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Energy Students Learn Diverse Communication Skills in Innovative UW Class

April 18, 2017
two men examining sculpture
UW School of Energy Resources students Jared Adams, left, and Craig Christianson discuss how a sculpture made of recycled bicycle parts could be used to help UW Art Museum visitors think more deeply about connections between art and energy. (Bethann Merkle Photo)

You might not expect to find a group of University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources students studying at the UW Art Museum, but this semester’s “Communication Across Topics in Energy” class has a curriculum like never before -- aimed at providing students with real-world experiences researching, writing emails and project proposals, as well as presenting and using diverse technologies.

“The goal is learning how to communicate across different disciplines,” says freshman Dakota Lucht, of Ankeny, Iowa, who is majoring in chemistry and energy resources. “Most of our classes are engineering based, so this is forcing us to think in pretty different ways.”

In the first half of the semester, students picked a work of art from a selection chosen by their instructors and curators at the museum. They researched how the artwork connected with an energy theme, including contact with two primary sources. From the resulting paper, they condensed their research into 1.5-minute professional recordings for visitors to listen to as they view the artwork. Students also presented their work during a curator’s talk at the museum, which was open to and well-attended by the public.

Junior Angelica Haney, of Laramie, believes she’s better able to articulate complex concepts after the assignment. She chose a photograph by Eliot Furness Porter, titled “Moonlight Creek, Glen Canyon, Utah” that depicts Lake Powell before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam.

“I focused on the sediment in the area and how the dam restricts the sediment going from upstream to downstream,” she says.

The course used to follow a more traditional format of research papers, but that curriculum did not offer the variety of communication skills the revamped class does -- nor did it provide the students a real-life audience and project ownership.

The new format was designed and is instructed by UW Creative Writing Program Master of Fine Arts candidates Bethann Garramon Merkle and Kevin Kelley in collaboration with the UW Art Museum. For the second half of the semester, students are working on individual multimedia projects starting with written project proposals.

“We were really trying to push the students to communicate in a multidisciplinary way,” says Kelley, who will teach the course again next year. “We have one student who wants to do a podcast. We have another student who is creating an interactive children’s book, and we have someone else who wants to do an animation video.”

bronze statue of a cowboy on a horse leading a pack horse
This bronze by Gloria Clay, “Scatterin’ Salt,” is one of the UW Art Museum pieces researched by students in the “Communication Across Topics in Energy” course. For student Jared Adams’ audio recording, call (307) 200-0040, then press #61. (UW Art Museum Photo)

Merkle graduates in May and taught the previous version of the class as well as the revamped model.

“Transcending boundaries is important,” she says, noting that many of these students will work in contentious fields and will need to understand different perspectives as well as learn different ways of approaching a problem. Merkle believes the project-based and public-oriented communication focus of the new curriculum is a success.

The students seem to agree.

“This class has been totally transformed from previous semesters. We all benefit from that,” says sophomore Jared Adams, of Lyons, Colo., an energy resource management and development major. He says the skills he learned during the artwork project will go to good use in his career in the oil and gas industry.

“I think it will be a valuable skill in the future with having to catch someone’s attention in a short amount of time and also highlight the most important things that you’re trying to convey to them,” he says.

To listen to the students’ audio recordings that accompany their chosen artwork from the UW Art Museum, visit for dial-in information.

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