National Geographic, U.Va. partner for science and storytelling symposium

Symposium will take place on Grounds March 1-2

The symposium — located in Old Cabell Hall — will bring together students, faculty and staff to explore this year’s theme of “resilience.” Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

The University and National Geographic have partnered to bring a science and storytelling symposium to Grounds. The event — called National Geographic on Campus — will take place March 1-2 and is open to all current students, faculty and staff. 

The event was organized by the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Outreach and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts. The University has partnered with the Environmental Resilience Institute, which focuses on sustainability research, to bring together students, faculty and staff to explore this year’s theme of “resilience.”

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Louis Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach, said the partnership between the University and National Geographic will be meaningful for both students and faculty. 

“This is [a] great opportunity to bring together the public reach and creative, high impact platforms of a national brand together with the deep research and broad engagement of a premier public research university,” Nelson said. “This three day event is an incredible opportunity to learn firsthand about research interests, research methodologies, and communication techniques.”

According to the event’s website, the students will “explore solutions to the critical issues facing the planet—and its citizens—during the Science & Storytelling Symposium and gain real-world skills during our hands-on On Campus Workshops.”

The sessions and their corresponding faculty presenters were chosen and built around where the University’s strengths aligned with those from National Geographic. 

“The public event in the Paramount allows us to bring a fantastic public speaker—Jodi Cobb—to the public for free, while the Friday series of lectures will all be very highly produced,” Nelson said. “And the Saturday workshops—exclusively for students—will be great opportunities to do a deep dive into some specific skill related to research and/or communications.”

The event series will begin with a talk by Cobb in a free event for community members at the Paramount Theater Feb. 28. Cobb was the first female photographer to join National Geographic as well as the first woman to be named White House Photographer of the Year. Cobb will present a retrospective of her career as a photojournalist for National Geographic who often went undercover to reveal hidden societies and even exposed human trafficking situations. 

Following Cobb’s presentation, there will be a symposium at Old Cabell Hall March 1 that will feature panels of speakers discussing the topic of resilience in areas such as the global water crisis, support of mass population growth and preservation of culture. These discussions aim to pose critical questions about the challenges society faces and the actions that can be taken empower communities. 

Friday’s event will feature opening remarks from Keynote speaker Michael Nichols, a National Geographic photographer. The day will later be comprised of several panels on representations of resilience by various University professors as well as an opera composed by Professor Matthew Burtner and visual media producer Scott Deal — which will provide an in-depth journey into the arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. 

The event will also host a discussion — entitled Picturing Race at National Geographic and UVA — on the representation of race at National Geographic and at the University by National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg and University History Prof. John Mason.

Saturday is the final day of the symposium and will allow students to engage in interactive workshops to further explore the skills of resilience in real life scenarios. There will be full-day and half-day programming available that will give immersive experiences in the arts, journalism, science, technology, storytelling, humanities and more. 

The workshops will take place Saturday from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. in various locations around Grounds, including Newcomb Hall, Wilson Hall and Clemons Library.

“Our hope for students [is] two-fold,” Nelson said. “First that they will learn some really specific content or technique that becomes a critical component of their intellectual/scholarly toolkit, but more importantly, that they will be inspired to pour themselves fully into their passions and find powerful ways to communicate those concerns successfully to a broad audience in ways that inspires a commitment to engaging the critical issues that face our planet and its people.”

Mona Kasra, asst. prof. of digital media design, was chosen to lead a workshop on storytelling through virtual reality and 360 degree content creation. Kasra has worked to put together content for the Virginia Film Festival and is currently researching representational and creative possibilities of immersive media as it relates to issues in society. 

“The reason that it kind of matched and was a good fit for the event was because National Geographic is investing in doing a lot of initiatives around virtual reality, and that is mostly because virtual reality and 360 experiences and stories take the audience much closer to the story,” Kasra said. “They use special audio, special immersive visual imagery, and they connect the audience directly to the reality that is on the ground.”

The goal of her workshop is to allow community members who do not necessarily have access to virtual reality tools to test out the new technology that is available for the practice of storytelling. She hopes it will engage the audience with the issues of resilience in a more impactful way and inspire them to take action. 

Data Science Institute Prof. Gerard Learmonth will also be running a workshop Saturday to explore the impacts of environmentalism in the computer simulation The U.Va. Bay Game — a global watershed sustainability simulation program. The workshop will allow for up to 38 students to play the game for several rounds and discuss how the choices they make impact business and the environment. 

“By the end of 10 rounds, we would like to be able to show that the players found a good, equitable balance between the health of the bay in terms of its environmental quality but also that they would be successful in their roles in making an income in what they are doing,” Learmonth said. 

Because the simulation spans 20 years in a gameplay of just two hours, the simulation is a reduced version of real life. However, all of the data involved in the gameplay is based off of real sources in an effort to be as realistic as possible. There are a nearly infinite number of permutations that can arise from the gameplay, and the results will be affected by the interests and predispositions of the players. 

“But the good part is that at the very end of it — regardless of what the results are — the discussion after the gameplay is really terrific because what happens is that people who would have never thought about issues of environmental sustainability have a wonderful conversation speaking about the outcomes,” Learmonth said. 

Ultimately, Kasra said that she hopes the partnership and her workshop in particular will play a role in “taking the audience closer to the story and connecting the audience directly with the story and engaging them better with the issues and hopefully inspiring them to action, especially with the stories that have a greater impact.”

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