I started the new year of 2015 undertaking an amazing journey that combined three of my favorite passions; travel, video production and communication into a fantastic learning adventure. I was invited by Jane Zelikova to help teach a Science Communication course in Costa Rica. Morgan Heim and I teamed up, teaching storytelling and video production to Master and PhD candidates from around the world. Throughout the ten days spent at the La Selva Biological Research Station, students excelled with the challenge of simultaneously balancing tropical research ecology with digital filmmaking.
Faculty leading the research projects included Dr. Lara Souza, Dr. David Williams and Dr. Steven Whitfield). The research faculty worked closely with students and video instructors. Video messages and stories were crafted by student groups, and were produced with the guidance of seasoned video professionals. We helped students develop their story structures, offering students autonomy of story creation. We shadowed students’ technical production and editing, helping them create finished products that explained each groups tropical ecology research.
Students learned traditional storytelling techniques, like the arc of beginning, middle and end, combined with the tried and true, conflict and resolution setup. Students were taught how to identify and target a specific audience and more specialized science communication techniques included implementing the reverse pyramid and The Message Box created by Nancy Barun.
These specialized communication elements helped the groups develop their research and project message. Developing a clear project scope not only targets the audience and mission of the message, but it also helped the graduate students stay on track as they dealt with data collection and film production in the jungle.
Students and instructors worked together to successfully overcome the challenges of the tropics which included:
intense rain storms every fifteen minutes
over 130 venomous snake species
and, of course
The communication dynamic between groups was interesting as they navigated research topics while also prioritizing script development, shots lists, storyboards, shooting and editing. An informal lecture style was beautifully supported through hands-on research modules and media production experience.
Students worked in groups of four and were tasked with producing a four minute video explaining their tropical research. They climbed towering trees, scaled canopy walks, collected frogs and pulled dawn patrols, collecting data and filming with Go Pros and DSLR cameras. They initially produced a 30 second silent film to experience the filmmaking process, the planning, visualization and production. Later they produced longer films, documenting their research, incorporating interviews, scripted content and cutaway footage, creating effective and entertaining science communication videos.
They used the Message Box to initially organize their story, gaining buy-in and ownership from all group members. This communication template also made it easy for groups to effectively communicate their story to video instructors and helped each group stay on track while also accommodating changes.
The best learning moment for me as an instructor arrived as I observed group dynamics and communication. Students had to manage and juggle graduate level science while simultaneously producing their video stories. As beautiful and diverse as the jungle is, it is also a somewhat brutal environment to collect data and produce a short film. Extreme humidity, heat and of course massive rain storms were eventually somewhat pleasantly endured, and required unique problem solving strategies and persistence.
A main take away from this tropical research, media communication adventure blitz was that no matter how much planning and organization goes into any project – research or production, the initial plan will change. Experienced researchers and producers embrace change, anticipating and managing the dynamics of change within their group and community of learners. It was a true joy to watch all stakeholders work together, balancing research, production and communication in an amazingly beautiful tropical location.