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Jack Derochers sits in his office

Podcast class blends art, science of storytelling

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It was less of a question and more of a challenge: Can you connect natural resources to “Star Wars”?

That was the quandary posed to Warnell assistant professor Gino D’Angelo and master’s student Jack Derochers as they kicked off their inaugural podcasting class. The student who asked wanted to connect her personal passion with her research: Wild pigs.

“I said, as long as you can relate it to natural resources,” said Derochers, who helped conceptualize the class and developed the curriculum. Working with professional course designers with the office of Online Learning, they created a set of modules that taught storytelling, the parts of a podcast and some of the technical aspects of recording and editing audio. 

Develop concepts and tell them in a compelling way? That’s what the students needed to bring. But because the class—all undergraduate and graduate students at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources—had a passion for their topics, that was the easy part.

“That’s what I found most interesting—the stories weren’t these dry, natural resources topics talking about sticks or something,” said D’Angelo. “They really folded in their personalities. I got the sense from these podcasts that they understood their audience, which is the general public. And they made it interesting for anyone who would listen.”

 

Creating the scaffolding

In natural resources professions, communication is essential. Warnell graduates might find themselves explaining to a landowner why a prescribed burn is the best choice for their property, or they might be explaining to stakeholders why a certain policy might be the best choice for public land. Lots of people might be familiar with the outdoors, but many don’t know the art and science of developing successful management plans. 

So, explaining these potentially dense topics to appeal to a range of audiences is key.

This is the idea behind creating a class on podcasting. D’Angelo had been considering a class in science communication for a while, and one day explained the concept to Deena McKinney, an instructional designer with the UGA office of Online Learning. When she later learned about a grant to use technology to enhance storytelling, she approached D’Angelo about developing a podcasting class.

He jumped on the opportunity, which would provide funding for a master’s student to assist with the class. He recruited recent Warnell graduate Derochers to earn his Master of Natural Resources and teach the class.

Derochers, already a fan of podcasts, jumped at the opportunity. When he first transferred to UGA as an undergraduate student, he was late to sign up for parking. As a result, his daily commute took him to a far-flung parking lot and a 30-minute bus ride to campus.

“So I would get up early, drive to my parking space, and then just stay on campus until I was done because it’s a 30-minute bus ride one way. So, I would load up a podcast,” he said. ‘There was more than once when I would get off the bus and the end music to a podcast would start playing, to the point where I will hear that song now, in the credits, and I think, ‘OK, I’m going home now.’ It’s just this automatic response.”

Eventually, he developed a list of podcasts focused on the natural resources. These eventually became the backbone of the class, as he began to think about what separated a good podcast from an OK one. As Derochers began planning the course, he researched editing tools, effects and storytelling techniques. During the summer before the class, he plastered his office walls with sticky notes of details he wanted to remember, working them into the lectures as he prepared the class.

“You have your introduction, your content, your ending, but you also have transitions, music, background sounds—all of those different things that make it not a dry story about sticks, but a podcast that you might want to listen to,” said Derochers. 

 

Building the stories

Their first assignment was to create a short podcast—just 3 to 5 minutes, on a topic of their choosing as long as it could relate to natural resources. Podcasts covered invasive species, the “Mothman,” and Mammoth Cave National Park, among others. For the final project, the class was divided into groups—each a mix of graduate and undergraduate students—to create a long-format podcast of at 30 to 45 minutes.

Along the way, students practiced recording, editing and scriptwriting. “We talked about the layering and figuring out what actually sounds good—and I discovered, in assigning a podcast reading every week, what I thought was really good wasn’t always what some students agreed with,” added Derochers. “and I assigned a podcast and encouraged students to listen to it as much as they could tolerate it. I wanted them to listen to the different sounds and how they’re layered in and how all these different things work together to paint that picture.”

But while the students were required to focus on natural resource-related topics, the beauty of the class is how it can transfer to any field or major. Recording and editing, writing the script, distilling complicated topics—these are skills lots of students can learn.

That’s where McKinney comes in. Derochers researched and wrote the lectures, and McKinney brought in her experience with instructional design to assist with the technology and how the class interfaces with students. Now, she and her team are developing materials to help the class transfer to any major.

Developing a podcasting class was something the Office of Online Learning wanted to develop, said McKinney, but hadn’t been able to start. But through the initial grant—and Derochers’ creation of the content—they were then able to take it to the next level.

“I used this podcasting course as part of a monthly design talk we do in our office. I demoed the course and I even played one of the podcasts—one of my favorites, about how cats are an invasive species,” she said.

UGA’s associate vice president for instruction, Bill Vencill, was at that meeting—and he was intrigued. “He said, would you all be interested in thinking about how to scale this up and showcase podcasting across campus in like a portable course?” added McKinney. “And we said yes, absolutely.”

McKinney is now working with instructional designer Chris Sparks to develop an open-source textbook and a course format that can be customized to fit content from different areas. Their goal is to create modules that can be used in a variety of ways—for example, the course content could be used, start to finish, to teach how to develop a podcast. Or, portion of the class, such as audio editing or story development, could be used to complement content in a different class.

“We want to have something that can stand on its own legs, but we also want something that can be imported into a course, very specifically as a component to orient students in the course,” said Sparks. ‘That part wouldn’t be student-facing, but instead it’s a separate package that follows best course design practices to show students a way to get familiarized with the content, as well as how to weave it into the course.”

McKinney and Sparks recommend instructors work with the professionals at the Office of Online Learning to incorporate specific modules into their courses. They are excited about the opportunity to provide podcasting content to a wider audience, thanks to the groundwork done by Derochers and D’Angelo.

The Office of Online Learning team expects to have the content converted into a full set of modules later this summer.

McKinney underscored the need for solid science communication. If teaching students how to create a podcast helps with that larger goal, that’s a win for students and future employers.

“I have never known a profession that did not require some level of knowledge-sharing and dissemination. Every job is going to require some of that, somehow—but I’ve seen a lot of programs that do not teach people to do those things,” she said. “And that’s one of the areas where I think putting centerpiece projects like this into a course is a way to get past that. And it also gives someone extremely useful laterally transferrable skills that they can take to any kind of job and be much more proficient.”

Derochers and D’Angelo agreed, adding that the format also gave the students some creative freedom. Warnell has a lot of interesting students, they said, and the class allowed them to play with an unusual way to showcase their passion for the natural world around them.

“What I really like is how their personalities came through,’ added D’Angelo. “People could really get a feel for the diversity of our students at Warnell.”
 

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