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McDaniel College professor Jason Scullion helps students tell the story of the Amazon

Jason Scullion, Assistant Professor and Department Chair of Environmental Studies at McDaniel College
Jason Scullion, Assistant Professor and Department Chair of Environmental Studies at McDaniel College(Courtesy Photo)

In January, McDaniel College students traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to expand their knowledge of forest protection, wildlife, ecotourism and community issues.

On March 26, they will share their stories with the public in an event titled “The Forest Online presents Amazon Stories.”

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The Times caught up with Jason Scullion, assistant professor and department chair of Environmental Studies at McDaniel College to ask him about the challenges and the journeys of the rainforest.

Q: How long has The Forest Online course been running? Is this the first time? Or could you tell me a little about its origin?

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A: The Forest Online is a three-part course in the fall semester, during McDaniel’s January Term and in the spring semester. The course has included three expeditions to the Peruvian Amazon over the last six years. Its origin began much earlier, in 2011, when I was conducting my Ph.D. research in the Peruvian Amazon. My research at the time focused on how to best conserve the rainforest in the midst of a massive gold mining boom.

Through this experience I met a number of amazing people fighting to save the Peruvian Amazon, which is one of the most species-rich places on the planet. We decided to work together, raising the money to buy the rights to a highly threatened tract of rainforest on Peru’s Las Piedras River and to set up a research and education center. The Forest Online was developed in 2015 with my friend and colleague at McDaniel, Josh Ambrose, who is the associate dean of campus and community engagement.

Our goal with the course has been to help our students learn how to tell great stories, so they would be more effective in realizing the change they seek in the world — similar to how “National Geographic” uses great storytelling to influence the world. The best way we knew how to help our students develop into great storytellers was to bring them to the Las Piedras River on an expedition, so they could bear witness to and document what was taking place. Our hope, which has now been realized, was that through their experiences on the Amazon frontier, the students would learn how to tell great stories and change the world in the process.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you and your students encounter with this trip?

A: Visiting the Amazon rainforest is typically not as challenging as one might expect, but like all international travel, surprises and challenges can arise. The biggest challenge for the group, students and faculty alike, is that we are together for three weeks straight. During this time, we must work individually and collectively through both challenges and triumphs. For example, some of the students have not traveled to a developing country before, while others have never been away from home for three weeks, especially with the same group continuously. Add to this mix the occasional heat, rainstorms, sickness and various logistical surprises, and it’s easy to imagine the journey can be difficult at times for everyone. That being said, I am always amazed at the students’ resilience and how well they work together to overcome whatever comes our way. The challenges that come from our traveling is also the great power of this style of teaching, expeditionary learning, in that everyone in the course is pushed in new ways and through the experience they learn deeply about themselves and the world they live in.

McDaniel Students traveled to the Peruvian Rainforest in January of 2020.
McDaniel Students traveled to the Peruvian Rainforest in January of 2020.(Courtesy Photo)

Q: How do students choose which medium to present on after the trip?

A: The 16 students in the course self-select into four research teams: wildlife, forest protection, ecotourism, and community. These themes were selected based on the places we visit and the people we meet while in Peru. Once they are on a team, the students decide among themselves what stories they want to tell when they return to McDaniel. Often the teams begin with an idea for their story, but over time this idea evolves or they start over after they discover a different story they would prefer to tell. Very often the story they end up telling is their own story. This year we have two examples of that with one group of young women telling their story about exploring what it means to be a woman in 2020 and another team telling their story of what they learned about the importance of traveling responsibly through ecotourism.

Q: The event March 26 seems to focus on storytelling. Can you talk about this type of presentation versus something like a more cut and dried scientific poster, for example?

A: Humans and stories are tightly linked. Stories are how we construct the world in our brains and how we communicate with each other in everyday life. People who are great storytellers thus have the talent to help others understand the world and to influence the world through motivating the actions of others. Scientific posters have their place when presenting facts or a research project, but by themselves, they are often not as powerful to inspire people or drive social change. Given the limitations of traditional scientific communication, we want to give our students the knowledge and skills they need to be great storytellers, so they can achieve their personal and professional goals. To get there, the students start their journey as storytellers by helping the Carroll County community better understand one of the most important and threatened places on our planet, the Amazon.

Q: Do you hope students will consider digital storytelling a skill worth developing as they go forward?

A: Definitely. It is my hope that the students have come to learn that great stories define our lives. I also hope that the students in the course now understand the basic elements of high-impact storytelling and that they will use that knowledge to make the world a better place.

Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask about you’d like to add?

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A: I encourage everyone, whether for the first time or for the thousandth time. There is perhaps no better way to understand ourselves and others. A deeper understanding is the cure for many of the great challenges we face today.

If you go

What: “The Forest Online presents Amazon Stories”

Where: Decker Auditorium, Lewis Hall of Science at McDaniel College

When: March 26, with snack mixer at 6:30 p.m. and presentations at 7 p.m.

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