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Published: November 14, 2017 Author: Erin Franczak

Members of the Ohio University and local communities recently packed the Baker University Center Theatre to engage in an interactive forum that brought together a New York Times reporter, subjects of her series on climate change and OHIO experts to discuss one of the many issues dividing our country.  

Ohio University’s panel on “Teaching, Learning and Reporting about Science in Times of Public Mistrust“ brought New York Times national correspondent Amy Harmon to Athens on Nov. 7, kicking off a five-city tour in which journalists returned to communities that they covered in a series of New York Times articles on the nation's cultural divides. The event was hosted by Ohio University’s Patton College of Education with participation from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. 

“It wasn’t that many weeks ago that in my inaugural address, I said that I wanted Ohio University to be known as a place where dialogue and rigorous civil debate are institutional hallmarks,” Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis said in welcoming everyone to the event and in reference to his strategic pathways. “We create such an environment through dialogue like tonight, provoking civil dialogue by hosting an event that really focuses on science, science education and really the future of our country in many ways.” 

Harmon’s series of articles focused on Jim Sutter’s attempts to educate students in a Southeast Ohio high school about climate change. A Wellston High School science teacher and graduate of the Patton College’s Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship program, Sutter joined Harmon for a panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr. Sami Kahn, assistant professor of science education in OHIO’s Department of Teacher Education. Other members of the panel included: 

  • Dr. Bernhard Debatin, professor for multimedia policy at Ohio University’s E.W. School of Journalism, director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics and director of the honors tutorial program in journalism 
  • Katey King, one of Sutter’s former Wellston High School students and a current student in the Patton College of Education
  • Brogan Speraw, a former Wellston High School students and a current engineering student in OHIO’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology 
  • Dalton Teasley, a current Wellston High School student

Harmon kicked off the conversation by explaining her role at The New York Times where she covers the intersection of science and society, focusing on the issues that divide our nation. Among those issues is climate change, and Harmon noted that she opted to explore that topic through the classroom where individuals interact much more than they do in society in general. 

“As a national reporter, what I strive to cover is what’s happening in our culture? … Why are we having this cultural divide?” Harmon said, noting that the articles on Sutter and his teaching efforts were among her favorites and stretched her mind and challenged her assumptions. “That’s always really rewarding when that happens as a reporter.”

Sutter spoke about his approach to teaching science and climate change – a role that he sees as much a science advocate as a science educator. His students noted how Sutter’s real-world examples of climate change, seen in their community and, in some cases, their backyards, brought the idea of climate change into focus for them, with Teasley noting that it made him appreciate science in general.

King put the subject of Harmon’s articles into context, noting Wellston’s economic history with coal-mining, which Harmon explored in her articles.

“A lot of times sustainability and conservations aren’t the first things that come to mind when they’re thinking about their everyday lives,” King said of some individuals’ reluctance to embrace the notion of climate change. “We’re just kind of trying to survive.”

Drawing on his research and expertise in environmental and science journalism and fielding questions submitted by the public, Dr. Debatin discussed the role journalists play in reporting on scientific issues and translating complex information. 

“People have opinions, and that’s OK,” Dr. Debatin said, “but, we shouldn’t confuse opinions, like my personal beliefs, with things that can be shown through evidence and facts and testing and experiments. I think we have a responsibility, as science journalists, to really show the difference in a respectful way.” 

He said teaching media and science literacy is the key to teaching critical thinking rather than skepticism. 

“Skepticism doesn’t help because it usually ends with, I know nothing and can’t really judge,” Dr. Debatin said. “Critical means we have criteria to understand what is trustworthy, what is, for instance, factually true. Where is there evidence and things like that? I think that is what we need to work toward both as journalists and as educators.”

Speraw added that as consumers of news and information, the public needs to work harder – “to read more to find out what the facts are.”

Harmon noted that denial of scientific evidence isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum, using as an example a liberal bias against genetically-modified food. 

“My point is just that it can happen across the political spectrum, this kind of denial of evidence, and I do think it’s part of my obligation as a science reporter to try to probe that when that happens,” she said. 

The conversation then turned to the public mistrust of news and science organizations, with Sutter using that mistrust to argue for education.

“I think this is more reason why we need to have really strong education and we need to give the students the tools to be able to critically evaluate things that are presented to them,” Sutter said, noting that his goal in the classroom is that his students assume the role of “citizen scientists.”

King, who is studying to become a teacher, said she learned things in Sutter’s class that she can take with her into her own classroom. 

In closing out the conversation, Renée Middleton, dean of the Patton College, noted how we are all teachers, learners and reporters. 

“The challenge for all of us is to become active in our own learning, to question, to challenge, to experiment with hearing and learning something that may challenge our long-held beliefs,” Dean Middleton said. “The truth is hard. Facts do matter. And so we’ve all been challenged this evening to be critical thinkers.”

Middleton noted that Ohio University is donating money to Sutter’s GoFundMe page to help in creating the Wellston High School Nature Trail Project and to buy equipment for his AP environmental science class.

Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for The New York Times, discusses a series of articles she wrote about educating students about climate change.

Photographer: Evan LeonardAmy Harmon, a national correspondent for The New York Times, discusses a series of articles she wrote about educating students about climate change.

(From left) Sami Kahn, Jim Sutter, Amy Harmon, Dalton Teasley, Brogan Speraw and Katey King engage in a panel discussion at the “Teaching, Learning and Reporting about Science in Times of Public Mistrust” interactive forum.

Photographer: Evan Leonard(From left) Sami Kahn, Jim Sutter, Amy Harmon, Dalton Teasley, Brogan Speraw and Katey King engage in a panel discussion at the “Teaching, Learning and Reporting about Science in Times of Public Mistrust” interactive forum.