Dr. Jessica Wooten shares how she gets biology students to make movies on complex processes, culminating in a screening day complete with popcorn.
Associate Professor of Biology, Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia
PhD in Ecology, Evolution, Systematics, and Population Biology; MS in Field Biology, Herpetology, and Biological Sciences; BS in Biological Sciences
In an ancient parable, a group of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each man touches a different part—tusk, trunk, tail, etc.—so not one of them is able to make sense of the creature. As an associate professor of biology at Piedmont College, Jessica Wooten, PhD, says she has observed the same phenomenon in students studying something much smaller: individual cells.
“We always look at these diagrams of molecules moving across the cell and doing cellular work,” she says. “Some people can do a good job of connecting this to the whole functioning organism, but some can’t.”
To help her students go beyond the “little bits of mechanistic processes to see how they work within the larger whole”—and have some fun in the process—Wooten designed a semester-long group project. Through planning and filming a video “masterpiece” that clearly explains an evolutionary or physiological process or mechanism, Wooten’s students must connect the dots themselves, then communicate what they have learned through visual aids and demonstrations. Students have incorporated such elements as background music, subtitles, costumes, sets, and props to create videos that are as engaging and, often, humorous as they are educational.
The catch: Just as Wooten is not a media professor, her students are not media majors, so they need additional guidance to get from point A to point B. “I am a scientist who earns a zero on the creativity scale, seriously,” says Wooten. So she believes that if she can make this multimedia project a success, anyone can.
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“I wanted a creative way for students to dive deep into one difficult topic, in either physiology or microevolution. By making original videos, they can have fun illustrating a complex process and how animals are putting these processes to use in everyday life.”— Jessica Wooten, PhD
Course: BIOL 3650 Comparative Physiology
Course description: An in-depth study of the normal physiological function of organisms with a focus on vertebrate organisms. Topics include any comparisons of the normal functions of a major body system (e.g., circulatory, respiratory, endocrine).
Wooten’s tips for assigning a video project to non–media majors
This assignment kicks off like any other group project: Students self-divide into groups of four or five, then Wooten provides a “laundry list” of topics for them to choose from. To avoid duplication, once a topic is selected, no other group can choose it for that semester. (They can suggest their own, if they wish.) However, says Wooten, who initially had “no background in digital media,” this project requires some additional guidance for students.
While the video itself is not due until the end of the semester, it cannot be completed well (or at all) at the last minute. To ensure that students do not procrastinate, Wooten breaks the assignment into three parts, each of which is graded: a written outline (detailing the plan for the video), a storyboard (including rough illustrations of each scene and its contents), and the completed video. “These are checkpoints,” says Wooten. “Just about every six weeks we have something due on this project.”
Below, she offers some insights on what her science students need to be successful videographers.
Root out all available tech resources—including savvy science students
Wooten recommends that educators consult with their IT or media support center on projects similar to this one. “The IT folks came to my class and showed students free resources for music, pay-for databases, Wikimedia Commons, and other media catalogs they could safely ‘pillage’ for their videos so they wouldn’t copyright infringe,” says Wooten. (She also typically includes links to these sites on the assignment itself.)
If the school has an extensive communications department, it may allow students to borrow equipment or conduct their shoot in front of a green screen. Tech-savvy science students can also be extremely helpful to their professor and peers. “Before this project, I had never used video editing software at all,” says Wooten. “I did a lot on my own to learn it, but the students are great resources and they are always willing to offer tech advice.”
Clarify the video rubric early, including this directive: Have fun!
Wooten wants students to enjoy themselves with this assignment, so her first instruction on the assignment letter itself is “HAVE FUN!” (Yes, in all caps.) She also states that the video can be done in any format (talk show, game show, demonstration, how-to, interview, or a combination of these)—and that it must be between 7 and 12 minutes in length.
While science professors may have a good idea of what they are looking for in terms of content, mechanics (grammar, spelling, etc.), and sources (including citation), video requires additional grading criteria, reflecting the medium’s distinctive features. Wooten encourages the use of attractive fonts and graphics, titles and credits, copyright permissions, and videography and sound/lighting features. For example, an “excellent” score in some of these areas would be:
- Videography: Interest: Many different “takes,” camera angles, sound effects, and/or careful use of zoom provided variety in the video.
- Videography: Clarity: Video did not rock/shake and the focus was excellent throughout.
- Sound and Lighting Quality: Sounds and dialogue are clear. No unwanted ambient noise in the background. Cameras are set to the appropriate light level.
Provide guidance on how to create a video outline
“A video outline is a useful tool that documents the flow of information through your video,” Wooten tells students. It includes details on the intended narrative, graphics and videos, dialogue, and other features. Just as she provides a detailed rubric for the video itself, she offers a table outlining some of the questions students should consider and how much time each piece should be allotted in the video itself:
* Title (10-15 seconds): Is it interesting and informative? Does it reflect what you’re doing in the video?
* Intro tag and monologue (15–60 seconds): How will you introduce your group’s name and your group members’ names? What summary will you give to get viewers interested in what you’re going to say next?
* Intro and closing music (25–45 seconds each): What music would help set the scene for your show? (Consider your audience, topic, and format.)
* Show content (3–5 minutes): What format did you select: talk show, game show, documentary, how-to, interview, a combination of these?
* Closing remarks (1–2 minutes): Whom will you thank? What key points do you want to repeat so the viewer remembers them?
Illustrate how to make a video storyboard
To help students create a storyboard, Wooten provides a template or two (they can be made from scratch or found on free template sites). Typically, storyboard templates include blank frames (like a comic book page with the pictures missing), but they may also have lines beneath the frames where students can write notes on their plans for the camera shot, audio, action, and narration. Each group must give a five-minute presentation on their storyboard in front of the class, which can help them identify problem areas before they begin filming.
Let students showcase their finished videos on a screening day
To build excitement for the project, Wooten devotes one of the last days of class to a screening of the student productions. “I bring soda, snacks, and popcorn, and we watch the videos,” Wooten says. This allows students to learn from each other’s work—and celebrate their own. Her final (time-saving) tip? She uses this class period to grade the videos, so when the movie screening is done, so is she.
Wooten’s final thoughts on her science-video project
Wooten knew that producing visuals in the form of a video would force students to go deep with the course content, but she was still pleasantly surprised by the quality of the end results. “One thing that kind of shocked me was just how good the videos are,” Wooten says. “The students not only get really creative but they produce high-quality science content, too.”
One video, for example, showed ectotherms trying to regulate their body temperatures based on their environment. Students tied physiology to the animals’ behavioral and physical mechanisms.
“I also had a group of students who created a video on fish that live in cold places,” she says. “In the beginning of the video, they were fisherwomen conversing about all of the challenges the fish face in everyday life. Then they plopped into the water, and they became the fish, talking to each other about their physiology. They had little bubbles coming from their mouths and everything.”