Science through Stories

By Rebecca Lawton, Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Alberta, 2014-2015, and recipient of a Fulbright RBC Eco-Leadership Program Grant 2017.

In Victoria, B.C., red-and-white Maple Leaf flags snap in the February wind. I’m happy to return to the place where I conducted my Fulbright research two years ago, when I first visited the Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM) and B.C. Archives. I’m back to join Chris O’Connor and Kim Gough, Learning Program Developers at RBCM, for a climate communication and eco-writing workshop for two Victoria schools, Reynolds Secondary and Pacific School for Innovation and Inquiry.

First stop, Munro’s Books, to pick up Don’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall and 2017: The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren by Chris Rapley. The books are excellent reads on climate change to share with the students and give to their classrooms at Reynolds and Pacific.

Chris and Kim invited fourteen students, two instructors, and three of RBCM’s Learning Team Volunteers to participate. We meet in a museum conference room and begin with a discussion about science communication. I give background on story as the best means of sharing information. Stories grab listeners and readers through characters who are recognizable through detail, who face conflicts and problems, have goals and motives, and fight risk and danger.

Chris asks the students about their long-term, inquiry-based projects and how the information I’m giving strikes them. One student has been investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; she’s intrigued by details about the patch, for instance the steadily shrinking size of the plastic pieces within it.

One thing we all agree on about environmental change is that we can and need to talk about it. According to the Center for Climate Change Communication, one in four of Americans never hear climate change discussed; Canadian statistics may vary. The students and teachers from Reynolds and Pacific estimate that they talk about climate at school at least once a week.

Heading to the museum’s climate and natural history exhibit, carrying huge sheets of paper, clipboards, pens, and masking tape, we take the oversized freight elevator upstairs. The inner workings of the museum fascinate us.

In the Climate Rules! gallery, students start evaluating the panels. The central gallery is round, with a domed ceiling painted as blue sky and puffy white clouds. One of the teachers, Greg, thinks that designing it to change and respond, with different scenes of dramatic weather would help with messaging.

Two students want to revise the “This Changes Everything” introductory panel at the gallery entrance. They’re not excited about all the questions the panel asks and want it to give more facts right off the bat. Details and specific information are more interesting to them than open-ended questions. Sitting on the floor and brainstorming, they develop a list of examples.

Kim adopts a weather panel for revision. An introduction that’s more personal would draw us in: for example, an account of farmers like her grandmother who kept a diary entirely about the weather where she noticed changes in climate through day-to-day observations.

A social-justice minded student recommends that the Climate Rules! exhibit be moved. “It’s too far from the exhibit on oceans, which are really connected.” He posts his revisions in a hallway to indicate that visitors should be able to walk from there into the oceans gallery.

Two students rewriting a panel with lots of blank space are concerned that no solutions to the climate problem are given in the central gallery. “This big empty panel could talk about what can be done. Why wait until later, as if it’s less important?” Currently, solutions aren’t discussed until the very end, far down a dark hallway that they usually hurry to get through.

That same dark hallway inspires a redesign by another student. “It should be brighter and more interactive. Displays about endangered animal species would work here, so people wouldn’t just ignore this part of the hall.”

As we share our revisions, museum visitors come and go, stopping to listen and study the work. Some visitors read the rewrites side by side with existing panels. Other visitors pause as one student sings a song inspired by the gallery. She uses the first person point-of-view, a time-honoured approach from oral tradition.

If I whisper, will you hear my call
If I shout, will you listen at all
I am the earth

It’s hard to think it’s too hot
When you see the ice
Or see the forests and say
Don’t they look so nice
But soon they’ll all be gone

I plead for help, I’m crying
But look around, I’m dying

If I whisper, will you hear my call
If I shout, will you listen at all
I am the earth

We wrap up in the conference room where we started. As usual in the presence of young minds, I’m humbled by their energy and brilliance. Thank you to RBCM, Reynolds, Pacific, Fulbright Canada, and RBC for bringing them in.

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