FutureEarthCast: Voicemails from 50 years in the future

Laura Guertin (guertin@psu.edu), Penn State Brandywine
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Initial Publication Date: May 5, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


Students are challenged to write a script and record a voicemail that is left 50 years in the future, describing changes that have taken place in the local environment based upon scientifically-accurate information and projections. The exercise allows students to select an issue of personal interest and communicate in a creative format.

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This assignment was developed for and implemented in an introductory-level Earth science course (Environment Earth) for non-STEM majors. There are no prerequisites for the course, and the course satisfies the university's general education requirement for natural sciences. The general education learning objectives include critical and analytical thinking, integrative thinking, and social responsibility and ethical reasoning.

Note that this assignment is appropriate for and can have the content focus modified for any geoscience course (e.g. groundwater, tropical storms, agriculture, etc.).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

There are no prerequisites for the course and no areas of mastery expected of students before beginning the assignment. The assignment is designed for first-year university students with no prior coursework in earth science. In addition, there is no expectation students will have received prior instruction in library/research skills to generate sources for the voicemail content.

How the activity is situated in the course

For this instance of the future voicemail assignment, it was given as my institution was leading up to its 50th anniversary; therefore, students were asked to think about and reflect upon what the campus environment would be like 50 years in the future and what might be left on a voicemail describing the campus environment (focusing on earth/environment topics).

This activity is a stand-alone exercise that has been formatted as a two-week or one month assignment. Before students are assigned the voicemail project, they will have received instruction in information search strategies and source evaluation. Students learn the science content from the geoscience instructor and information literacy from a reference and instruction librarian. Students submit the script for the instructor to review and recommend improvements before they are encouraged to go ahead with the recording piece (instructions on how to use freely-available software and campus recording studios was provided after students submitted the script).

The assignment as described here included sharing of final voicemails during class time and a required reflection write-up, but this component is not required and will shorten the overall time students spend on the assignment and how many pieces the instructor grades. The script, audio recording, and reflection piece combined counted for 20% of the final course grade.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The voicemail from the future assignment has the following objectives for students:

  • To learn more about an earth science issue of personal interest
  • To think about changes to the local, campus environment in its future
  • To teach others on campus (students/staff/faculty) about earth science to increase the Earth Science Literacy of adults
  • To learn how to communicate scientifically-accurate content through "play"
  • To explore the field of cli-fi and author a piece of climate/ESS fiction

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For the script writing piece, goals for the students include:

  • Writing skills development - To learn how to write about an environmental issue with supporting details in the format of a voicemail
  • Critical thinking and research skills - To learn how to evaluate sources and how to critically analyze text in existing articles to determine how well an article covers the topic, to assess what information is missing, and to evaluate to what extent an article is effective in accomplishing its objectives

Other skills goals for this activity

For the audio recording piece, goals for students include:

  • Media and information literacy - To learn how information is both produced and consumed, and to reflect on available sources and their appropriate usage
  • Listening skills - To listen to audio files generated by their peers to determine how well an audio narrative covers the topic, engages a listener of the target population, and to evaluate to what extent a podcast is effective in accomplishing its objectives
  • Technical skills – To learn how to use GarageBand (or any audio recording program) to generate an engaging audio narrative, as audio training is growing in both educational and corporate settings

Description and Teaching Materials

Students were first provided the background and inspiration for this assignment, the FutureCoast storytelling project by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University that used a playful-yet-serious way to change the dialog about climate change. Through "authentic fiction," people listened to FutureCoast voicemails that "leaked from the cloud of possible futures" back to our time. Anyone was then allowed to generate their own voicemail incorporating future thinking – their own future and how climate change may have impacted our planet.

During one semester, the timing of this assignment coincided with my campus celebrating its 50-year anniversary. Students were seeing the photos around campus of what the campus looked like "back in the day"... but I challenged them to think about how the campus is going to look like in another 50 years, when Penn State Brandywine celebrates its 100th anniversary? Specifically, what will the "environment" be? (and I required student to think about "environment" as it connects to the content of my environment earth course)

Students were assigned to: (a) Write the script for the voicemail and submit to the instruction for review; (b) Record an audio file in the spirit of a "future voicemail" that documents something about the environment of the campus; (c) In class, listen to each other's recordings and vote for our favorites; (d) Share our FutureEarthCasts online with the campus; (e) Write a reflection about the project.

The majority of the focus for the assignment was to write a script about the future but grounded in scientific fact and informed by models projecting future environmental conditions and outcomes. The script needed to be a minimum of 300 words and submitted with the references used in APA format. The purpose of the script was for me to take a look and confirm the accuracy of the science content before students record, to aid in keeping to their narrative during the recording, and to provide online with the posted audio files for ADA compliance.

Student handout for the FutureEarthCast Project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 26kB May4 21)
Grading rubric for FutureEarthCast (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB May4 21) 

Teaching Notes and Tips

The original FutureCoast website is no longer live. However, voicemail files from the past and new ones are still being posted on the FutureCoast SoundCloud page.

It is helpful to have an in-class listening session to some of the existing FutureCoast voicemails the day the assignment is given. Instructors can then lead students through an analysis of each voicemail - the strengths and weaknesses in terms of content and style/presentation.

It was a challenge for some students to keep the focus of the voicemails on the physical environment. Although it was hoped that students would be able to easily make the connection to the campus environment as they considered future impacts, some students focused more on physical structures (more buildings on campus in the future), more degree programs, more students, etc. Future versions of this assignment allowed students to select their own location to think about the future (where they live, travel with family, etc.) and had more success.

Although no students in classes where I have assigned the FutureEarthCast project have identified to me any anticipated challenges to completing the assignment, if a student has a speech impediment (stutters, is mute, etc.), I realize they may not feel comfortable or be able to record their voice. In this case, and for other audio assignments in other courses, I have allowed students to perform all the steps up for the script writing, have someone else record their voice reading the voicemail, then the student in my class is required to do the final editing. Permission is always obtained in writing from the student that does the speaking (typically via email to the instructor).

For students whose first language is not English, they may feel more comfortable recording in their own language. The instructor can require the script be turned in typed in English but allow the student to record the audio in another language. This has yielded interesting class discussions when the file is played back in the classroom, noting how pace and emphasis varies between languages.


The grading rubric (file included on this page) focused more on the content of the script than the quality of the audio file. This encouraged the students to spend more time on finding quality sources and describing their projections on future environmental changes, rather than the creativity of the voicemail itself. The audio recording is a fun component for the assignment, yet it was important for students to know that the technology should not be a barrier or the main focus of time/attention in assignment completion.

If instructors wish to adjust this assignment to cover a shorter period of time during the semester, the classroom listening and final reflection pieces can be removed. Depending upon the length of the voicemail and if instructors require students to have citations, the activity can be assigned for a period as short as 1-2 weeks.

References and Resources

Pfirman, S.L., K. Eklund, S. Thacher, B.S. Orlove, G. Stovall-Soto, J. Brunacini, T. Hernandez. (2014). FutureCoast: "Listen to your futures". AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts, December 2014. (abstract in ADS database)

Stovall, G., K. Eklund, K. Redsecker, T. Hernandez, S.L. Pfirman, B.S. Orlove. (2016). "Participatory Cli-Fi": Crowdsourcing Voicemails from the Future to Spark Engagement and Discern Perceptions of Climate Change. AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. December 2016. (abstract in ADS database)

The original FutureCoast project was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (DUE-1239783).