by SOJC Professor Deborah Morrison, TEP Guest Writer
As teachers and learners, we recognize that experiences outside the classroom spark new ways of thinking and doing for students and faculty. But what does it take to make sure the learning experience and the daily living experience intersect in the best of ways?
Let’s start with this: our Science & Memory Project — taking us to Cordova, Alaska and along the Willamette and through the Pacific Northwest — changed our lives. Students label it “the single most important learning experience I’ve had” and our faculty team believes in it so much that members volunteered time and expertise to launch it in 2014. Our four faculty members believe this is the work we are meant to do in this chapter of our professional lives. Our experience in building this project is based on a simple idea: find a way because what we’re doing is important.
Here, we offer some perspective about collaborating with colleagues and students to build a platform and purpose for an innovative project like Science & Memory. Keywords for this discussion are investment, team, nimble, and purpose. We found a way to make it all work.
Our Project and Some Logistics
In 2014, we conceptualized the idea that would come to be Science & Memory, a climate change reporting project of the School of Journalism and Communication. Four faculty members — senior instructor and science writer Mark Blaine, assistant professor of practice and filmic storyteller Torsten Kjellstrand, instructor and visual journalist Dan Morrison, and Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising and creative strategist Deborah Morrison — realized that to tell useful stories of climate change we needed to see data in the wild, to find a place that would help us develop important themes to explore. Our goal was to use an interdisciplinary model for our field: mix journalism story with advertising strategy, an approach not often used to develop project scope and content. We believed the result would be purposeful and beautiful work that spoke to audiences about a complex problem.
As our initial focus, we settled on the Copper River Delta in Alaska, a unique area of 12 distinct ecosystems, with key indicator species in salmon and birds, and direct ties to the 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Valdez Oil Spill. Moreover, the braided river topography of the area suggested what our own Willamette River valley area looked like a century ago. We knew there were rich stories to be told there and, later, here in Oregon.
Funding, as always, helped frame our choices and direction; as we applied for various grants and then received generous support from the Williams Instructional Fund for Undergraduate Education and from the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center for Innovation and Civic Engagement, our budget began to take shape, thus informing how many students and to what degree we could build the trip.
From there, we chose 19 students to work with us on the basis of their skills and ability to be productive and collaborative, which students demonstrated in portfolios and class projects. We planned to stay one month in Cordova; we wanted to avoid “parachute journalism” and its accompanying simplistic reporting styles.
By the end of winter term 2014, we knew the “who” and the “why” of our project. We had yet to understand the complexity of the “how” and the “when,” and how those issues would intersect with learning objectives and trip logistics. In spring 2014, we gathered for a readings course, looking through historical, cultural and scientific readings in order to prepare. We wrote—and practiced using gear professionally. Our strategists built a mission and audience brief, designed a logo and identity, and worked to understand the place and issues as a set of concepts. We prepared for a July stay.
After the trip, in Fall 2014, we met for a production course in which each team member had specific duties and expectations. This term, we have a class for some of the old team and new members devoted to production of different media, as well as local trips in the field. Next term, another readings and research class will plan longer local trips and prepare a small team for the Alaska experience. Faculty members take turns teaching courses and offering support.
But no careful plan prepares you for the actual experience, the immersion in place and collaboration, the connections to people and geography and fauna. It was only as we arrived in Cordova last July that we began to really learn.
With that in mind, we offer a few key takeaways on planning and sustaining a large experiential learning project.
Experiential learning is the catalyst for investment in excellence
This is where we started and what keeps us going. Woven into the spirit of our learning objectives is the premise of creating a world-class destination point for useful information and beautiful craft. As a team, we know we haven’t achieved that yet, even as we have delivered beautiful stories and compelling ideas. We’ve delivered a daily curation of our work on a Tumblr site and then on a traditional WordPress site.
Our team set up a curated site and began filling in those channels: photo galleries, stories, glossary, a conceptual book, beautiful video. We feel we’ve achieved what is called in design terms as a “minimum viable product” for the first phase of our project: we traveled, we gathered assets and information, we built places for it to live. Projects often stop at this minimum level of execution due to many issues: time, funding, lack of momentum. We are happy to report that Science & Memory is stronger in many ways during this next phase. Above all, we realize that programmatically this is not an indulgence, but a curricular platform.
We also realized that visual assets and stories let us tell the story of our project easily. This is key for sharing with funding partners, donors, and with the campus. We brought home 3.5 terabytes of visual assets and interviews. As we returned, we shared small, organized sets of that raw material with SOJC and campus communication, and with media partners. The result was that what we were doing also became a story. We are already in line to meet our funding goals for this year’s experience.
Our second planned phase is the world-class digital destination. The only way that happens — the only way we achieve that next level of thinking and producing and sustained effort — is because of the experience of the first phase. The experience of going to a place armed with research and background, then full immersion, is cornerstone to success. Even as student team members have now phased in and out, the core community belief in what the team can accomplish drives us to our best thinking and effort. More importantly, the experience of being in place and learning together forges a type of resiliency in the cold dark months after the trip. Six months after our month-long stay, our team is discovering stories in the assets (photos, video, art, interviews) we brought home. That resiliency and readiness is then modeled for new team members just entering the project.
