Instructors Manju Hingorani and Jacob Bricca explain their experimental cross-disciplinary course on science documentary filmmaking at Wesleyan University.
“If you were asked to think about muscle development, the first thing that would probably come to mind would be hitting the gym.” Rosemary Ostfeld’s film opens with these words, accompanied by pounding music and scenes of toned bodies working out in a gym. However, the viewer is caught by surprise when the film reveals itself to be a documentary about Stephen H. Devoto’s research into how muscle cells develop long before that trip to the gym.
Ostfeld was one of 12 students who enrolled in “Making the Science Documentary,” an experimental cross-disciplinary course that we co-taught for the first time in spring 2007 at Wesleyan University. The course was designed to introduce undergraduate students to the life sciences (taught by Manju Hingorani) and to documentary filmmaking (taught by Jacob Bricca) in order to teach them the skill and art of communicating science-related topics through visual media. The students, for the most part, were nonscience majors with little or no prior filmmaking experience. Our expectation was that by the end of the course, they would be able to tell compelling stories about science through documentary films.
The challenge of creating a one-semester classroom experience in which students could both learn the filmmaking skills necessary to create professional quality documentaries and get a solid grounding in the scientific subject they had to communicate to an audience was daunting. Moreover, we could not find an analogous course taught elsewhere that might serve as a model. As we grappled with developing the course, the idea of focusing on research in the Wesleyan science community took hold in our minds.
We wanted students to learn about biology at the molecular through organism levels and, just as importantly, to learn about how science is done by getting an inside look at the fascinating world of life science research. In order to achieve this goal, Manju recruited four Wesleyan professors as potential subjects of the students’ documentary films: Ishita Mukerji and Scott Holmes of the molecular biology and biochemistry department, who work on protein structure/function and transcriptional regulation, respectively, and Stephen H. Devoto and Janice R. Naegele of the biology department, who work on cellular development and neurodegeneration related to epilepsy, respectively. Manju taught students the scientific concepts and content necessary to engage intellectually with the research. Students also had full access to personnel in the scientists’ laboratories, including their own undergraduate peers who worked there as research assistants.