Golden Tree Awards

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By Jess Gill

Environmental law and filmmaking may not seem like a natural combination, but for 20 years, Professor Robert Percival has been tapping into students’ creative sides with flourishing results. 

“We want to teach students how to communicate complicated legal and regulatory issues to the general public,” says Percival, whose idea to use movie-making in class was inspired by the increasing accessibility of filmmaking technology in the early 2000s. In 2002, he started inviting students in his introductory environmental law class to collaborate on videos about an environmental issue that concerned them. Students took enthusiastically to the engaging assignment; and the Golden Tree Awards competition—a friendly contest for Oscar-style recognition—was born. 

Film topics for the ungraded project address everything from local issues like regulations promoting the health of the Chesapeake Bay, to how climate change is affecting Africa. This year’s best picture award winner, Heat Islands, explores how housing discrimination in Baltimore has led to fewer green spaces, resulting in hotter temperatures during the summer. 

Paige Bellamy ’23, co-president of the Maryland Environmental Law Society, was part of a six-person group that created The Story of PFAs, which delves into how a class of chemicals widely used in a variety of consumer products and fire-fighting foam have caused widespread and persistent environmental contamination. Bellamy, who was the film’s narrator, appreciated the opportunity to work closely with other students on the fun assignment. 

“Being able to interact with other students [in-person] who were passionate about this issue, who had the same humor as I did, who wanted to do a funny video for the project, was a nice bright spot in the semester,” she says. The Story of PFAs won this year’s Golden Tree Awards for best music, best acting, and best use of humor. 

Students vie for 10 awards in the contest, including best picture, acting, cinematography, use of humor, narration, sound, animation, music, and most educational. A judge’s award is reserved for special highlights. This year’s judge’s award was for best use of pandas in a film. 

The Golden Tree Awards are presented in March when 1Ls can attend and get inspired to make their own films in Percival’s Environmental Law survey class. The course traces the evolution of environmental law from common law doctrines to the rise of the modern regulatory state and is a requirement for students wishing to qualify for the Certificate of Concentration in Environmental Law. 

The Golden Tree Award experience doesn’t end in the classroom. Percival encourages students to list the awards won on their resume, calling them a great conversation starter during the interviewing process. 

After two decades of successful competitions, Percival can envision the Golden Tree Awards expanding to a national competition among law schools. But that is for the future. For now, he says, he is “waiting with great anticipation to see how creative next year’s students will be.”  


View the 2022 films at: