THE IDEA: WGBH, a public media powerhouse based in New England, approaches Finn Ryan and the Educational Communications Board to produce high-school level media on climate change.
"It was very important to convey that climate change is a local issue.”
TDN: Tell me about the birth of Climate Wisconsin. Where did the idea come from? How did it evolve?
RYAN: It all started when WGBH contacted us and asked if we wanted to partner on this project. That’s how the content area came about. But in terms of how to present that content, I think it came about from looking at existing educational media on climate change. I found that most of it focused on important issues, but issues that students in Wisconsin couldn’t really engage with. I didn’t think it was relevant to their daily lives. And from some of the research I read on climate change education, and some of the latest polls in terms of what people believed, it seemed like few people were interested in climate change, and even fewer people actually believed in it. So it was very important to convey that this is a local issue. And when we’re educating students or the public on this issue, it should be through local stories. Because that’s how climate change is relevant to their daily lives.
THE GOALS: Provide fresh, factual, popular, and engaging climate-change material for 6th- through 12th-grade teachers in Wisconsin—and hey, why not try to educate the public too?
“I think a good story is relevant for everyone.”
TDN: What do want this to accomplish?
RYAN: I wanted to create a resource that teachers and students can use to engage with climate change in Wisconsin. And by engage, I mean that a teacher can use these stories to open the doors to this issue and start a conversation around a piece. Take the fly fishing video—it doesn’t necessarily have all the information about how climate change affects fly fishing. But it does give you a sense of some of the issues involved. And hopefully with the background essay, a teacher can support a student in thinking more critically about climate change in their own area. If they live in an area where fly fishing happens, or they themselves fly fish, or just fish, then they can use that initial engagement to explore all these different activities in their daily lives and how those activities might be affected.
TDN: You made a comment in the past that when you educate students, you end up educating a lot more people than just students. Was that a thoughtful goal going into this project?
RYAN: Yeah, our mission is to provide K-12 resources for the state. When you focus on 6th-12th grade population, it also works for the general public. So while the primary audience was 6th-12th graders, the secondary audience was definitely bigger than that.
TDN: Why does that work?
RYAN: I think a good story is relevant for everyone. Of course if you’re talking with a really young audience, I think it’s more challenging to bring up an issue like climate change, because it’s so complex—so you might have to change your presentation.
We’ve received feedback from both people from the general public and also teachers who are excited to use it. So I think we were successful in hitting both of those populations. And they aren’t exclusive. Education is really moving beyond the walls of traditional schools. And there’s a lot of talk about how with all the digital technology, students can now access resources in different ways. If students aren’t being engaged in school, they will look for resources outside of school. On YouTube, there are channels where good math teachers are teaching different lessons, and they’re really popular. So I wanted to create something that speaks to that as well, and isn’t just intended for use in school. It’s an educational resource that’s intended for whatever educational context it makes sense in.
THE STORIES: Pull from the latest WICCI research to create 9 videos, 1 animation, and 2 interactives that put a face on local climate change impacts.
“I think personal stories are harder to deny than facts. So even if one of the top research universities in the world says, ‘This is how climate change is impacting our state,’ people still can choose not to believe it. But when they hear a story from someone they can identify with, then they start to consider the issue and facts behind it.”
TDN: How did you choose these topics? And how did you turn facts and topics into such personal stories? Why was that important?
RYAN: The group that I connected with—Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI)—is a collection of scientists from around the state. Some are from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some are from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and some are from smaller environmental education centers. If you go to their website, you’ll see a really good illustration of how an issue can be presented in two ways. Their website and how they present their information comes from a science perspective. With Climate Wisconsin, the goal was really to present it more from an educational and engagement perspective. You can also look at their ice-cover data, which is awesome data, but is just a straight up spreadsheet—and that’s not as engaging to a 6th to 12th grader. So we took that data and made it into an interactive, which is hopefully designed well enough to catch the eye of a high school student.
The WICCI group has working groups made up of scientists that focus on different areas and climate-change impacts in Wisconsin. So there’s a group that focuses on agriculture; another that focuses on coastal communities; and others on cold water fish, forestry, and human health. I looked at all those different working groups and came up with possible stories that would illustrate the findings from these working groups. Like for agriculture—you look at the data they’ve collected so far, and most of it focuses on growing season, and then there’s also a lot about invasives and pests. So the story that we produced focuses on those areas, but it does so in subtle ways.
TDN: How did you find the right people to profile?
RYAN: Once I had a few potential story ideas, I tried using local connections and doing a lot of online research to find people who would be able to tell their story in a way that would connect to the climate change research. A good example is the farming story.
I was aware of my own bias. I prefer to eat local food. I grow some of my own food and belong to a CSA, but I didn’t want to just show that, because there are a lot of other forms of agriculture in Wisconsin. So originally I’d gotten a few names of farmers from the researchers, and they’d said, “This farmer is aware of and acknowledges climate change, and is maybe doing some things to adapt to it.” So I contacted one of those leads—a really large-scale potato farmer—but they said, “At this point all we’re doing is spraying pesticides—we’re not really doing anything else.” So I thought, well that’s an interesting story, but it’d be hard to really show how growing season affects farming, and how pests and invasives impact farming, especially in a one- to two-day shoot.
That’s when I decided to find a smaller farming operation. I found a family farm that has been in their family for generations—originally it was a dairy farm, and then they diversified the farm because it wasn’t working economically. They have cattle, poultry, and they also have a CSA operation going on too. Plus the farm manager is female. So there’s this nice mix of the traditional farming—having the cattle, having this old family farm—but also some newer ideas in terms of how farmers can diversify what they’re doing. Which is really interesting for climate change, because the more diverse you are, the less impacted you will be by climate change impacts.
Every story had this organic process, and how I found the people varied greatly—but there were always a couple different story ideas, and a couple final candidates to be the subject of the story. And then I’d ask the questions, “What is the educational objective of this piece? What’s the story that will really connect the activity to the research?”
With the fly fishing piece—we were originally going to show a group of students from an alternative school in Madison, where a big part of their curriculum is stream ecology and fly fishing. So we went out to shoot with them as they were learning how to cast, and I decided it wasn’t going to work, because the focus of the story would be more on the students and their learning of this activity rather than what you have with the fly fishing piece, where the guy is just talking about his connection to fly fishing and its importance to Wisconsin. And then you can say, “Okay, fly fishing is connected to climate change,” and not, “Okay here are some students who are learning how to fish.”
I approached some people who weren’t interested in being part of the project. The maple syrup piece—I contacted a couple different people, including one really large operation, and after I explained what we were doing they said, “No, we’re not interested.” Which is interesting, because I think that piece really portrays the farmers really positively.
TDN: I think it’s interesting that there was actually a little room for failure here—like with the fly fishing piece, where you had one story in mind with the students but realized it wasn’t the best fit. So you had the time and space to go to this fly-fishing guide and profile him instead. I think a lot of times people come up against a story that doesn’t work, and they’re like, well crap, we have to run with it because we have no other choice at this point. But you had the flexibility to go a different direction. Talk about that.
RYAN: I think that is because David Nevala [photographer, videographer, editor] was really interested in this project, so I had more flexibility in terms of saying to him, “Well, I don’t think that worked, so I’m going to reevaluate and find another story and another subject.” He was more flexible in agreeing to another day of shooting, if that’s what we had to do. And I had to make it clear that even if it took more than he committed to in the beginning, everything needed to meet a really high standard.
TDN: So it was an expectation up front.
RYAN: Yeah, and I think that was part of the commitment in terms of being part of the project. If something wasn’t working out and I said we needed to spend another day editing, even though we might have been past the committed editing time, he had to be willing to back up and start again. I usually justified that well, so he was always on board with it.
TDN: So why was it important to take these facts and figures and turn them into something more personal?
RYAN: I think that stories are more engaging than facts. And so if you have a story that can make a fact more interesting and more relevant, then there’s more potential for learning, or for inquiry and engagement. We have all this research on climate change around us—now granted, there’s not a lot on local climate change impacts, but there’s a lot of research. But people don’t seem to engage with it, and I know there are some other reasons—it’s complex, and people see it as a long-term problem, so it doesn’t have the urgency of other problems.
The other interesting thing about personal stories is that I think they’re harder to deny than facts. So even if one of the top research universities in the world says, “This is how climate change is impacting our state,” people still can choose not to believe it. But when they hear a story from someone they can identify with, then they start to at least consider the issue and facts behind it.
THE CAST: Pull together a team that can create the videos, vouch for the videos, and then display those videos in a clean, simple format online.
“It’s hard to just say, ‘Well, go through your personal connections,’ but I think that was a really important part of this project.”
TDN: Explain who was involved, how you found them, and how you were able to bring them all together.
