7 things we learned about science and community engagement
We’re back: After a fall semester break, Frontiers in the Environment, the Institute on the Environment’s now biweekly lecture series, has returned to campus.
“This year we decided to take a slightly different angle,” said IonE communications director Todd Reubold. “We asked for speakers who could talk about issues that were breaking the bubble or reaching new audiences.”
The February 8 Frontiers presentation, entitled “An artist, a scientist and a silver camper: Adventures in community engagement,” did just that and featured two IonE fellows: Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor of forest resources, and Christine Baeumler, associate professor of art.
Ring ring: A phone starts the story. About a year and a half ago, Baeumler got a call from Steve Dietz, president and artistic director of the all-night Minneapolis arts festival Northern Spark. Dietz explained that in 2016 and 2017 the festival would explore climate change, and asked Baeumler to create art related to the theme. Baeumler and Montgomery soon joined together for an interrelated series of projects, often with other collaborators as well.
Here are seven activities they shared with the Frontiers audience:
- Using participatory art to draw a crowd. A Northern Spark that the two played a part in was Surrender: What Are We Willing to Lose?. It invited participants to think about how their actions might signify passivity and surrender in the face of climate change. It also invited participants to declare what they’d be willing to surrender to fight the looming disaster. “People were invited to write their declarations on a little flag,” Baeumler said. By the end of the night those little white flags numbered over 2,000.
- Doing authentic work in academic courses.Montgomery and Baeumler didn’t create Surrender — Students at the University of Minnesota did. It was the culmination of a class, “GCC 3013: Making Sense of Climate Change – Science, Art, and Agency,” that Montgomery and Baeumler co-taught with Nick Jordan, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics, and Kate Flick, a graduate student in natural resource science and management/landscape architecture. The course, part of the University’s Grand Challenge Curriculum, tasked its interdisciplinary, cross-college group of students with devising and designing a project for Northern Spark. One student, Xavier Tavera Castro, crafted a giant megaphone with which people could shout out their declarations.
- Connecting science to everyday life.Besides facilitating Surrender, Montgomery and Baeumler forged a project of their own, Backyard Phenology. The study of cycles and changes in climate, phenology is intimately linked with climate change, and the project nudges participants to think about that relationship. It asks people to observe and record what’s changing in the environments they live in every day. “This is something that connects people to nature … because it happens everywhere,” said Montgomery. The project’s goal, she went on to explain, is to “make climate change a ‘here and now in your backyard’ thing rather than a ‘polar bears at the ice caps’ thing.” Besides helping folks track phenology in their own neighborhoods, the project also includes a recording studio in which participants share and reflect on changes they’ve noticed in their own environment. Audio from these interviews is being used to create the next phase of the project.
- Hitting the road. Backyard Phenologywasn’t simply a one-hit wonder at Northern Spark — it’s still going on. Why? Wheels. The project resides in a restored 1970 Boler camper dubbed the Climate Chaser Mobile Lab, which allows the team to easily take outreach on the road, hosting seasonal workshops for the public around the Twin Cities. Mobility means an ability to show up in people’s communities and highlight the intensely local nature of phenology. Mobility also means being able to quickly set up shop at gatherings like the State Fair.
- Giving people something they can hold.At Backyard Phenology events, attendees can get a tangible item to take home: a citizen scientist “passport” containing information on phenology, a calendar listing phenology workshops, and space for taking notes. Participants can get these little notebooks stamped by attending events. The passports have proven popular, with over 3,000 given away in the last six months.
- Co-creating with local communities. This project eschews a rigid top-down hierarchy of experts and laypeople in favor of working collaboratively with local communities. Montgomery explained: “We’re not walking into a community and saying, ‘This is what you’re going to do, collect this data, blah, blah, blah.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s talk together about what you want to do as a community, what’s interesting to you as a community, what kind of experience you want to build.” Co-creation means authentic engagement.
Backyard Phenology’s participant contributions will form a multimedia artwork slated to appear at the next Northern Spark, which takes place 8:59 PM to 5:26 AM on June 10, 2017. If you’re interested in learning more about the project before then, check out the full video recording of Montgomery and Baeumler’s Frontiers talk on YouTube.
This semester’s Frontiers will happen once every other week. Frontiers will next take place on February 23rd at the University’s Digital Technology Center, located in Walter Library on the east bank of the Minneapolis campus.