Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Making Molecular Movies: An Alternative Approach to Engaging the Reluctant Writer

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Making Molecular Movies: An Alternative Approach to Engaging the Reluctant Writer

Article excerpt


One of the most difficult challenges of incorporating literacy in the classroom--as called for by the Common Core State Standards (NGAC and CCSSO 2010)--is inspiring reluctant writers. Students are often unmotivated by essay assignments or having to write answers to open-ended questions. Some students may even view these as obstacles instead of learning opportunities, which means they aren't gaining experience in the scientific and engineering practice of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information, as described in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013).

To address this shortcoming in the science classroom, I implemented an ambitious project in which I substituted creating digital movies for traditional literacy assessments in my sophomore chemistry classes. My goal was to answer these research questions:

* To what extent does creating a movie motivate sophomore chemistry students to read and write?

* To what extent does movie creation foster creative critical thinking and expression?

* To what extent is the evaluation process of movies more engaging than traditional writing assignments?

The assignment

I tested this activity with 153 of my sophomore chemistry students, using various reading levels. In my honors class, students were assigned to read a chapter on cellulose from Napoleon's Buttons (Le Couteur and Burreson 2003), a fascinating book that explains how 17 molecules affected human history, health, economics, and geopolitics. The chapter on cellulose details how glucose monomers link in different ways to produce the polymers known as cellulose. Students learn how slight differences in structure result in cellulose polymers having different functions and how cellulose affected the industrial revolution. The chapter draws upon NGSS core ideas from physical science (e.g., Structure, Properties of Matter) and the crosscutting concepts of Patterns (Figure 1).

Instead of having students write an argumentative or persuasive essay, I ask them to work in groups of two to three to develop a 2--3-minute movie that presents a unique perspective about the assigned reading. The message must contain evidence from the reading and provide clear connections to the science background, including the structure, properties, and uses of the targeted molecule described in the reading. Students' movies must address the historical background and chemistry of the molecule and reflect on its importance to history. I evaluate students on their ability to contextualize the relationship between these three aspects. For example, in the cellulose chapter, a student group identified the moisture-wicking property of cotton (a beta linkage glucose polymer) as a reason for the popularity of cotton, which fueled the growth of slavery to provide a workforce to harvest the labor-intensive commodity.

Before beginning their movie production, each group must accomplish several prerequisites. The most important is to complete the reading, with each individual making annotations. Students then work in their groups to collaboratively create storyboards that organize their ideas and perspectives into one clear message to communicate in the video.

During one 45-minute class period, students watch the video "How to Create a Storyboard for Your Video Shoot" (see "On the web"). They then apply what they learned from the video to develop their own sketches and notes of what they want to include in their movies and how the story will unfold. Acting as a blue-print for the movie, the storyboard indicates the sequence of scenes, where to find resources, and the roles group members will perform. I dedicate another 45-minute class period to the next stage--script development. Though I don't require a specific format for the script, I emphasize that students must include scientific content from the reading and that each storyboard scene must translate into at least one paragraph in the script. …

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