December 2010

Combining Filmmaking and Science at Wesleyan University

Instructors Manju Hingorani and Jacob Bricca explain their experimental cross-disciplinary course on science documentary filmmaking at Wesleyan University.

Muscles in Motion

“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.

It's Hard to be a Clone

Jacob taught students technical filmmaking skills such as composition, interviewing techniques, lighting and editing, and we viewed short science documentaries (e.g., from the NOVA scienceNOW series) to analyze relevant models of non-fiction filmmaking. Later in the course, students developed and refined proposals for film projects that reflected their particular interest in the research areas. They worked in groups of three to shoot hours of footage and interviews and then made individual six to ten minute documentary films. Since Manju had pre-arranged access to the potential subjects of their films, the students could spend a lot of time deciding how to present complex scientific concepts in a clear and direct manner and how to engage their audience with interesting characters through the use of visual information rather than verbal explanation. One of the most exciting aspects of the class was the degree to which it brought students into contact with the day-to-day lives of researchers. It is difficult for non-scientists to understand what doing science is really like, and our students had the opportunity – indeed the obligation – to carefully observe and understand the workings of a research group and then show this world to other people.

Just as important for our students’ education was that they learned about the exciting possibilities of the documentary genre as well as its limitations. There is a great fascination these days with turning all forms of communication into easily digestible bits, supposedly the only kinds of stories that suit the YouTube generation, but it is not always obvious how much is lost along the way. We think that by experiencing firsthand the degree to which matters have to be simplified for a short documentary film and just how little scientific information might make it into the final product, our students became more critical consumers of the genre.

Another version of the course was offered in spring 2009 as a collaborative project with retired nurse and educator Ann Anthony, and, in this case, the focus was on the nursing profession. Two of our students’ films were selected for showing at the 2009 Hartford Regional Nightingale Awards for Excellence in Nursing gala in Connecticut.

The students’ learning experience in the course is best summarized by Chris Doucette, a molecular biology and biochemistry major and recipient of the 2009 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Undergraduate Affiliate Network’s Undergraduate Research Award, who said, “I have always been interested in how science has been represented through both still and moving images, and this class really taught me how documentaries can be effective tools for conveying information and educating the public about pressing social and scientific issues.”

The course will be offered again in spring 2011, this time with Suzanne O’Connell of the earth and environmental sciences department, who will focus on environmental studies, specifically sustainability issues related to the production and distribution of food. We are looking forward to future iterations of the course that take on a variety of scientific disciplines.

Initial development of “Making the Science Documentary” was supported by a Wesleyan Fund for Innovation, Wesleyan Service Learning Center, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award (Hingorani). Wesleyan continues to support development of collaboratively taught, cross-disciplinary courses through initiatives such as the Sciences Across the Curriculum project.

Manju Hingorani ( is an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Jacob Bricca ( is an adjunct assistant professor of film studies. Both are at Wesleyan University.


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