By: Nick Santangelo

A lot of college courses end the same way: students write a paper. The mere mention of that type of assignment is likely sending any students reading this story running for their excuse Rolodexes in search of a reason—any reason—to procrastinate starting their next paper. But whether students love them or just love putting them off, writing research papers is a critical part of the college experience that teaches valuable skills.

And yet, writing a paper isn’t the only way to conduct research, and it’s far from the only vital communication tool in 2018. With that in mind, Geography and Urban Studies Assistant Professor Hamil Pearsall decided to try something different last semester for her Geography of Hazards course’s final assignment. Dr. Pearsall tasked her students with creating a podcast about achieving an equitable climate future in Philadelphia.

“I’d been wanting to make final projects a little bit more creative than just a final paper,” explains Dr. Pearsall. “I thought a podcast would be interesting to students because it would be a new form of communication for them that would involve both written and verbal communication, and it would also give them a chance to go out and interview people, give them a chance to talk to people, which is a cool thing about a podcast.”

She also wanted the project to find life outside the classroom. With the podcast for anyone to consume at the above link, that goal was accomplished. Junior Connor Caruso, an environmental studies major planning to graduate in spring 2020, was one of the students who worked on the podcast, and he agrees with his professor that seeing his work published online is rewarding.

“Most papers are between you and your professor. You’re writing it, and they’re reading it and then after the semester it’s like you forget about it,” says Caruso. “That work is really not ever seen again. So having a podcast online, it kind of lives a little bit longer than most others.”

A Group Effort

Before the podcast could come to life, Dr. Pearsall had to design the assignment and watch students bring it to life. Not only was it the first time she would use a podcast as an assignment, but it was the first time many of her students worked on a podcast.

That meant they needed to learn how to script a narrative, secure and conduct interviews and edit together audio files. They spent about half the semester figuring it all out and doing the work, which involved overcoming a large learning curve.

“That was a little bit stressful at times and just challenging because I had never done that before,” remembers Caruso, “but once I got halfway through it and started listening to how it sounded and it was pulling together so well, that gave us the motivation to wrap it up and finish it. We were really high on it.”

This despite the fact that producing the podcast meant a large group of students all had to work together. Every college student and graduate has a horror story or two about group project work. It’s such a widespread issue that one group member doing none of the work but taking most or all the credit continues to be the inspiration for an endless string of internet memes.

It was all pretty well executed

But Jillian Eller, a senior majoring in environmental studies with a minor in geography and urban studies, says this group project wasn’t like that. It helped that Dr. Pearsall made students complete the project piece by piece with a series of intermediate due dates. Eller recalls that this approach “held all the group members accountable” so that everyone contributed and kept things on track.

“We did have some issues going about the process, especially at the end a little,” she says, “but it all was pretty well-resolved.”

Climate Refugees

And while the project did have a formal structure, Dr. Pearsall still gave the students “a lot of leeway” in determining what each group’s subtopic would be. She invited members from partner organizations working to achieve climate justice into the classroom for a series of guest lectures to help the students identify research topics that most appealed to them.

Eller’s group, for example, explored how Puerto Rican refugees of Hurricane Maria were being treated in the United States, particularly in Philadelphia. The 10th-most powerful hurricane in Atlantic Ocean history, Maria caused more than $91 billion in damages and claimed the lives of anywhere from 64 to 5,000 Puerto Ricans (the exact number is heavily disputed). Eller says the work her group did highlights how although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they’re not treated as such.

take a moment to think about do you really need to buy that bottle of water

Even better than helping climate refugees after the fact, however, is working to prevent these kinds of disasters to begin with. Eller says people shouldn’t be made to feel like it falls to a few individuals to address this. Everyone can do something small to help the cause.

“Not everyone can participate in sustainability dialogues and actions, but just take a moment to think about do you really need to buy that bottle of water,” she says. “Do you need a bag at a grocery store? Can you walk instead of driving? These are all individual sorts of actions you can take. But also you can hold corporations accountable for their largescale contributions.”

