Storytelling school

Digital storytelling uses innovative tools to transform the classroom experience

The camera points to the produce section of a grocery store, with fruits and vegetables neatly arranged on five rows of shelves.

“Have you ever noticed,” asks the narrator, “how most of the products look perfect and a lot of it is wrapped in plastic?”

In the next few seconds, the camera pans around a farmers market and the viewer is told all the ways local produce vendors have worked to save the environment.

One last shot: a hearty display of carrots, pea pods, onions and tomatoes. The screen shares a simple message: “Buy local. Be sustainable,” and the narrator urges viewers to head to their local farmers market.

In less than a minute, Alyssa Harris, a second-year environmental studies student from Dutchess County, New York, summed up the complexities surrounding environmental sustainability and local agriculture in a visually appealing TikTok video. and informative.

That’s the challenge she and her fellow environmental studies class took on in the spring 2022 semester as part of a digital storytelling initiative and the new digital and data studies minor. at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences. Described by faculty as a new way to communicate research, incorporating digital storytelling into class projects like these has also helped students find ways to present their ideas using platforms they already have. rooted in their daily lives.

“Most people won’t just sit and read paper on paper,” Harris says. “But I know so many people who will sit there and spend a lot of time scrolling through something like TikTok.”

Harris professor Carl Lipo says taking new approaches to digital storytelling through platforms like TikTok has motivated students to think more creatively about the deeper science concepts discussed in his class. It also allowed the students to showcase their work to a wider audience via social media.

“Environmental studies need people with good communication skills, but we can’t just stick to the old way. It’s a totally different world today,” says Lipo, a professor of environmental studies and anthropology, and Harpur’s associate dean for research and programs. “It’s not about replacing academic work; we add to it by condensing it into a very distilled message that someone can understand and relate to.

TikTok videos have become a centerpiece of Lipo’s environmental studies course in the spring 2022 semester, with dozens of student videos posted online, many of which have generated thousands of views.

A student video with over 20,000 views on TikTok showed viewers how they can help stop the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another video from Lipo’s class, which described the dangers facing coral reefs and the importance of preserving them, garnered the most likes: 1,132. This video also garnered nearly 17,000 views, according to TikTok.

Harris says finding creative ways to present her project not only made it more fun, but also helped her contextualize the material.

“I actually went with some of my friends to the (Brome County Regional) Farmer’s Market and talked to some of the different produce vendors about how their produce is more sustainable than what you’d find in a grocery store,” Harris says. “When you’re writing an article for this type of course, you’re almost stretching what you’re saying to fit a specific word count. But with these videos, you will lose the audience very quickly if you don’t get to the point.

Explore digital media

Harpur’s digital storytelling initiative was made possible by donations announced in 2021 from Lisa C. Beck, along with a matching donation from Exxon Mobil Corp. Beck has made other contributions to the University, including a major gift commitment to the. Department of Chemistry and Jeffrey S. Beck Summer Fellowship, established in memory of her husband, Jeffrey S. Beck ’84, a renowned scientist and engineer.

Harpur faculty plans to integrate digital storytelling into college courses with the launch of the new minor this year. In the foreground is Theresa Kadish, a graduate student in the biological sciences and an avid TikTok user; his most popular video on the platform attracted 11 million views.

Kadish will share her insights this summer at a workshop on using digital storytelling platforms to communicate academic work and enhance career goals. One minus: TikTok may delete posts without warning or explanation, likely due to the massive amount of material uploaded daily, she explains.

Although TikTok is familiar to students, it’s not the only method of digital storytelling. Harpur faculty have also explored the use of video ethnographies, animated graphical representations of scientific research, podcast interviews, and animated timelines, to name a few projects.

These methods cross disciplinary lines, with skill sets ranging from coding to graphic design. However, they revolve around a common theme: how can you convey information in a way that the target audience can better relate to and understand?

“You really think about information literacy and how to appeal to a specific audience,” says history professor Chelsea Gibson, who was scheduled to teach the digital storytelling workshop this summer. “If you’re doing a podcast and you want to pitch, you have to ask yourself, ‘Who would I want to listen to this podcast? What kind of information do I want to convey?’

A strong proponent of digital storytelling strategies, Gibson encourages faculty to explore and embrace new media tools in their teaching and research. In her own classes, she asks her students to create digital interactive timelines using the Timeline JS program instead of writing lengthy history articles. While students acquire technical skills through practice, it also helps them develop as historians and researchers.

“Asking them to do a timeline based on an oral history — oral histories aren’t linear — it forces you to use the skills of a historian to put it in chronological order,” she says. “It also forces you to find the larger historical context.”

“We can see the impact”

Rethinking how to convey ideas via digital media — rather than writing articles — hasn’t come easily to all students, says Jaden Beck (no relation to Lisa Beck), a chemistry major and teaching assistant. teaching in Lipo’s Environmental Studies course.

Not everyone easily understands how best to use platforms like TikTok and some find it difficult to think creatively about how to present their research. But she says that doesn’t matter as much as the willingness to cultivate those skills.

“The challenge is having the ability to format these topics using a more creative side and skills that you may not have used before in this context,” says Beck. “It’s about approaching a topic in a way that you get a lot of value out of it, while also making sure people are interested in it.”

Back in Lipo’s classroom, he’s as eager to see his students’ TikTok videos go viral as he is to take stock of the creative approaches they’re employing in their projects.

“You put in the right hashtags and people all over the world could appear on those videos,” Lipo says. “Write an article and it would probably be me and maybe a few teaching assistants reading it. But with a project like this, we can see the impact.