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Thursday, April 10,2014

Short film, big message

High school students explore climate change and agriculture in award-winning short film

By Caitlin Rockett
Damian Tate

They all agree: there was more work than time to do it — the students of Damian Tate’s Career Digital Arts program and Heather Riffel’s Urban Agriculture program at Arapahoe Ridge High School had seven weeks, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 21, to make a short film about how climate change affects agriculture.

That’s a tall order for a group of teenagers, many of whom had never made a film before.

But seven weeks later, they had produced a four minute and 18 second documentary for a student film contest hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences’ (CIRES). “Lens on Climate Change” asked eight middle and high schools from across Colorado to produce three- to five-minute films about how climate change affects their lives and their community. Each team was paired with a CU graduate student who helped guide the budding filmmakers to scientists who helped them learn and communicate about their topic.

Despite time constraints and learning curves, Arapahoe Ridge’s film, “Lens on Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture,” won “Most Entertaining” and “Most Creative” at the high school level as well as “Best Film” overall in the competition.

“Everybody, all the schools, did a great job,” says Tate. “I think if you watch all the films from start to end, you’d learn more about climate change than people would imagine. It was cool to see how different groups took different spins on topics. Some took a spin on how snowpack is more affected, or flooding, or drought.”

Manhattan Middle School’s film won for “Best Scientific Content” at the middle school level. Nederland Middle/High School also participated in the competition.

The Arapahoe Ridge film takes a look at how a warming climate has created a long-term drought that scientists believe will decrease agricultural yields worldwide. Here in Colorado, snow packs melt earlier and evaporate sooner, meaning less water is available for crops.

The students in the Arapahoe Ridge film crew are part of Boulder’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, which provides high school students with the opportunity to receive a certificate in programs such as health occupations, cosmetology or criminal justice. Some of the students in the film crew go full-time to Arapahoe, while other students come to the campus for two hours a day for their Career and Technical Education class.

Heather Riffel, Arapahoe Ridge’s Urban Agriculture teacher, says that CIRES researcher and Boulder Valley School District board member Lesley Smith came to Riffel in November suggesting that her agriculture students take part in the “Lens on Climate Change” film contest. By January, when the new semester started, Riffel was able to assemble a group of interested students.

“My students had just started a class in urban agriculture, and of course the first thing we talked about was water and its relationship to agriculture. So it worked for our curriculum,” says Riffel.

But she saw a larger opportunity for collaboration, bringing in Tate’s digital arts class to be videographers.

“In the end, my students had to be able to communicate scientific material and then interpret that to the videographers, who might not know the content and the vocabulary, to produce a final product,” Riffel says. “It’s a very real-world experience and that’s what we strive for on our campus. These are not questions in a book. We always strive for real world, hands on examples.”

Sitting around a table in room 301 at Arapahoe Ridge, where Tate’s Career Digital Arts class meets each day, students from the agriculture class join their videographer counterparts to discuss the experience of creating the documentary.

“We definitely had trouble finding a goal in the beginning,” admits Dylan Brennan, a student in the Urban Ag program and a senior at New Vista High School. “For a lot of [the agriculture students], the CU students approached us and we were like, ‘Oh, we wanna do this,’ but we didn’t know what we were gonna end up with. And we just went by the seat of our pants – and it turned out.”

Tate echoes this sentiment, saying that for his students it was a lesson in client-based work, where the end goal can be a moving target as a client’s concept shifts during production.

“I think we as a class didn’t quite understand the end goal,” Tate says of his digital arts students. Tate adds that this spring is only the second full semester that Boulder CTE has hosted the Career Digital Arts program, making the learning curve that much steeper.

“I think being able to communicate in two totally separate languages was certainly an issue,” says Riffel. “[The agriculture students] didn’t understand the video editing aspect, and [the digital arts students] didn’t understand a lot of the scientific concepts, particularly the relationship with agriculture. So we were always showing each other half a picture.”

Yet through the difficulty of learning to communicate needs and develop a story, Digital Arts student William Carson says that there was consensus on end product.

“I think what everyone had in mind is we’re not going to make a video where we talk at you, we’re just educating,” says Carson.

Brennan and other agriculture students say they realized that working with students without a background in agriculture helped create a more understandable video on what is ulti mately a complex topic.

“You were there to ask us questions about information that was confusing,” he says to the student videographers. “If we had edited the video, we would have put in a lot of deep scientific information that a lot of people would have gotten confused about and shut down if they saw. You guys kept us on track.”

Agriculture student Savannah Snody says that once they’d found their narrative arc, the team had to think about ways to keep their message positive in spite of a dire outlook.

“It is a really dark subject and it’s kind of not looking promising right now in terms of things like water supply,” Snody says. “I think that was hard because we wanted to end on a happier note. I know that last quote we used, ‘Farming is a profession of hope,’ we purposely put that in there because we didn’t want to end being super depressing.”

Tough subject matter didn’t make the experience less positive for the students.

“I think one of my favorite moments while working on this project was when I realized I’d gotten to the point where I’m not learning how to make things anymore, I’m utilizing all the things I’ve learned in school up to this point to educate people,” says Brennan. “I just remember being a little kid and watching those educational videos that the older kids had made and thinking, ‘That’s so sweet,’ and now I’m working on one of those videos and I helped make it. It was awesome.”

Tate “put on his teacher hat” and said the best part of the experience was the collaboration he saw between the students from two very different technical programs.

“We struggled, at first, to figure out what our purpose and what our end goal was, but then to have the collaboration from the two subjects come together and come out with a final product that did very well at the film festival, I think that was incredibly rewarding,” Tate says.

Lisa Collins, communications assistant for the Boulder Valley School District, is currently making a compilation of all the student videos. She says she hopes the compilation will air next week on BV22, the school district’s educational television channel.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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