Colorado College student Rachel Colchete thanks Jicarilla Apache elder Bryan Vigil at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, while other students (Johnna Geick, Olivia Dicks, Augie Voss, Mitchell Adams, Carly Valerious and Sam Bower) stand by, after Vigil addressed students and led a conversation as part of CC’s 2019 journalism/State of the Rockies course Changing Climate, Changing Lives. Photos by Bruce Finley.

In partnership with the Colorado College Journalism Institute, a course in journalistic method was taught last fall by an on-the-ground professional Denver Post reporter.  Students were asked to employ journalism strategies to investigate and report on how climate change in the Rocky Mountain West influences our lives.

The Class

CC students listen to Samuel Essah, director of the potato management and physiology program at Colorado State University’s San Luis Valley Research Center, as part of their look at how a changing climate is complicating agriculture in a semi-arid part of the Southwest.

Last fall, State of the Rockies partnered with the newly founded Colorado College Journalism Institute to make possible a class taught by the Denver Post’s lead environmental reporter Bruce Finley—who is arguably the leading environmental journalist in the state. Thanks to the support from State of the Rockies and most particularly Cyndy Hines, Finley put together a groundbreaking class, “Changing Climates, Changing Lives.” This was an entirely new course emphasizing active learning and journalistic writing in which CC students explored the impact of climate change on human lives in the Rocky Mountain Region. During the course of the “block”—Colorado College operates on the innovative “Block Plan” in which they take one class at a time for three and a half weeks, a modular pedagogical system that allows for this type of class to be possible in ways that it would not at other institutions—students conducted investigative field work at three locations: in the predominantly agricultural and water-challenged San Luis Valley, around the snow-dependent ski and recreation community of Crested Butte (which included visits to climate change institutes in Aspen), and at the coal-mining and organic farming area in the North Fork Valley (Somerset-Paonia-Hotchkiss).

Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine engineering manager John Poulos trains CC Changing Climate, Changing Lives students to use emergency respirators, a safety precaution before the students descended for 7 miles through a tunnel to observe the extraction of fossil fuels and interview miners. This course taught and applied journalism methods in an exploration of how climate change is affecting people. Students produced and published multiple reports on a news site designed during the course, a collaboration between CC’s journalism institute, English Department and the State of the Rockies Project that investigates environmental issues in the Rocky Mountain West.

Students functioned as journalists conducting interviews, gathering information and producing stories for digital distribution on several platforms taught by a working journalist who covers environment news in the preeminent publication in Colorado, the course required quick-study analysis of complex topics, the ability to frame questions, and the ability to write quickly and clearly. An innovative addition to the College’s offerings in the Environmental Humanities, the course required substantive grounding in environmental, political, legal and social issues of the West—while remaining a journalism course.

Solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels requires installation of panels. CC student journalists went to a Solar Enterprises International training center in Paonia where campus director Pete Mueller, pointing, expounded on setting up circuits. The students looking on here as part of CC’s Changing Climate, Changing Lives course are Carly Valerious, Augie Voss, Rainy Adkins, Whitton Feer and Mitchell Adams.

One of the clear learning outcomes for students was to perceive how journalism offers a way to see and know the world with the mission of informing people. Through their work in the class, student documented major emerging environmental impacts associated with climate change — enabling focused exploration of how climate change is changing human lives. Read their stories written from the field.


by Steve Hayward, Director of the Journalism Institute, Colorado College