RYAN: WGBH facilitated the national level review. So each story went through a review process where national climate change education experts would review the content and then give us feedback. We also had our local education advisors, selected from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which ECB works closely with. And then we just looked for people who were willing to serve on a Climate Wisconsin advisory board, people who were the experts in their area. Because we’re based in Madison, we have access to the president and director of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which is based right outside Madison; and also the director of curriculum and assessment from Madison Public Schools. Very different levels and perspectives are represented in that advisory board.
As for the local advisors—we’d send the pieces as we were creating them, and they would provide feedback before we made a final cut. They also helped shape the vision: We had an initial half-day meeting where we just talked about climate change educational media in general, and I showed them a bunch of examples of other work I’d found that I thought addressed climate change well. I also showed examples of media projects that I thought were unsuccessful. And we talked about the issue of showing local versus global climate change stories.
In terms of the institutional support, I had access to WICCI’s researchers, who were creating the data behind the stories. So I worked closely with them to make sure that all the facts were accurate, because we were basically trying to condense entire research papers into one or two sentences to show at the end of these pieces. And that was challenging. Their research is really complicated and they want that to be acknowledged. So we had to say, “Well no, we need just one sentence—if you had to boil it down to just one sentence, what would it say?” But it was really good, because I knew that the facts were accurate. So it was really great to have that institutional support. And since the project has been completed, they’ve just been really happy with it and have helped distribute it all over the state. (Next week they’ll be releasing their first report on local climate change impacts in Wisconsin, and I’m going to show a couple of these pieces before they talk about the report.)
WICCI is supported by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies here on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, so I had meetings with the director there, and he was really supportive of the project. None of these people could offer any financial support, but they helped make connections to researchers. And the Nelson Institute is using this project as an example of environmental storytelling, so they invited me to come in to one of their classes and talk about the project and teach the students how to create multimedia.
Then there’s 5NINES, a website hosting business who I have personal connections to, and they’re supporting the project by providing hosting. Ashe and Spencer are pretty famous commercial music producers (they did the score for Monster’s Ball) and I know one of their composers, so I just emailed him and said “Hey, I’m working on this project—it’s noncommercial and focused on climate change. Is there any way you can give us some access to some music?” And he said, “Okay, here are some tracks you can use.”
It’s hard to just say, “Well, go through your personal connections,” but at the same time I think that was a really important part of this project—just utilizing all those connections that I have in different areas.
Then there’s another group—the Center for Biology Education. They’re helping me promote the project, so when we go to conferences, we’ll co-present. Since they have more of a science background, they’ll present more of the research findings, and I’ll present the educational media.
In terms of actual production credits, I worked really closely with David Nevala. I did all the producing in terms of lining everything up, and then I would interview all the subjects, and provide overall direction, like, “This is what I want the piece to be, so be sure to get shots of this and this...” And for the Birkie piece, I was also shooting stills and collecting all the ambient audio. So we were really working as a team: I was acting as producer-director, and he was focused on making sure the actual assets were there, so he didn’t have to think about the story as much. We can both do most of this stuff on our own, but having two people out there (ideally I think we’d have had one or two more assisting us) really allowed us to capture everything in one or two days, which isn’t a lot of time. [More on the power of teamwork here.]
Then again, if we’d had a bigger crew, it would have changed the dynamic between me and David and the subject. Like the Extreme Heat piece, when we were following Elijah around his neighborhood in Milwaukee—already, everyone in the neighborhood knew we were there and was wondering exactly what we were doing. If there had been more of us, I think it would have been even harder to connect with the local people.
So David and I would kind of craft a story together, but I had the final say in things because I had to make sure that all of the educational objectives were met and the story was presented the way I wanted it to be. Still, we would do most of the editing together. Then I approached Wed Grubbs from Pitch Interactive. Initially I think agreed to less than he actually ended up doing. But I think the interactives both turned out well, and he was really happy to be part of it all in the end.
Then we worked with Scott Pauli (designer), who was on the project early on, so he designed the interactives. He and Drew Garza (designer) formed their own design firm during this process, and that’s when Drew started on the project as well. They both designed the website. Then we had our web developer, Two Six Code, do all the back-end stuff.
In terms of the background essays, I sent out a request for anyone who was interested on the Nelson Institute email list, so grad students who focused on different areas for each story wrote essays. And Sarah Wright, who works for the Center of Biology Education, has a science background but is also really interested in education. So she helped edit all the essays and create more of a consistent voice throughout all of them.
THE BUDGET: An $80,000 project.
“If I could do it again, I would put more money and time into promotion.”
TDN: Let’s talk about money. You received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, right?
