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New summer course integrates science and journalism

by Richard Veilleux - June 2, 2008

Madelyn Ward wants to do for environmental journalism what Indiana Jones did for archeology – shine a light on the land, the oceans, the air and all of earth’s inhabitants, whether they’re fluffy, slimy, or icky.

“I want people to know about their world,” says the soon-to-be UConn junior.

“It’s such a beautiful place. I want to help people gain an appreciation of nature.”

This summer Ward and seven other students, including four journalism majors, signed up for a new course, Environmental Journalism: Discovering the Last Green Valley, which brings students into daily contact with scientists, farmers, environmental protection officials, and guides to gain a new appreciation for the earth.

The course is taught by Robert Wyss, an associate professor of journalism and author of the textbook Covering the Environment.

Before joining the University, Wyss covered the environment for more than 30 years, primarily at The Providence Journal. He says offering the course has long been a goal of his.

“There are a number of environmental journalism programs out there where you do one year in the sciences, then a graduate year in journalism,” he says.

Many journalists don’t have a strong background in the sciences, Wyss adds. “I’ve tried hard to make this a multidisciplinary survey course more than just a writing course. They’re learning about science, not just journalism.”

He adds that this is the perfect time of year to launch the course.

“It works best as a summer course, because I think the way to do it is to get out of the classroom and into the environment,” he says.

During a recent class, he took the group to UConn’s Depot Campus, where Margaret Rubega, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, discussed her research on chimney swifts, a remarkable, tiny bird that is disappearing from North America.

The class also has journeyed to the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in Putnam; walked the banks of the Willimantic River; hiked several trails; toured farms in Lebanon and Ashford; and visited state Department of Environmental Protection offices in Hartford.

“We’re going to focus on the ecosystem in Eastern Connecticut – the Last Green Valley,” Wyss says.

“Looking forward, I’d like to take students to other environmentally sensitive areas. Maybe the Connecticut River, Long Island Sound or, if we could get really adventurous, the Amazon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.”

Students also receive extensive reading assignments, both from Wyss’s book and a wide range of environmental stories from newspapers and magazines, including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Mother Jones, Smithsonian magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The students also must plan a presentation, to be delivered at the site of their choice, focusing on an aspect of Eastern Connecticut’s ecosystem. For the final exam, they must write an essay based on information learned during one of the field trips.

The students’ initial field trip, to the Depot Campus, could provide an intriguing essay. At the site, Rubega has constructed five eight-foot high “chimneys” of large culvert pipes placed on cinder blocks.

The faux chimneys have been outfitted with cameras, and the insides scored to give any chimney swifts visiting them a foothold. If chimney swifts are going to be attracted to them, Rubega said, it should happen just in time for the student presentations.

Rubega, whose research is funded by the DEP, developed the chimneys because scientists have found circumstantial evidence that chimney swifts are dying.

Art Talmage, owner of Cranberry Hill Farm in Ashford, leads students taking an environmental journalism class on a tour of the farm. At right is Professor Robert Wyss, who developed the course.
Art Talmage, owner of Cranberry Hill Farm in Ashford, leads students taking an environmental journalism class on a tour of the farm. At right is Professor Robert Wyss, who developed the course.
Photo by Peter Morenus

There are far fewer chimneys in the country now than there were 40 years ago, she says.

The chimneys that do exist today are often covered to keep animals out, and are much narrower than in the mid-1900s – too small for the birds. Metal inner walls are not conducive to chimney swifts, who grab the walls with their claws and tails.

The students listened intently as Rubega spoke, while a dozen or so chimney swifts raced through the sky overhead foraging for insects, their primary food source.

She said the birds are faster and their movements quicker than bats, which are also insect lovers. “They are the most acrobatic birds in the world,” she added.

\Later, back in the classroom, Rubega discussed the tension that can exist between scientists and reporters.

“Scientists are busy,” Rubega, a scientist, explained.

“They’ll try to avoid you. They’re incomprehensible, and once you prove you don’t understand them, they don’t trust you. They’re afraid of you. You’re taking something they’ve worked on for 10 years and you’re going to talk to them for five minutes and write about it accurately?

“We [scientists] don’t have to talk to reporters to keep our jobs,” she continued, “and we have the news. But on the other hand, we have to work with journalists to get the word out and without our help, journalists will get it wrong.”

Rubega suggested to the students there are three things they must do to help educate the public about scientific discoveries.

“First, you have to get a good grounding in science now, while you’re still in college. Second, you have to cultivate and value your relationships with scientists. Find out who are the good communicators, and keep going back to them. And, third, you have to take your responsibility to get it right seriously, almost religiously,” she said.

David Funkhouser, an environmental reporter at the Hartford Courant who spoke during the first class meeting, agreed with Rubega – and also with Wyss’s concept for the course.

“I think it’s a good thing any time students can get both the benefit of received wisdom from people who have been working in the field, and go out and do their own hands-on work,” he says.

“There are many skills involved in journalism, and from my experience, most are best learned on the job. But those lessons in the field are much enhanced by having a chance to sit down and discuss experiences and problems with classmates and teachers.”

Especially if they are small classes, something that attracted Madelyn Ward.

“I love the class. It’s one of the best courses I’ve taken so far,” says Ward, who is working to create an individualized major in ‘green’ journalism.

“It’s small, intimate, which is wonderful, and by going out into the field almost every day, it helps you know if it’s something you really want to do.”

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