Grant supports Roaring Fork Valley students making climate change films

Tatiana Flowers
Middle and high school students learn how to use camera equipment at "The Lens On Climate Change" workshop, a weeklong program that teaches youth about the impacts of climate change in their local community.
Sarah Johnson

Students across the Roaring Fork Valley are working on films about climate change amid a time when wildfires, extremely dry conditions, drought, and rising temperatures are at the forefront of environmental conversations in the state and across the globe.

The weeklong effort, in which students are making films, encourages youth to explore ways in which climate change affects their own individual lives.

The project, in its third year, was funded by the National Science Foundation, which gave CU Boulder a $1.1 million grant to host a series of programs like this across the state. The Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, is an extension of CU Boulder that spearheads the development of the project.

The program’s facilitators say the goal of the weeklong project is to educate students about how climate change impacts their community, while giving them the tools to creatively engage with fellow classmates, and community members, and to possibly take action.

The six-day program called “The Lens On Climate Change” was advertised in schools across the valley, and asks the 20 current participants to create short films about a topic of their choice related to global warming, by storyboarding, interviewing, and editing their original content.

A screening of the films is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Third Street Center in Carbondale. Both the program and the festival are free of charge and open to the public.

partnership project

The venture, which is funded by The National Science Foundation, and spearheaded by The Youth Water Leadership Program, is taught by staff at CU Boulder and Colorado Film School.

Saturday’s screening, which will include films about water and river issues, bicycle use and recycling, the ranching and cattle industry, and more, is also partly funded by local donors.

“It’s important for our local kids to have exposure to higher education, research institution professors and researchers,” said Sarah Johnson, an environmental education specialist who helped manage the weeklong program in Carbondale.

Students in rural areas don’t always get the exposure and opportunities they need from well-known research institutions, like CU Boulder, because such facilities are generally located in bigger cities.

“Our youth have never lived when climate change hasn’t been a conversation, and so they’re born into it, and they’re gonna wrestle with it more than anybody,” Johnson added.

She says the students are creating films during an especially relevant week, amid wildfires due to tremendous drought.

“It’s extremely real learning, and we’re not making it up,” she said. “They’re not just making this up for the exercises of learning.”

Erin Leckey, manager of the program and geological sciences staff member at CU Boulder, said she focused on the educational research part of the project, which works to find techniques that engage the younger students, who may not understand climate change or feel its impacts are real.

She studies “climate change of the past,” how global warming has affected the planet over the last 25 million years.

“I try to meet people where they are,” she said of those who don’t see climate change as an issue.

“The first step is to listen, because me shouting at them that they’re wrong is going to have no more impact than them shouting at me that I’m wrong,” she said.

visual impact

The idea to use visuals to tell student stories stemmed from an environmental leadership summit she was a part of through CIRES, The Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences, mentioned above.

She recalls a group of scientists who used photography to document environmental change on tribal lands, and she says onlookers were hooked to the science behind it but also the additional creativity aspect.

“It’s an emotional medium. It allows dimensions that aren’t available in pure print or pure audio,” said Dick Alweis, a filmmaker, and former instructor at CU Boulder, who guided the students in making their films.

He hopes some of the students will become proficient at filmmaking, and will use the camera skills they learned to tell engaging stories as activists of climate change.

young voices

“I think the point was to learn how to evoke emotion about important issues like climate change because a lot of people know it’s an issue but they may just think it’s just another part of the issues they can’t do anything about,” said Foster Lemkau, 17, a Glenwood Springs High School student.

He’s using part of his work from “The Lens On Climate Change” for a mandatory high school capstone that he’s already spent ample time working on.

“Pretty much all of our infrastructure is built on the fact of a stable climate, so with changing climate, there are tons of variables, and we don’t know what the future is going to hold,” he said. “It mostly won’t be positive changes.”

The soon-to-be senior says he became interested in learning more about climate change after enrolling in an advanced placement environmental sciences class.

He decided, with his teammates, to focus on how climate change can affect water resources in the Colorado River Basin because that’s not a topic he’s discussed much in his high school curriculum.

After only three days on the project, he said, “It has contributed to my previous beliefs that we need to do more to protect our environment, but I think stuff like voting or trying to get laws and policy is maybe a better step than just doing small things at home, which are certainly admirable, but not enough.”

Hannah Popish, 14, an incoming freshman at Aspen High School, said she feels a responsibility to protect the ocean, as a certified diver.

She had originally hoped to focus her film on how climate change affects the ocean but realized after a few days, climate change is about much more.

“Mountains generate water that make it to the ocean,” she said. “It’s about protecting this water that will make it to the ocean,” she said, realizing the program’s goal in keeping the focus local.

“When we give kids instructions about what we’re gonna do, we have never told them to propose solutions,” Leckey said. “Yet, almost every film has solutions in it.”

Youth generally see life from a futuristic perspective, she said.

“They just do that naturally, which is very cool to see.”

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