RYAN: Yep—most of the $80,000 budget, which breaks down basically like this:
- 75% production (photography, video, animation, illustration, editing, music, voice, etc…)
- 16% website (design, development, interactives, resources, etc…)
- 5% Promotion (Design, DVDs, posters, etc…)
- 4% Administration (Grant reports, purchasing, contracts, etc…)
If I could do it again, I would put more money and time into promotion. This is where ECB is lacking as an agency, mostly because we’ve been unable to fill our promotion/communications position for over a year due to state budget problems.
THE TIMELINE: Create deadlines that satisfy the grant, and also make the stories relevant when they’re released.
“There were times when I couldn’t believe how much was going on. But it worked out.”
TDN: So it sounds like you spent about one to two days in the field for each of these. Was that enough time?
RYAN: I would have liked more time, ideally. I put a lot more time into finding the subjects and talking to them beforehand. But for most of the pieces, we’d go in and spend a full day or two and just collect all the assets. And then we’d spend probably about five days editing.
TDN: And the research process—how long did that take?
RYAN: I’d say on average, three to five days to research. And that’s not just finding the subject, but also organizing all the background resources like the essays and teaching tips for the stories.
TDN: What determined that timeline?
RYAN: The timeline was driven by the grant. And it was a burden, but at the same time I think it was really good that there was a strict deadline, because we’d have to have a rough cut done by a certain date for a certain number of stories. And then we’d send those off, and then we’d get feedback, and then we had to have a final done at a certain time.
It was hard because the grant and timeline were originally written for just repurposing existing video—it wasn’t written for producing original media. So there were times when I couldn’t believe how much was going on. But yeah, it worked out. And since the original grant was just for the production of the media, we could take our time in terms of designing the website and putting it all together. So there were no time constraints on that.
I don’t know if December was the best time for us to launch the project, but the Birkie and ice fishing stories are relevant to what people are actually experiencing in winter. Of course there are all these people who confuse weather with climate, and right now are having a pretty snowy winter and it’s been pretty cold—but that could change quickly.
We did decide not to release individual pieces as they were produced, but hold them until the entire project went live. And that was nice because we could then go through them all and look for any inconsistencies and really try to create a cohesive collection of stories.
THE RESULTS: Pay attention to metrics, and measure success through feedback and anecdotes.
“Right now we’re at 49,800 plays for the videos, which is success, in my opinion—especially because these aren’t videos of someone wiping out on a bike or something.”
TDN: How have you been measuring results?
RYAN: We use Google Analytics, which shows page views, visitors, etc. And all the pages are hosted through Vimeo, so I can see how many times they’re viewed, where they’re embedded, and where the person finishes watching them. Originally I was thinking of having the videos downloadable as well, because in many education settings that’s useful—but the problem with that is you can’t monitor use, and that information is important to continue to get funding. So I decided to make them embeddable and offer free DVDs to educators. And we’ve received a lot of requests from environmental education centers and schools for DVDs.
Here’s a basic breakdown of metrics [from December 20 through February 8]:
- 59,600 page views
- 24,100 visits
- 49,800 video plays
The other tracking we do is just through feedback via email and blogs, but that is more anecdotal. I guess another measure of success is that many of the pieces will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television beginning next week, and this is great because they were really just designed for the web. The Birkie audio will also be aired on Wisconsin Public Radio in two weeks.
TDN: A lot of nonprofits are throwing videos out there, but if they aren’t measuring results, it’s hard to grasp the value of that work, or argue for a budget to produce nicer pieces. They need to see the returns for quality videos—the hard numbers. Can you speak to this at all?
RYAN: Our funding is increasingly tied to our metrics. So showing how many people are using the resource we create is really important. Traditionally, our materials were mostly broadcast on television, so you could get somewhat of an idea but it was harder. With web content, the metrics are easy to use and really accurate. So we didn’t create viral videos that are getting millions of views—but right now we’re close to 50,000 plays for the videos, which is success, in my opinion. Especially because these aren’t videos of someone wiping out on a bike or something. Every time someone watches them, they’re thinking about and hearing a story about climate change.
TDN: How else are you marketing?
RYAN: We’ve presented at an environmental conference and a couple science teacher conferences. The Nelson Institute has sent the videos out on all these different email lists. And we’ve sent out tons of emails on educational lists too, along with marketing through our email newsletter. I really focused on trying to share this project on Twitter and Facebook, and I think that’s been pretty successful.
It’s interesting, because there’s a large percent of sharing that is strictly due to the design and multimedia production, but doesn’t have that much to do with the content. I’ll see Tweets saying, “Awesome design! Oh, and I like the stories too…” from some web-design blog—which is interesting, because that’s not our intended audience, but the more things are shared, the more exposure we get.
