Op-eds advocating for clean energy and the Paris climate accord are among the outcomes of a new class that teaches students how to communicate effectively about environmental issues with policymakers, other scientists and skeptics back home.

The new class, Environmental Advocacy and Policy Communications, grew out of the master’s degree in environmental communication offered by the Earth Systems Program. It has attracted a diverse swath of students.

Kira Minehart works at the whiteboard during an exercise in the Environmental Advocacy class. (Image credit: Sarah Derouin)

“We have students that are really passionate about using their knowledge of environmental science for influencing policy and getting involved in activism,” said Liz Carlisle, lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences. The goal of the course is to help students effectively bridge the gap between science and policy.

Crafting a dialog

Effectively engaging in policy issues requires understanding different communication approaches. “We cover a lot of different arenas and formats in the class, from how do you get the most out of a meeting with your policymaker, to how might you use new media or data visualization,” Carlisle said.

Students read classic works of environmental advocacy like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, along with current readings from authors like George Lakoff about framing environmental arguments. Discussion sessions showcased communication strategies and guest lecturers shared their professional experiences in environmental communication, giving examples of their approaches.

Savannah Fletcher, a dual-degree student in law and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resource, saw the environmental advocacy class as an important part of her professional development. “This class was really essential because a big part of being a lawyer is speaking with your clients and helping communicate and advocate for their message and goals, not only in the courtroom but also in the wider world,” she said.

One theme in particular interested students: talking to people with different perspectives from their own. “I think that was resonant to students because half of our students come from a place where conservative thought is really dominant,” Carlisle explained. “Students want to not just talk to their peers at Stanford, they want to be able to speak to people in the place where they’re from.” Carlisle led class discussions about how the progressive environmental movement can do a better job of acknowledging and engaging in conservative frames.

Power of an op-ed

Students in the Environmental Advocacy class. (Image credit: Sarah Derouin)

The final product of the class is an op-ed piece. The students discussed and critiqued each other’s work, discussing framing, tone and approach with the ultimate goal of being published.

“For some students this really is an end product and for other students it might be the process that helps them be prepared for other products,” Carlisle said. She noted that organizing and writing an op-ed enforces communication skills in a unique way; defining the main thesis idea, outlining arguments and using a narrative help solidify the topic and the author’s call to action. “If you’ve got that in your back pocket, you’re ready for anything – you’re ready to go on national TV, you’re ready to get involved in a Twitter storm, whatever it is you want to do,” Carlisle said.

Fletcher, whose op-ed tackles a proposed bill that deals with groundwater contamination in the Salinas Valley, said op-eds can be powerful tools for communication. “I think an op-ed is effective if it’s an issue no one’s talking about yet and you need to raise awareness in the first place,” Fletcher said.

Interest and effort in the classroom is palpable. “There’s so much intrinsic motivation in that room,” Carlisle said. “It definitely feels like I’m facilitating a community of practice – everybody’s there to ‘skill-up’ for work they’ve already decided that they’re committed to.”

The course will be offered again in winter quarter 2018.