Can Al Gore’s message be tailored for kids? Lisa Shimizu thinks so.
Over the past few months, Shimizu has been developing a version of the Inconvenient Truth slideshow that would be easily understood by and engaging for children. After testing it out on captive audiences ranging from her 8-year-old daughter Aya to a classroom full of fifth graders, Shimizu recently gave the presentation to a kid-heavy audience of more than 250 at Seattle’s Town Hall, a community culture center.
A member of the programming team at Seattle rock station KEXP, Shimizu was first exposed to Gore’s work after being tasked with organizing a PSA campaign focused on global warming — a subject, she confesses, she didn’t know much about. Shimizu says she grabbed two interns and went to see An Inconvenient Truth.
Sitting in the theater, Shimizu was compelled by the film’s call to action. “I think it just came from being a member of the human race and part of the planet,” she says. “And also just being a mother and really feeling the shock and concern over the state of the planet and what condition it was going to be in when my grandchildren were born.”
On a whim, Shimizu filled out an application to be part of the Gore Climate Project, which trained volunteers across the world to replicate the talk. She never imagined she’d be selected, she says. “I told them on my application, ‘I’m not an environmentalist. I’m not a scientist. I’m a mom … and if I can help, I want to be part of this.'”
Her plea was heard, and in early January, Shimizu headed to Nashville, Tenn., where she spent two intense days training with some 200 other people who’d also answered the call. During her flight home, she reflected on the experience and began to wonder how to make the information palatable for her daughter. Knowing the film was too long and a bit too scary to be effective, Shimizu decided to cut the 300-slide presentation down to focus on three elements: “hurricanes, oceans, and ice — oh my!”
Slides: Not Just for Playgrounds Anymore
After Shimizu’s audience got settled in the folding-chair furnished open space, she opened her presentation with a quick geography lesson, asking the kids in the audience to help her name the continents as she pointed to them on a map. In fact, much of the presentation was interactive in this way, with Shimizu asking the children to tell her about dinosaurs and fossil fuels, then the ocean’s “conveyor belt” that brings warm waters (and temperatures) to Europe and other areas. And the kids already knew a surprising amount of the science — more than some parents, actually, as a few “raise your hand if you think …” questions demonstrated.
For the most part, Shimizu’s presentation seemed to mirror Gore’s, albeit with many fewer slides — and syllables. The familiar glacial-retreat images were there, as was the cartoon sequence by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and (surprisingly) the CO2/temperature-change graphs made famous by Gore’s dramatic use of the lift.
One major addition, though, was an activity toward the end: this Gore disciple asked each family to decide together what changes at home (from buying a hybrid car to planting a tree to weatherizing the whole house) would add up to the most CO2 savings. Framed on a Biggest Loser concept, the exercise helped introduce the concepts laid forth in the activity book Low Carbon Diet — A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, which was later handed out to the families.
Following Shimizu’s presentation, a fifth-grade teacher brought a volunteer on stage to power a light bulb by riding a stationary bike while explaining the simple science of energy generation. She then opened a curtain revealing three tables of activities for the kids to investigate, including a simulated wind farm (a hair dryer and fan) and basic motors.
“If science is presented in a cool way, kids love it — they dig it,” Shimizu said, confessing that she was never interested in science as a kid. “They learn that science isn’t boring, science isn’t geeky, and they want to learn more.” She added that her hope for the presentation and the hands-on activities was that kids would begin to develop environmental awareness, then get their parents on board to work together as a family.
So Did It Work?
Six-year-old Gordon Sebring of Seattle was one of the many children tinkering with the mechanical displays when I knelt on the floor to ask him what he thought about Shimizu’s slideshow. “It was really cool,” he answered. And could he tell me what was happening with the wires and the light bulb he was holding? “[I’m] making these things move, and then that’s lighting up this,” he said excitedly, pointing to the various parts of the set-up. “This is connected to that, and then it goes to this.” Oh, OK, that explains it.
I also spoke with Sarah Guinee of Bellevue, who was twice Gordon’s age and a bit more articulate. What did she think of the presentation? “I thought it was a great learning experience,” she said. “I learned a lot more about global warming and what’s happening.”
The positive response from kids and parents alike was a bit overwhelming for Shimizu, who found herself in tears just before the show (for which, full disclosure, Grist was a media sponsor) as she watched more and more families take their seats. Afterward, she was asked to make her presentation at area schools, and to develop a teen-focused slideshow for the Seattle Town Hall’s Teen Science Series in the fall.
She was even approached by two local legislators — both of whom brought their own children to the show — who asked her to collaborate with them on future presentations. The invitations were exciting, she said, because “we live in an area where we’ve got forward-thinking, environmentally aware council members.”
“Families can do all they want,” she said, “but if we don’t have change at the policy-making level, their changes don’t mean anything. Conversely, if we have new policies, and we don’t have families on board that are understanding it and participating, the policies don’t make a difference either. Everybody needs to get on board.”
The last kid-chat I had suggests that that’s beginning to happen. Said 8-year-old Emily Justice Devereaux-Yao of Seattle, “My favorite part is when I was learning about the North Pole.” And what’s happening to the North Pole, I asked. “The ice is melting because of carbon dioxide.” And what do we do that causes that carbon dioxide, I prodded. “We burn fuel,” she answered confidently. Talk about a take-home message.