We began the first discussion with this: if this project were successful beyond our expectations, what would happen? how would it look? who would be involved? what would the outcomes be? Then we planned curriculum, teams, and mission from that platform.
Multiple discussions on why we do this
Shared food and time
Private Facebook page dedicated to team sharing,
Tumblr blog to curate daily stories and experiences
Work sessions to move process
Asset management of all files and material
Planning is paramount: everyone is hungry and there are no roads in
Information: Each student filled out a packet of information that each faculty member had as reference. That packet included the following forms/information:
- Risk Management forms required by the university
- Emergency contact information (two required) and multiple personal contact points
- Food allergies and shareable health information
- Proof of medical insurance
Transportation: There are no roads to Cordova; it is only reachable by air or by ferry. With the help of our accounting staff and funding partners, we booked airfare for each member of the team, grouping so very few had to travel alone. We rented a van for longer trips and shipped 4 bikes to Cordova for short trips and daily usage.
Housing and food: We knew of the Cordova’s Orca Adventure Lodge and its reputation for Alaskan experience and supporting scientific research in the area. There are few housing opportunities in this small town. After many conversations, we agreed on using Orca’s on-site cabin: seven bedrooms, 2 baths, 100 years old, but with renovated kitchen and electrical accommodations. Because of our gear recharging needs and our production process, we needed capabilities to build a temporary working studio and production area. We also needed beds for 23 (at our full capacity), kitchen facilities to cook for the crew, and laundry. The Orca Adventure Lodge proved to be an unparalleled partner in this. The town of Cordova had places for us to rent a 12-person van and buy bulk groceries. We provided a big meal each day and snacks throughout. Mealtime became meeting time. The coffee area became a workspace. As a team, we agreed we’d have good food for all without complaint. It worked.
Our faculty team cooked, drove the van, wrangled gear, planned schedules, facilitated interviews and photo sessions, taught in the field at 5 am and at midnight (20 hours of sunlight does that). We took precautions to learn bear safety. We agreed on a curfew and house rules. All of us consulted on stories, took long walks to talk through ideas, built teams to gather information and direction. The entire team cleaned and organized our cabin. We all took turns volunteering in town for 4th of July festivities and celebrations: we entered the community and were honored to be there.
All of this detail to state this: to make the project successful, every team member — students and faculty — had to work and connect. Cleaning, cooking, driving, planning, wrangling, volunteering: all duties that everyone saw as their own. That perspective of “team over ego” had to be cooked into the project framework. We planned the logistics carefully, making sure safety was emphasized, then we trusted each other to work at capacity.
Takeaway: Build a community and strong logistics before you leave. In that way, the project and team can be nimble as need be.
Tools to facilitate:
Administrative staff extraordinaire
Mission statement that everyone agrees upon
Partners in place to help with transportation, food, housing
Volunteering in place
Working together productively means determining the Venn diagram of responsibilities and relationships and being able to evolve
Our four faculty members teach in different styles, using different tools and expertise, with different process in mind. We are all experts. But each of us realizes that the project couldn’t function without the investment of the others. Regular planning meetings to discuss opportunities and challenges happened multiple times a week in the first stages. We also check in on what is working and what isn’t, who teaches the formal coursework of the term and who supplies support on more of an as-needed basis.
It was also important to us to watch for points of evolution and opportunity in the project. The project discussion first began as a one-time trip to Cordova to gather information then develop stories. The further we researched, the more information we gathered, we knew it was a longer and more nuanced project idea about the Copper River Delta, one we felt students would be the sole architects of stories and faculty would advise. The conceptual title “Science & Memory” developed as we were in Cordova and understood the ways in which we were using and learning information. This allowed us to build a firm project identity.
In the fall, we evolved the scope and mission of the project to its current point, a place we see as the project platform for the next two years. Science & Memory is a project authored by a churn of student teams and our four faculty partners in the SOJC, as well as partnerships with agencies, universities, media channels, and other instructors. We are building an Advising & Partnership Board of experts who can help us with complex material and new ways of delivering climate change stories. Our “minimum viable product” has taken us to discussions of partnerships with the New York Aquarium and the Wildlife Conservation Society, written up in national magazines and blogs. Those looking in see beautiful work and great potential. But it is the planning, the investment, the building of an identity, the trust and accountability, the gallons of coffee brewed and spaghetti served and — most importantly — the belief in what we are doing that shines through the most for our team.
Quite possibly, this is the greatest lesson we can offer: find ways to do what you believe in. It is not easy and certainly not without bureaucracy and brick walls. But when the experience results in the life-changing moments of teaching and learning in a remarkable place, the challenge should be taken.
Deborah Morrison, PhD, is the Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising in the SOJC. She and her faculty colleagues on Science & Memory continue the project as they make plans to explore Eugene’s Delta Ponds, the Willamette River, and again in Cordova. They wish to thank SOJC Interim Dean Julie Newton, SOJC Director of Development Joohee Berglund, the Williams Fund, the Petrone Fund for support of this project. SOJC staff Accountant Kwija Lee and Artie Farkas provided invaluable support. It takes a dedicated set of faculty, staff and students to do accomplish a project; that happens in the SOJC.