And I think that really speaks to addressing the general public in addition to just educators. This project is actually popular among the general public, which I think is really important, and I think it’s often overlooked in educational media. It’s like, “Well, this is for teachers, this is what they expect to see…” but we kind of changed our philosophy a little bit, and said, “Well, this is popular in general, so teachers will know about it, and teachers will use it.”
THE LESSONS: Start with a strong vision, and others will hop on board.
“I think the best elements of the project were created with people who were really invested in the project on a personal level.”
TDN: So what did you learn?
RYAN: I think having a strong vision is important. And that doesn’t mean that it can’t change, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not based on a lot of research and input from different perspectives. But part of our process was meeting with the education advisors before we started producing anything, so we could narrow down our vision and establish some clear goals for how we were going to produce the media, how it would be used, and who our audience was. And I think that was really helpful. Also, I think the best elements of the project were created with people who were really invested in the project on a personal level—there was some buy-in, some reason why they wanted to be part of it, and that usually produced the best output.
TDN: What surprised you?
RYAN: I think how willing a lot of the subjects were to really share their stories. A lot of them were really excited to be part of the project. I think sometimes groups producing these things are hesitant to feature outsiders, or even just the general public. But for a lot of nonprofits, the general public is often their target audience, so including them and having them tell their stories rather than trying to impose the organizational view on others is important. And I my case, it was actually easier than I thought it would be. It took a lot of time and research to find my subjects, but they were just really great to work with, every single one. And I think that comes from the fact that people have a desire to tell their stories, to have their voices heard.
TDN: What would you do differently next time?
RYAN: One of the challenges of this project was working within a state agency—there are a lot of policies you have to follow, and that limits flexibility in terms of working with contractors. Maybe there’s a really interesting story that you see, but it’s not necessarily relevant to the project, so you can’t follow up. I think it’d be interesting to do a similar project outside of the state agency context—but then the challenge would be: How do you tap into the institutional support you gain from being connected to a state agency? Because of ECB, I work so closely with the university. It would have been a lot harder to pull this off if I was just working on my own.
So, related to that, part of what I’d do differently is have a better idea for how to promote and market this project. I think I really focused on the production, and now it’s out there, which is great—but I’m starting to think, okay, how can I really get this in the hands of a lot of teachers? I mean we have all of our traditional methods of promotion. But I’m talking about really going beyond that and coming up with some more innovative promotional ideas.
TDN: That idea has come up a lot recently: “So you have a great video—now what?” How do you get it in front of the masses? Do you partner with a marketing firm, or is it just a matter of being creative and having enough time to push it out there on your own?
RYAN: I think it’s a combination. Like I said before, having the institutional partners really helps. I also targeted some multimedia blogs and said, “What do you think? If you like it, please share it.” One of the first big blogs that picked it up is Boing Boing, and that connection came from one of my friends, a grad student who does a lot of science/climate change related blogging and knows the science editor there. So he sent it to her, and then she featured one of the pieces, and that was sent all over the world—the maple syrup piece is really popular in Japan for some reason. I mean, that’s how the internet works. It’s fun being able to track it all and say, “Ah, okay, in Saudi Arabia they’re watching the fly fishing video.”
So you have to identify key people that have some influence in the area that you’re trying to promote the video. It’s hard, because everyone is so overwhelmed with media—and I actually questioned, and I still do, is this changing behavior? Is it increasing awareness about climate change? Is it actually meeting its educational goals? And that’s hard to measure. We used to have a research department division here, but it was cut, so that’s one of the unknowns, and I wish we could better track that and see how it actually is being used.
Once I send out DVDs, I want to stay in touch with those people so I can get feedback over a long period of time and see how students are responding to the media. But it’s hard to know what defines success for something like this. I don’t know—LA Times had a write up in their media blog on it. Is that success? Well, it didn’t exactly result in a ton of traffic. But they did say, “This is what education can offer in the internet age,” or something like that. Which is awesome feedback.
TDN: Any final advice on the topic of tackling difficult, abstract subjects like climate change?
RYAN: I think the philosophy to engage people so that they’re interested can be applied to a lot of issues. When you present this issue as the facts, it might not be that interesting. But when you tell the story behind it—and someone hears that story and relates to it—then the facts become more interesting.
Finn Ryan is the director and producer of Climate Wisconsin for the Educational Communications Board in Madison, Wisconsin.