"Life" in Movies: Using Students' Interest in Popular Cinema to Promote Science Learning

By Berumen, Michael L. | The Science Teacher, December 2008 | Go to article overview

"Life" in Movies: Using Students' Interest in Popular Cinema to Promote Science Learning


Berumen, Michael L., The Science Teacher


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Effective biology teachers are always looking for new and innovative ways to generate student interest in the subject and help students recognize biology in their everyday lives. Most students enjoy watching movies in class or otherwise, particularly those from popular media. For this reason, popular movies with biology themes can be a valuable tool for science teachers at all levels, and there is a growing number of such films available.

The depiction of biological concepts in movies can range from surprisingly accurate to highly misleading. While occasionally students may raise questions or seek clarification about some of these topics, more often students assume that the subtle nuances or scientific information presented in these films is correct. In other cases, students may not give much thought to the information in question, but the movie's influence may present itself later in misconceptions of a topic.

As biology teachers, we should embrace the ever-increasing appearance of biology in movies and other media as an opportunity to engage students in active learning and to facilitate critical-thinking and investigative skills in the classroom. Whether a movie intentionally presents a biology topic or not, it can be transformed into a teaching tool that both students and teachers enjoy (Rose 2003, 2007).

Using movies in science classrooms is not a unique concept. In particular, the use of science fiction films (and literature) has been suggested previously (Dubeck, Moshier, and Boss 1988; Czerneda 2006; Bixler 2007). In this article, I provide examples and strategies from my experience using popular movies in classes ranging from kindergarten to university-level courses. These strategies aim to convert students' enthusiasm for cinema into science learning experiences that develop their ability to discover science in their everyday lives.

Teaching biology using movies

The basic premise is simple: At an appropriate point before or after a particular topic is addressed in the curriculum, the teacher shows a film featuring pertinent biological themes, and students identify accurate or inaccurate portrayals of scientific concepts. This can occur on several levels, ranging from students' simple observations to detailed follow-up studies on the nuances of the science behind a given topic. Selection of appropriate movies is critical, and the teacher can greatly enhance the impact of a movie in the way that subsequent discussions, lectures, or projects are conducted.

Students develop their own questions about both small details and major issues found in the film. All lines of inquiry should be encouraged, as a primary goal is to develop students' inclination to think critically about the information presented. While it is tempting to offer simple true-or-false answers, an effective teaching method is to direct students to do their own research using available library or internet-based resources.

It is also valuable to guide students in seeing the process of how information is "discovered" by science, instead of having them merely dig up facts. "How do we know that?" and other open-ended questions lead students to think critically about given topics and understand the process of science (McComas 1998). Students benefit from learning about the methods scientists use to uncover answers to their questions, as opposed to perceiving scientific understanding as being simply passed on or handed down. For instance, consider the question, "Why do most experts now agree with the hypothesis that birds originated from dinosaurs?" Ideally a student researching this issue may encounter its historical background, the various aspects of the debate in the past four decades, and how evidence is collected and subsequently used to support or refute hypotheses. Understanding this process is more valuable than learning a single concept--that birds originated from dinosaurs. …

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