Asked what new things she learned during her research, Eller doesn’t bring up how anthropogenic climate change causes natural disasters. She doesn’t talk more about the steps everyone can take to slow its effects. No, it’s a different type of inconvenient truth she focuses on: bureaucracies move slowly and take limited actions, their every move a calculated decision aimed at improving each bureaucrat’s reputation.

“They’re always looking for a way to try to make it about them,” explains Eller. “But what they really need to do is get out and find out what these people need, not just what they think they need.”

Tree Tenders

Opening students’ eyes to the many realities of climate change is “the goal” for Dr. Pearsall. It’s one she thinks Eller, Caruso and their classmates achieved by producing the podcast. She lights up when asked if they brought her vision to life, exclaiming that they did. It was exciting for the professor to see the students learn new skills and think creatively, but the biggest payoff was seeing them figure out how they can get involved with and passionate about something like a tree-planting campaign.

Tending to trees was the topic of Caruso’s group work on the podcast. As part of his Temple University education, he got involved with planting some trees in 2017. When a tree tender group presented during the Geography of Hazards course this past spring, he “wanted to dig deeper” and learn what Temple students could do to help. He quickly figured out that while student involvement is a great cause, more contributions are also needed from communities beyond college campuses.

“Originally looking into this, my main angle was the student angle, how students get involved,” says Caruso. “But I realized it’s more than just one group that can get more involved. There are many other groups throughout the city who could use some attention from the program.”

He also thinks these events can help neighbors get to know each other. It’s not uncommon for Philadelphia residents to live across the street from someone for years or even decades without ever meeting them.

students want to learn about it.

The students’ Geography of Hazards podcast is part of a larger podcast series aimed at creating climate equity in the city, and getting residents out to meet each other and work together is a great way to achieve that goal.

“Through having conversations at the other volunteer events, they have started a conversation of ‘what do we want to see in our neighborhood? What don’t we want to see in our neighborhood?’ says Caruso. And from there it kind of snowballs into a conversation between neighbors and between city officials to create a more socially just environment for everyone.”

Still, he thinks Temple students need to be made more aware of these opportunities—if for no other reason than that there are students who have volunteer hour obligations to fill every semester. In typical student fashion—every college grad has surely done this at least once—many of them wait until the last moment and then get themselves into the “mad dash” to get their work done in time.

But Caruso believes tending trees and helping mitigate climate change is a cause many students legitimately care about beyond simply hitting their obligations. If only they knew about their chances to tend to trees around the city, muses Caruso, they would take advantage of the opportunity.

“They need to really get the word out more because most students want to learn about it, and those who were aware of it were in favor of it,” he says, “but the biggest thing we saw was a lack of time or overcommitted to other things, so it fell to the bottom of most people’s lists.”

A Winning Message

As Eller mentioned, the fight against anthropogenic climate change is in need of everyone’s support if it’s to succeed. To win over the skeptics, Dr. Pearsall says the cause needs to be made smaller and more personal. Supporters should alter their messaging from long-term doom-saying to everyday money-saving, suggests the professor.

“Your electricity bill goes way up in the summertime. If you plant a tree, that’ll help solve it,” she says. “We want to make the issue more relevant, something people can relate to, more solution-oriented and less doom-and-gloom and try to drive that point home and make it very personal. Rather than making a big political point about climate change, we try to tether it to the everyday experience that people are living in Philadelphia.”

That may seem intuitive, but only about 45 percent of Americans currently believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes, according to a recent Gallup poll. That’s the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1997, but it still leaves 55 percent of the country’s population unconvinced. The message that it does indeed affect everyone right now still isn’t getting through to enough people.

A single podcast won’t solve that on its own, of course, but Caruso thinks it’s a great way to help get the message across. Eller agrees this “unique” project is an effective messaging tool. In fact, she wants to see other students from all over making podcasts of their own.

“It’s not just relevant to this major or the college or even the university,” she says. “I think the podcast should be something high school students work on to get communications across, because now there’s this podcast, and it’s published, and to be able to share that with people you know and people who helped work on it with you is very rewarding.”

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