P.E.I. man hopes his new project inspires people to 'change their tune' on issues like climate change

·6 min read

It's always been a dream of Ryan Elliot Drew's to have his name associated with National Geographic, and now at just 23, the music educator from Prince Edward Island has already won a grant for more than $10,000 from the prestigious society.

Drew will use the money to research and create an interactive website, what he calls a "virtual education hub," for educators of students kindergarten to Grade 6, about the intersection of arts and the changing natural world.

"The conventional stream of education does wonders for many students, but really, there needs to be adaptive solutions to a lot of the issues that we face in today's world," Drew said in an interview from his home in Charlottetown.

"This in the end becomes a global resource that becomes something that I would like to be used by educators outside of our province, even outside of our country," he said. "The pandemic has sparked a lot of this, but these are conversations that are long overdue."

How can we take music and art and how can we relate them to contemporary real issues that face the world population today? — Ryan Elliot Drew

The National Geographic Society launched what it called an "emergency fund" for educators to develop instructional resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drew's is one of several grants of about $1,300 to $10,000 the society is giving to educators to design instructional resources "that help educators effectively teach in in-person, remote, or hybrid learning environments during this pandemic," according to its request for proposals. It added that priority would be given to educators working in communities particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

'Always dreamed of working with'

Drew is the educational outreach co-ordinator for the P.E.I. Symphony Orchestra, and is also a teaching artist with the National Arts Centre's Music Alive program, a youth music program that celebrates and helps give a voice to Canada's diverse communities and Indigenous cultures. He has a bachelor's degree in percussion from UPEI, and just last week wrapped up a master's degree in global affairs hosted by Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid.

Shannon Barrett
Shannon Barrett

He said he keeps his eye out for grants based on his interests, and when this fall he saw the applications online from National Geographic, he jumped at the chance to further educate people about where his favourite subjects — arts and global affairs — intersect.

He pitched them a project tentatively titled Terra Inspira, which will look at ways the natural world inspires artists including musicians, fine artists, dancers, poets and others, and in turn how that art inspires others to make a positive change in the world. Put a different way, it will look at the interplay between arts and environmental sustainability or climate change.

"I've always been an artist, myself," Drew said. "And then more recently, I did graduate work in the field of global affairs — which are two very different fields that at first glance don't necessarily have a lot of overlap. Something I'm quite passionate about is saying, how can we take music and art and how can we relate them to contemporary real issues that face the world population today?"

A few weeks ago, Drew received an email telling him his application had been approved.

"I was incredibly excited," he said. "This is an organization that I've always dreamed of working with, so being able to have their name attached to anything I've been able to work on, it really is amazing."

Besides the prestige, Drew said his goal is to have a positive effect on the world.

"So if the time that I put into this leads to a product, or at least starts a conversation about, two different thematic areas that are often not talked about together, then I'm happy with that. I'm extremely excited."

Tuning Into Nature

Music and nature have already overlapped in a project Drew helped create this past fall — Tuning Into Nature in October featured musicians playing music inspired by nature and placed at points along a trail beside the Tryon River.

Shannon Barrett
Shannon Barrett

Islanders were invited to walk along the trail and listen as the music from a trombone player at one station blended with a guitar at another, then a saxophone at the next, and so on, as well as the sights, sounds and scents of nature around them. It was held in conjunction with Island Nature Trust, bringing together volunteers from P.E.I.'s music and nature conservation worlds to quite literally create a conversation about the interplay between the arts and nature on P.E.I.

Drew's new project will continue that conversation on a global scale, he said.

The resources he and other educators create will be shared through National Geographic's website.

Drew will use the money to pay himself a salary for the extensive research, pay a web developer and videographer-editor, and consultant's fees. He'll start with a review of existing literature and recent projects on similar themes.

Whereas in other years he might have used some of the grant money to travel to interview musicians in person, his work will need to be produced virtually due to COVID-19.

Inspire people to 'change their tunes'?

His vision at the outset of this project is subject to change based on what his research discovers, he said, but is to create an interactive world map on which users can see video from artists from around the world showing their work and talking about how the changing natural world influences it. He's seeking diverse responses, and said he plans to pay special attention to Indigenous cultures, including P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq culture, which is influenced greatly by nature.

"In the end, what I would love to be able to do is have students learn, say perhaps on a computer screen if they have access to it, and to be able to take what they've learned and apply it to the outdoor world in a way that removes them from the computer screen," he said.

While the focus is still "a little messy at this point," Drew said with his research over the next few months the direction will become clearer.

He said the global arts community is very connected, and he already has several artists on his list he plans to ask to be part of the project.

Can music and other forms of art really inspire people to "change their tunes" when it comes to important world issues?

Drew believes it is possible. He plans to complete the project in June or July.

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