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 (email@example.com) is an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Jacob Bricca (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct assistant professor of film studies. Both are at Wesleyan University.