A Case Study of Video Documentary Storytelling in Science Education
By Erica B. Walker and Kelly B. Lazar
Who were our best scientist-storytellers before they became household names? They began as students. To cultivate our next Sir David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau, the importance of sharing science with others must be taught hand in hand with the calculations, terminology, and complex systems—otherwise, why should anyone, especially students, care? Science is not only the realm of future scientists but also important for future parents, community leaders, and decision makers.
This idea of science as an intrinsic part of a community supports the notion that science should not be viewed as one of five or six disciplines a student may focus on in a given year, but instead as part of a holistic and integrated knowledge framework. The integration of storytelling into science, at least in the context of undergraduate education, is necessary to achieve four key outcomes in the course described in this article: developing well-rounded citizens prepared to make complex decisions; breaking down the traditional siloed educational paradigm; increasing societal interest in science by communicating through impactful stories; and increasing the science literacy of all students involved, both storytellers and story listeners. The first two outcomes illustrate the benefits to students who engage with learning effective science storytelling techniques, while the last two demonstrate the broad benefits of a more science-literate society.
Science storytelling helps extend the traditional reach of science topics by moving beyond the deficit model followed by many scientists in which more “educating” equals more knowledge (Besley & Nisbet, 2013) and into engaging with science in relevant, recurring, and impactful science activities. Similar to Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001), the possibilities of science storytelling elevate engagement beyond the lower levels of remembering and understanding to more complex and epistemic processes—namely, evaluating and creating. This becomes increasingly relevant when students transition from being science story consumers to science story creators themselves. Previous work has suggested that science skepticism and distrust are more commonly rooted in values than in science illiteracy (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009); science storytelling offers the opportunity for scientists to communicate shared values and concern for the community in ways that move beyond the science communication deficit model. The course Science Docs empowers students to learn cutting-edge science being developed by faculty at their own institution and explore effective science communication strategies, then apply these strategies within their own visual science stories.
In higher education, students commonly follow a basic set of courses that include some math, science, literature, and history. These are required for all students, with the institutional goal of producing college graduates who have a well-rounded educational background, the ability to think critically, and the experience of transferring knowledge across disciplines (Boyer & Levine, 1981; Ratcliff et al., 2001; Warner & Koeppel, 2009). This collection of courses often appears disjointed to students because the course materials rarely overlap or connect back to content from their home department. Unfortunately, this leaves students with a group of unrelated required courses rather than the holistic and interconnected worldview initially intended (Thompson et al., 2015).
After completing general education courses, students take increasingly more complex and focused courses in a single content area. Ideally, this structure provides the desired base knowledge, followed by courses focused on preparation for career or graduate school. The disadvantage of this model is that students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors get little exposure to humanities or business courses after their first year and students in non-STEM majors quickly progress past courses that expose them to any science topics. The result is that science majors lack opportunities to develop vital communication skills, and students who study humanities graduate with minimal exposure to science topics. Without the integration of interdisciplinary concepts, such as science communication, a student’s ability to critically examine societal issues stemming from science falters. Both of these skill sets are vital for responsible citizenship.
The focus of this case study is Science Docs, a course that was co-developed by a scientist/science educator and a graphic communications educator. The open-enrollment course leverages the strengths of each discipline to connect science with storytelling and explore the importance of this intersection. The scientist/science educator brought expertise in the areas of scientific research, quantitative analysis, the science communication landscape, and evaluating sources for scientific accuracy. The graphic communications educator contributed professional experience in documentary filmmaking, including conducting an interview, visual storytelling, and the postproduction processes and theories that drive effective visual communication. By having these experts coteach the course, students benefit from two different perspectives and see a working model of collaboration between science and humanities experts. The course exposes students to areas outside their major, which can positively impact their own discipline-specific work and their understanding of how these subject areas are interconnected.
With these challenges in mind, the co-leaders of this course leveraged a research mechanism at the institution named Creative Inquiry (CI), a program and course designation for classes that focus on interdisciplinary, undergraduate research working directly with a faculty mentor. The original iteration of this course launched in 2018. The updated iteration described in this article began in fall 2019 and focuses on visual science storytelling. With a cohort of between four and six students each semester, the course is built to feel more like a Community of Practice (CoP) and less like a traditional classroom. There are opportunities throughout the course for students to drive the direction of projects alone or in small teams. The learning objectives of the course are to
This course has three pillars that support the development of interdisciplinary science communication skills in undergraduate students: science literacy development, documentary film production, and quantitative science education research. Each of these pillars (described in detail below) could be summarized by the following questions:
These simple yet fundamental questions provide the structure for inquiry, coursework, and critical thinking in Science Docs.
