February 11, 2022

Student-generated geoscience voicemails for the future – or present

Posted by Laura Guertin

Several years ago, I learned about the FutureCoast voicemail storytelling project. Funded by NSF and managed by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University, anyone could record a piece of climate-themed “authentic fiction” via their cell phone or in an actual telephone booth they brought to events. The context was that you (the person recording) exist at some point in the future. It is a wrinkle in time that transports the voicemails back to our time for us to hear.

During a Game Night at a previous AGU Fall Meeting, FutureCoast was part of the evening’s activities. I entered the FutureCoast phone booth and recorded my own voicemail – it was fun! I found the recording posted on their FutureCoast Soundcloud channel, titled 2024: Rethinking Your Field Research https://soundcloud.com/futurecoast/red526057518a48f7612109499849b975ftmp

I took this creative idea and brought it into my classroom for students to work on their own storytelling development and listening (see GeoEd Trek blog post on student listening skills). I have the full instructions for my assignment available in the NAGT Teach The Earth portal, FuruteEarthCast: Voicemails from 50 years in the future (I did the assignment for the first time the year my campus celebrated its 50th anniversary and had students describe the campus environment as if they were 50 years in the future).

I continued with this exercise the next semester, but noticed that students were struggling with writing a narrative about what the future would look like. Students spoke to me about whether they should describe the climate future they want to see, versus what they think our climate future will actually be. I finally realized that there were two important pieces I was missing with this assignment: (1) I was having students focus on the “product” of climate change and not the “process” of actions that can be taken and areas of current research; and (2) this was not a communication students would have once they left my classroom – and what I really want is students to be able to speak here/now with others about climate, not wait until the future.

So I made a shift in how I get students to talk about climate change (part of this AGU blog, A New Year’s resolution: Climate action). Now, I have students record voicemails as if they were leaving them for someone in the present, and include in the voicemail a solution/suggestion for action. What a difference this has made (for me, the listener) in everything from the science students include to their creativity and voice inflection in the recording!

In some courses, I require students to record more than one short voicemail during the semester, to give them practice talking about climate solutions. I narrowed the choice of topics for each assignment, so the topic connected to something we recently covered in class. I also gave them some categories for who they could leave the voicemail (campus peers, a family member that doesn’t understand climate science, etc.).

For example, in my introductory-level climate science course for non-STEM majors in Fall 2021, I had students record one of their voicemails right after COP 26. Students decided who they were leaving the recording for, and they selected a parent to their car mechanic to their hair dresser(!). The format of their script for their voicemail needed to be in the And-But-Therefore format (see Randy Olson’s TED Talk for a quick introduction to this template).

  • The AND section was to be a very brief overview of what was supposed to and did happen at COP 26.
  • The BUT section was where they identified something that didn’t happen that they personally were disappointed with.
  • The THEREFORE section was where they needed to state what they believe should happen during this upcoming year and at COP 27 next year. The students impressed me with some fun and creative audio files, along with an understanding of not only COP 26 but what about COP is meaningful to them.
Business card from FutureCoast

Business card from the FutureCoast phone booth during AGU Fall Meeting Game Night

I greatly appreciate the creativity behind the FutureCoast program, and I am thankful I came across this storytelling format. And I’m also thankful I was able to see that just doing a “plug and chug” with that format was not necessarily meeting my course goals and what was best for my students. I encourage instructor to consider adding a recording/listening exercise to their classes, and to perhaps consider adding a voicemail assignment (present or future)!