Short film, big message

High school students explore climate change and agriculture in award-winning short film

Damian Tate

They all agree: there was more work than time to do it — the students of Damian Tate’s Career Digital Arts program and Heather Riffel’s Urban Agriculture program at Arapahoe Ridge High School had seven weeks, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 21, to make a short film about how climate change affects agriculture.

That’s a tall order for a group of teenagers, many of whom had never made a film before.

But seven weeks later, they had produced a four minute and 18 second documentary for a student film contest hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences’ (CIRES). “Lens on Climate Change” asked eight middle and high schools from across Colorado to produce three- to five-minute films about how climate change affects their lives and their community. Each team was paired with a CU graduate student who helped guide the budding filmmakers to scientists who helped them learn and communicate about their topic.

Despite time constraints and learning curves, Arapahoe Ridge’s film, “Lens on Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture,” won “Most Entertaining” and “Most Creative” at the high school level as well as “Best Film” overall in the competition.

“Everybody, all the schools, did a great job,” says Tate. “I think if you watch all the films from start to end, you’d learn more about climate change than people would imagine. It was cool to see how different groups took different spins on topics. Some took a spin on how snowpack is more affected, or flooding, or drought.”

Manhattan Middle School’s film won for “Best Scientific Content” at the middle school level. Nederland Middle/High School also participated in the competition.

The Arapahoe Ridge film takes a look at how a warming climate has created a long-term drought that scientists believe will decrease agricultural yields worldwide. Here in Colorado, snow packs melt earlier and evaporate sooner, meaning less water is available for crops.

The students in the Arapahoe Ridge film crew are part of Boulder’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, which provides high school students with the opportunity to receive a certificate in programs such as health occupations, cosmetology or criminal justice. Some of the students in the film crew go full-time to Arapahoe, while other students come to the campus for two hours a day for their Career and Technical Education class.

Heather Riffel, Arapahoe Ridge’s Urban Agriculture teacher, says that CIRES researcher and Boulder Valley School District board member Lesley Smith came to Riffel in November suggesting that her agriculture students take part in the “Lens on Climate Change” film contest. By January, when the new semester started, Riffel was able to assemble a group of interested students.

“My students had just started a class in urban agriculture, and of course the first thing we talked about was water and its relationship to agriculture. So it worked for our curriculum,” says Riffel.

But she saw a larger opportunity for collaboration, bringing in Tate’s digital arts class to be videographers.

“In the end, my students had to be able to communicate scientific material and then interpret that to the videographers, who might not know the content and the vocabulary, to produce a
final product,” Riffel says. “It’s a very real-world experience and
that’s what we strive for on our campus. These are not questions in a
book. We always strive for real world, hands on examples.”

around a table in room 301 at Arapahoe Ridge, where Tate’s Career
Digital Arts class meets each day, students from the agriculture class
join their videographer counterparts to discuss the experience of
creating the documentary.

definitely had trouble finding a goal in the beginning,” admits Dylan
Brennan, a student in the Urban Ag program and a senior at New Vista
High School. “For a lot of [the agriculture students], the CU students
approached us and we were like, ‘Oh, we wanna do this,’ but we didn’t
know what we were gonna end up with. And we just went by the seat of our
pants – and it turned out.”

echoes this sentiment, saying that for his students it was a lesson in
client-based work, where the end goal can be a moving target as a
client’s concept shifts during production.

think we as a class didn’t quite understand the end goal,” Tate says of
his digital arts students. Tate adds that this spring is only the
second full semester that Boulder CTE has hosted the Career Digital Arts
program, making the learning curve that much steeper.

think being able to communicate in two totally separate languages was
certainly an issue,” says Riffel. “[The agriculture students] didn’t
understand the video editing aspect, and [the digital arts students]
didn’t understand a lot of the scientific concepts, particularly the
relationship with agriculture. So we were always showing each other half
a picture.”

through the difficulty of learning to communicate needs and develop a
story, Digital Arts student William Carson says that there was consensus
on end product.

“I think what everyone had in mind is we’re not going to make a video where we talk at you, we’re just educating,” says Carson.

and other agriculture students say they realized that working with
students without a background in agriculture helped create a more
understandable video on what is ulti mately a complex topic.

“You were there to ask us questions about information that was confusing,” he says to the student videographers. “If we had
edited the video, we would have put in a lot of deep scientific
information that a lot of people would have gotten confused about and
shut down if they saw. You guys kept us on track.”

student Savannah Snody says that once they’d found their narrative arc,
the team had to think about ways to keep their message positive in
spite of a dire outlook.

is a really dark subject and it’s kind of not looking promising right
now in terms of things like water supply,” Snody says. “I think that was
hard because we wanted to end on a happier note. I know that last quote
we used, ‘Farming is a profession of hope,’ we purposely put that in
there because we didn’t want to end being super depressing.”

Tough subject matter didn’t make the experience less positive for the students.

think one of my favorite moments while working on this project was when
I realized I’d gotten to the point where I’m not learning how to make
things anymore, I’m utilizing all the things I’ve learned in school up
to this point to educate people,” says Brennan. “I just remember being a
little kid and watching those educational videos that the older kids
had made and thinking, ‘That’s so sweet,’ and now I’m working on one of
those videos and I helped make it. It was awesome.”

“put on his teacher hat” and said the best part of the experience was
the collaboration he saw between the students from two very different
technical programs.

struggled, at first, to figure out what our purpose and what our end
goal was, but then to have the collaboration from the two subjects come
together and come out with a final product that did very well at the
film festival, I think that was incredibly rewarding,” Tate says.

Collins, communications assistant for the Boulder Valley School
District, is currently making a compilation of all the student videos.
She says she hopes the compilation will air next week on BV22, the
school district’s educational television channel.