Published: June 25, 2012

WHAT CAN THIRTY-FIVE EARNEST COLLEGE STUDENTS with a video camera, a set of white board markers and deep concerns about the environment accomplish in one semester? What if these students are imbued with a sense of purpose…a drive to affect change? Theater and Dance professor Dr. Beth Osnes and Environmental Studies professor Dr. Max Boykoff had the highest expectations for undergraduates enrolled in their spring 2012 interdisciplinary class Inside the Greenhouse.

Students visiting a greenhouseThey were not disappointed.

“The quality of the final work...was impressive and surprising,” says Dr. Osnes. “Agreed” says Dr. Boykoff.   “I was impressed by how much they accomplished with just a little opportunity (the course). I don't mean to be falsely modest but perhaps the most credit for us goes to just creating the conditions within which they could express themselves in this class setting.”

It was a course without tests or term papers and the classroom stretched far beyond room 1B31, ATLAS. Students were expected to go out into the community, working in groups to produce a series of “compositions” (anything from a pop song to a documentary) that would spread awareness about environmental issues. The class discussed the benefits and drawbacks of certain approaches but groups were encouraged to focus on issues that were interesting to them and Boykoff and Osnes hoped that each student would find his or her own style.

One group composed a rap song about the importance of eating locally grown vegetables. Another made a film about methane-producing cows.  Dr. Osnes was particularly was impressed by the “EnviroHunterists” who argued that hunters and environmentalists are not always clearly opposed. The film opens with a man wearing camouflage and a reflective jacket firing a rifle expertly into the woods. In stark contrast with this image, a young environmental studies student in a sunlit field talks about the importance of sustainability. As the film progresses the viewer begins to realize that both the student and the hunter have a deep appreciation and respect for the environment and that two are actually father and daughter. “Very touching and effective,” says Osnes.

Many of the projects are posted to YouTube and have collectively received thousands of viewers and comments. “The reach of compositions through technology is incredible,” said Dr. Osnes. “The artistic options for expression are rich.”

Just like the class, Dr. Osnes and Dr. Boykoff, as individuals, defy prescribed categories. Beth Osnes is an actor/dancer and Boykoff, a scientist. Osnes is an activist and Boykoff, a writer. Both are scholars with substantial backgrounds in environmental research and activism and a shared interest in fostering a creative dialogue about climate issues. They met at a CU campus conference designed to encourage collaboration between the sciences and humanities and soon after began to discuss the possibility of co-teaching a course on climate change. Financed with grants from Grace and the Gordan Gamm Fund, the CU Boulder outreach program, and ASSETT, Inside the Greenhouse was advertised as an interdisciplinary undergraduate course aimed at students interested in using a variety of media to talk about climate issues and sustainability.

Human-induced climate change is often a political and statistic-laden topic. Effectively communicating these issues to a sometimes skeptical public can be a daunting task. Osnes and Boykoff believe that the arts can be used to affect a public emotionally and personally. “I feel that [in order to] motivate people to change the unsustainable lifestyles we have now, that cause climate change, we need to motivate behavioral change through people's beliefs and emotions,” said Dr. Osnes.

”Through my work over the years, it has become very clear that 'science' as a privileged way of knowing about our environment and climate is necessary but not sufficient for engagement in the general public,” says Dr. Boykoff. “Yet, I have also found that we have retreated all too often to scientific evidence' in order to compel people to change behavior to alleviate their environmental impact. While some people ask 'why don't people just get it?' and 'why can't people make the 'right' decision?', I have moved into these challenges through the arts as they provide useful ways of acknowledging and embracing the complexity of these issues - meeting people 'where they are' while also encouraging people to consider these issues in new ways.”

So what can thirty-five college students accomplish in one semester? Possibly, the correct answer is: it depends on the class. Undergraduates taking Inside the Greenhouse created a serious body of creative work with the capacity to influence a wide audience. However, it may have been the experience itself rather than the final product that will be most influential over time.

Getting students interested in these topics was the easy part, Dr. Boykoff explained. Most of the students taking the class were already passionate about environmental issues. Dr. Boykoff partly attributes this to the fact that many undergraduate students have grown up in a world where climate change has always been an issue under discussion. “I’ve found this generation uniquely ready to confront these issues of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change,” he explains.

The more difficult task was in convincing students that they can actually make a difference.

Acutely aware of the vulnerability of our planet and the enormity of the climate change crisis, environmental studies students can often feel helpless. That is why Osnes and Boykoff thought it was important to give students an opportunity to work on projects that have the potential to inspire action.

On the last day of the semester, the class was interviewed about their experience.

The students talked about optimism.

They talked about empowerment

For several students, Inside the Greenhouse was their final class before graduating from college. The star of the Envirohunterist film explained that working on these projects in the community and posting them publicly made her feel, for the first time, that change is possible. Another student nodded his head slowly: “I have a new respect for how to communicate with people, and that has been something that our major has been lacking in.  This is a clear and direct path.   YouTube is an amazing thing.  This is a way for us to project ideas into the community and even the globe.  [I feel like] I can actually go out there and do something.”

If Dr. Boykoff and Dr. Osnes accomplished one thing, it was to give their students a renewed sense of hope.

Article written by Ashley E. Williams, ASSETT Research Assistant