The project begins with a student critique of science documentary videos made by others. This activity requires that students become critical observers as they analyze the scientific content and storytelling aspects of other video products as well as consider sources and the accuracy of the content they consume. Next, they engage in the preproduction phase, where students learn about the researcher and their current and past work. The researcher (occasionally accompanied by the researcher’s graduate or undergraduate student team) presents an overview of the highlighted research and engages in a question-and-answer session with the students. This part of the process can be challenging because students need to gain at least a base level understanding of the terminology used in this domain and of the research process itself. The featured researcher exposes students to research outside of their major, which requires this initial baseline for students to plan their documentary film. Students learn to use industry standard preproduction tools—including a storyboard, script, and call sheet—to accurately (and succinctly) represent the STEM client’s research.
The most common storytelling device in documentary filmmaking is the interview. By carefully developing a question set, students learn to guide the scientist through the interview, focusing on the aspects of their research that will be featured in the final video. This is a challenge because scientists tend to talk about their research in ways that are not always accessible to a general audience. Students are taught tools to help them maintain control of the interview, focus on clear and accessible language, and guide the scientist as they talk about complex topics. During production, students use a mobile filmmaking kit or a more advanced mirrorless camera kit. Students also film relevant B-roll to help tell the story visually, such as shots of the researcher and the team working in the field or lab and detailed shots of the research process. Repeated passes through the footage during editing help students identify the most important parts of the researcher’s story, trimming out parts that do not add to the intention of the piece.
At this point, students begin to realize both the power and danger inherent in documentary filmmaking. Regular checks on the messaging and truthfulness of the resulting film are important for keeping the message accurate and avoiding misleading the audience, even unintentionally (a return to Pillar 1). To help maintain the integrity of this part of the process, the researcher is invited back into the CoP to view the first cut of the film. At this point, the researcher, the instructors, and students all have an opportunity to provide feedback to ensure accountability and accuracy before the student filmmaker completes the final video.
Once the short film is complete and additional sources are cross-checked, the filmmaker is ready to show it to an audience. The purpose of this exercise is for students to practice their quantitative science education research skills. The CoP helps the filmmakers develop questionnaires about their films based on the filmmakers’ interests; these questionnaires typically include specific questions about the film to gauge the audience’s level of understanding of, interest in, and emotional response to the film and the applicability of the research. Demographic questions are also included in the survey.
Once the survey is constructed, the science documentary is shared with a small sample of individuals from the intended population and students collect responses. Students are taught basic statistical analysis and comparative techniques between populations. If open-ended questions are included, qualitative coding methods are discussed. The quantity of data is normally fairly small (n = 12–20), so this is an exercise for students to experience real-world research through the analysis of a manageable data set.
Learning objectives are supported by three types of assessments: engagement, reflections, and a semester-long project. Participation and engagement are heavily weighted because of the emphasis on developing a course CoP. By definition, a CoP is a group of people who care about a real-world issue and want to think about and work toward a solution together (Pyrko et al., 2017; Wenger, 1999; Wenger et al., 2002). Engagement is evaluated in this course through quantitative measures such as regular attendance and professionalism and qualitative measures such as effort (in formative and summative assessments as well as classroom activities).
Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning process is an often underused but incredibly powerful learning tool. Based in the Cognitive Apprenticeship framework, reflection encourages learners to explore how they approached the problem, if there were strengths and weaknesses in that approach, and how they might improve their process next time (Collins et al., 1991; Collins & Kapur, 2014; Walker, 2016; Walker et al., 2019). Reflections provide structured time for students to pause and think about their process and how they are contributing to the course CoP. These responses are collated and identifiers are removed before reflections are shared with the CoP for discussion.
The final phase of this project is an opportunity for individual reflection on the process, which concludes with a final presentation. At the end of the semester, students present an overview of their process during the class and what they learned from the preproduction phase through the final analysis of their survey data. This provides an opportunity for students to practice communicating their own synthesis of the experience and to field final questions from the instructors, other students, and the researcher.
