cool effect to have on students, that they want to change what they’re doing,” Gudeman said. “But it was never really an end goal.”

Said Harris: “Giving them the opportunity to understand how as an individual we seem so minuscule on the whole, but how each individual can change something, is something we’ve worked on throughout the whole year—empowering them not just as students but as citizens. To know that they are taking the information that we are learning in the classroom home and transferring it to their lives is really what every teacher wants to hear, right?”

The unit’s material included fossil fuels, renewable energy, the carbon cycle and information on carbon emissions over time. Along with specifics, the teachers explained “what the data and statistics mean,” Harris said, “and also that you need proof … you want people to believe you—what’s your data, what’s your statistics, how are you proving your claim?”

They hope their students prove a broader point as well.

“If our 11- and 12-year-olds are able to understand the impact they can have—not only in society but [also] with our environment—I think it’s powerful for the future when they grow up,” Harris said. “I feel middle school students get a lot of negative attention, and they’re actually very driven. We just need to guide them on a positive road.”