Monday, 27 March 2017

CASE STUDY: Talking The Talk: Getting Science On Film


APS 279 Talking The Talk: Getting Science On Film

Subject Area

Animal and Plant Sciences

Module Overview

Many science students express an intention to go into science communication as a career. Dr Millie Mockford, a University Teacher in Animal and Plant Sciences, realised that there was a lack of opportunity for students to gain real-life experience in this area, or to develop material for portfolios to present to employers or clients. Millie initially developed an extracurricular pilot activity in which students produced films to communicate departmental research, but since then the activity has developed into APS 279 ‘Talking the Talk’, a 5, soon to be 10, credit optional module.
Taking place over an intense five days in the format of a ‘fieldwork’ module, students work in groups to produce a professional-standard documentary short which aims to communicate an area of animal and plant science research to a lay-audience. After an initial skills-development workshop which includes workshops on areas such as pitching, students are given an authentic brief to work to (such as they would be given if they were freelance filmmakers), and ‘pitch’ their initial idea as the first part of the assessment. Students are given in-depth training and support in filming and editing from the CiCS Creative Media Team, after which they create, edit, and present their films, which are then assessed. Throughout, students are also supported by professional freelance filmmakers and science communicators, who can provide valuable advice for the students in producing a professional result, as well as negotiating a future career in this industry. The primary professional, and freelance producer/director, Matt Pitts-Tucker is a graduate of APS himself and can therefore offer very relatable career advice to the students. Other professionals have included wildlife presenter Mike Dilger and Environmental photojournalist Ben Cherry (another APS graduate).

The students and the curriculum

This is a course specifically for Level 2 Animal and Plant Science students. There are currently 25 students enrolled. It is purposely kept as a small cohort due to the level of personal feedback given throughout the week.

Teaching and Learning Aims

1. Film, edit and produce a video communicating a scientific theme.

2. Work within confines of an authentic brief.

3. Design innovative communication mechanisms.

4. Pitch intentions of project to industry professionals.

5. Recognise and cater to requirements dictated by a specific target audience.

6. Recognise potential of diversity of skill and division of roles within a group.

7. Construct an achievable work plan within a set time scale.

8. Use current computer software to edit and enhance film footage.

Enterprise Capabilities

Authentic Problem Solving

Students are given a brief to work to. This brief is developed in partnership with Matt-Pitts-Tucker who advises on the module, to reflect as closely as possible, a brief that professional freelance filmmakers and film production companies would work with. Part of the assessment of the pitch and the final film focuses on how well the finished product has met the set brief.

Students work with authentic constraints of time, equipment and locations, not to mention factors that might affect filming such as weather and unpredictable animal behaviour!

To complete the assignment within the amount of time given, students have to think strategically as a group.

Innovation and Creativity

When pitching their concepts, students have to think creatively and attempt to present an idea that stands out from the competition. Creative thinking is also required in finding ways to present detailed research to general audiences in engaging ways. In their approach to the production of the film, students will also have to think creatively in managing the limited resources at their disposal.


In engaging with an approach that might be out of their ‘comfort zone’ but which is nevertheless an assessed piece of academic work, students demonstrate bold approaches, taking measured risks to advance their learning - for example by pitching a ‘risky’ concept rather than a ‘safe’ one, or by approaching an interviewee that they are not sure will participate. 

Taking Action

Whilst student learning is supported throughout the module by both Millie, Matt and the Creative Media Team, student work on their films is entirely self-directed. The groups are responsible for meeting deadlines and managing resources to do so. There is the opportunity within the group setting to demonstrate leadership behaviours at various points, for example by leading the pitching, or by organising group schedules.

Students also have the opportunity to take the initiative in accessing additional or alternative resources - for example by negotiating filming locations, interviews with researchers, or access to collections.

True Collaboration

By working with professionals and freelancers within the science communication and film production industries, students gain a clear sense of career expectations and trajectories, as well as professional behaviours. By having the opportunity to pitch their ideas to these professionals, students are gaining valuable experience of communicating their ideas in a professional setting, and through producing the films themselves, they are also gaining experiences of communicating academic research with a wider range of external stakeholder in new ways.

By working in groups, students develop key capabilities in professional teamwork. In producing a professional product in a short amount of time, groups need to gain an understanding of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses in order to maximise the potential of the group, assigning appropriate roles and communicating professionally within the team.


The module is assessed in several ways, to encompass the transdisciplinary nature of the course.

65% is based on the video itself using a mark scheme that was devised in collaboration with Matt. It therefore reflects factors that are key to the teaching in APS but are also relevant to the industry, reflecting an ‘outsider’s perspective’.

20% of the assessment is based on the mid-course pitch where the students present their ideas in a ‘production meeting’. This uses a mark scheme that was designed collaboratively between Millie and USE to reflect the training that the students receive from USE on giving a pitch at the start of the course.

10% of the mark is based on confidential peer-assessment within groups

5% of the mark is based on the paperwork provided with the final film to document copyright stipulations regarding images, footage, music, locations and interviewees.

Supporting students

Students were supported by initial skills-development workshops, introducing them to new approaches. Some of these were run by USE, including sessions on pitching and assertive communication, as well as teamwork and working to a professional brief. The support from the external professionals helped the students to place the development of these enterprise capabilities within the context of their future professional careers.

USEA Support

USE Academy support included:

  • One to one support to develop the structure of the module
  • Guidance with developing assessment practice for pitches
  • Signposting to other services within TUoS such as the CiCS Creative Media team
  • An Enterprise Curriculum Development Grant was awarded for the 2015/16 academic year to support the involvement of the professional speakers and advisers.
  • Support to disseminate best practice both within and outside the institution

Learning Technology

A key part of this module obviously involved film-making as an assessed academic activity. Support and expertise from the CiCS Creative Media Team was invaluable in the development of the technical skills of the students, and in the development of the assessment.

The module used Google Classroom as an online learning environment.

Learning from the Approach

The module was a resounding success in its first year, mainly down to the enthusiasm brought by all staff and students involved! The quality of student films far outdid the expectations that the staff had at the start. Many of the students have since gone on to pursue more experience in this area - two groups have formed their own production companies and have been working on film projects since. One student completed work experience with Matt over the summer following the course and has now taken on a lead teaching role in Forge TV. Another student has used her experience in volunteering with Eureka!on Forge, a podcast-based radio show, and is the APS Digital Ambassador. Several have gone on to focus on their photography, designing websites to showcase their work.

Two students have since specifically stated that the course had a revolutionary effect on their career plans, giving them the confidence to follow a communication pathway, and many have said it was one of the best experiences they have had at university.

From a teaching perspective, there were a few lessons learnt from the first year which have been integrated into the second. Firstly, the students have been given the brief a couple of weeks before the course. This will hopefully allow them to formulate several different ideas to work on from the start as last year, the timing was very tight. The brief is also a little more difficult due to the skill that the student showed in their interpretation previously.

Secondly, as the students chose to work long hours on their projects, and were keen to carry on at the end of the course, we have recognised the need for this to be a more heavily weighted module, encompassing further teaching of different communication aspects. This change from 5 to 10 credits will take place in 2018.

The real take-home message however is the huge positive effect this has had on our students, their confidence, their ambition and hopefully their success after university.


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