Storytelling is an integral part of the course and the resulting student experience. Although storytelling is not mentioned explicitly in the course objectives, it plays a central role throughout. The first learning objective of the course (creation of a student-driven CoP centering on science communication) helps students recognize the value of a team where diverse knowledge sets work together in a CoP. Students enrolled in the course since fall 2019 have represented four of the seven colleges at the university and have spanned eight majors (Figure 1). This cross-pollination of knowledge in the CoP is a core element of the course and one of the inherent benefits for courses that are open to all majors.
Most students take this course as an elective credit. Course feedback has shown that students enroll because they want to extend their knowledge in one of two areas: how to use industry-standard video tools or science and research. Here are examples of student responses that demonstrate the value of student-driven collaboration across disciplines, in response to the question “What was the most impactful thing you learned this semester?”
By achieving these personal learning goals, students have an opportunity to explore areas of interest that are not typically included in their required coursework.
Knowledge of science communication tools also increased following the course. This institution has a site license for Adobe products, so each student has access to the Adobe Suite, which includes beginner (e.g., Spark) and industry-standard filmmaking tools (e.g., Premiere and After Effects) for editing, titles, and effects. In a presemester Likert-type survey, STEM students ranked their knowledge of Adobe Premiere and Adobe After Effects as 1.68 and 1.32, respectively (1 = never used the program before to 5 = very comfortable using the program; Figure 2). In the postsemester survey, STEM students indicated an average of 3.92 for Premiere and 2.23 for After Effects. Only one non-STEM student (majoring in graphic communications) completed the survey over the specified time period, so this student’s responses are indicated by a star in Figure 2 as a means of comparing students previously exposed to these programs (e.g., graphic communications majors) with those who are typically not (e.g., STEM majors).
Adobe Spark—a drag-and-drop interface for creating simple websites, videos, and static images and infographics—was also included as a comparison program that students likely had encountered previously. Although this program was not explicitly taught in this course, this institution has many courses, both inside and outside of science, that use Adobe Spark, now called Adobe Express. The data indicate this is likely true, as the STEM students indicated a familiarity of 2.37 at the beginning of the semester (much higher than with Premiere and After Effects) and 3.08 in the postsemester survey, a much smaller increase than the other two programs (reflective of non-focus on this program in the course).
These responses indicate that students are more familiar with both Premiere and After Effects, but less so with the latter, after taking the course. Using Premiere is a requirement for the course, but After Effects is an optional tool for creating animated graphics and titles that is introduced but not required. Therefore, due to more exposure working with Adobe Premiere, students reported growth in both programs but more overall confidence working in Premiere after taking the course.
Previous clients had given students opportunities to join them in their labs and on site to collect interviews and B-roll, but this became unrealistic during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Instead of working with a STEM client, students enrolled during the 2020–21 academic year were given the opportunity to propose a science topic of interest to them, workshop it with the CoP, and develop their short science documentary on that topic. To compensate for the loss of STEM faculty interviews, the students were encouraged to use Zoom for interviews or appear on camera themselves and provide supplementary academic sources for information they communicated during their video. This shift allowed students to explore a topic in which they already had interest, which, anecdotally, resulted in end products that were often more enthusiastically created than those developed directly for a research client. Future course iterations will consider the pros and cons of these two models to determine which one may be most effective for developing the next generation of science communicators.
By integrating storytelling into science through an inclusive CoP, the Science Docs course attempts to address four key outcomes: developing well-rounded citizens prepared to make complex decisions; breaking down the traditional siloed educational paradigm; increasing societal interest in science by telling impactful stories; and increasing the science literacy of all students involved, both storytellers and story listeners. The background knowledge each student brings into the course becomes an asset to the CoP, with each student providing a unique perspective. Although the lessons learned vary from student to student, each participant gains an expanded perspective in the areas of science storytelling and story listening. Whether by recognizing the complexity of research or filmmaking, students learn to appreciate skills gained outside their discipline and how insights from each discipline, when combined, play a vital role in helping them become well-rounded citizens of the world.
The authors wish to acknowledge the Creative Inquiry (CI) program at Clemson University for their support for multidisciplinary undergraduate research.
Erica B. Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the Department of Graphic Communications, and Kelly B. Lazar (email@example.com) is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Engineering and Science Education and the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, both at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.
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