Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Documentary is Certified Fresh!

As a medium, the documentary film is rising to compete and contribute to media as a hub of popular attention. Viewers are becoming more interested in learning while they watch television, which in my opinion, is one of the more positive developments the tube has gone through. Films are stirring up topics in fields like political science, sociology, psychology, biology, and history! The list goes on! They are rich, refreshing, and allow the viewer to develop opinions about current events. I want to explore this media format and discuss how it is being utilized to influence scientific literacy.

By definition, the documentary is a non-fiction motion picture used to document reality, often for archival purposes. Historically, the term documentary has been around since 1926. But decades before its birth, filmmakers were using the medium to document human behavior. Once it was known as a tool for spreading information, films ranged from government propaganda to nature footage.
Documentaries are now ubiquitous on the web and are growing to represent a more significant chunk of screen time. Within seconds I am able to learn about colony collapse disorder in honeybees, the history of jazz with Ken Burns, or how the dam/hydroelectric power model in the US has reached its culmination. The viewer can connect with still images, beautifully crafted shots, and listen to listen to expert interview from both sides of a story.

Personally, I enjoy the documentary because it’s likely to tell a tale that isn’t fit for the box office. Filmmakers are doing their research to document aspects of society and our planet that aren’t as sexy as Transformers 4. Because its purpose is to disperse information and not solely to be produced for profit, filmmakers have more freedom in what they can and can’t do. Documentaries are also overall cheaper to produce, thus leaving more room for creativity and improvisation.

But why all of a sudden is it “cool” to watch something educational? I think the jump in interest is a tag team performance: being environmentally and culturally aware is more critical to society now, and that change is being tapped by artists looking to be creative with content. It surely has roots in the improvement of quality seen in environmental documentaries, but one of the strongest candidates for being most influential would be the Nobel Peace Prize winning doc An Inconvenient Truth (2006) inspiring a new wave of activists. I think we’re learning how important it is to take care of the planet, but just as important, we need to learn how. And through visual media, it all makes sense!

We primates are visual learners. We use our eyes to communicate with other humans to gather and process information. Every body posture, facial movement, change in tone of voice is processed in your personal computer (brain). Humans have evolved with this capacity because we’re social beings. We began to evolve in an arboreal landscape where our eyes judge distances of tree branches, ripeness of fruit, and the facial and body signals from friends and foes. We learn so much from data collected though our eyeballs, so I’d say it’s possible that learning through a screen could be another effective method. 

Maybe my favorite side effect, the documentary allows us to take the perspective of another individual. To see how other humans, animals, and environments change instantly, is special. Looking at wildlife conservation, it’s difficult to connect someone with elephants, tigers, or mangrove forests when they contently reside in a city on another continent. The people we see in these films could be our neighbors or citizens of the most remote regions on earth. But we come to learn that our cultures share similar themes and stories only with different characters and settings.

Cinema can connect the viewer to those lessons deemed unnecessary by curricula. A quite solid collection of material, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009) by PBS and Ken Burns delves into how the idea of the national park was first introduced. It’s a story I don’t recollect from my early days in social studies class; however, it’s very possible the ideas just didn’t form memories. But having an extra visual component showcasing the wildlife found in Yellowstone could have solidified that memory. And look at how crisp and stunning HD wildlife footage can be with a series like Planet Earth by the BBC. Images and creatively selective content teach the viewer how to appreciate ecosystems and animal behavior strictly through observation. Less admired animals have some screen time, contributing to the idea that all members of the animal kingdom deserve your attention. That connection, no matter how small, can form bonds that change behavior. Below is why that’s vital.

Today, half of earth’s population lives in another jungle: the concrete kind. The natural world exists, but it might as well be as far as Mars for the billions of people who don’t have the time, urge, or travel funds to experience them first-hand. The doc could be utilized to connect and spark an interest in those who never would have thought to travel to Yosemite instead of Disneyland, or the park down the street instead of  the shopping mall. Keeping people connected to nature through smart phones and TV is better than nothing at all.

Here at TEI, we want to contribute to the educational video content on the web and provide the viewer with yet another possible source of info. Over the next few months, we’re working to create fresh, segmented YouTube videos (short documentaries) dedicated to animal behavior and cognition. Our aim is to introduce and expose the viewer to a new perspective about how our neighbors (animals) behave. We hope some of you enjoy the content and gain a higher appreciation for how other animals perceive their world. And maybe you’ll step away with an itch to familiarize yourself with any number of the credible information mediums from print and digital media. 

 Filming the new YouTube series Oh, Behave! Starring Elise Gilchrist 

                                 #Oh,Behave! #ForgettingSarahMusthBull 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Science Via Creative Writing

A valid movement in education?
By Hunter Doughty


The campaign to increase and maintain the amount of art that is taught in schools is a cause for which art supporters the world over have long been petitioning. And many of these supporters believe that art should not only be a stand-alone subject, but that it should be integrated in to other subjects such as science. As a scientist and a writer myself, the idea of using arts as a means of teaching ‘the facts’ is pretty enticing, but is this cry for integrated learning simply a fad, or is it in fact a valid claim? It seems that as far as the fine arts or even the theater arts go, the jury is still out. Some say activities such as painting or role-playing can effectively teach science course material, but others disagree (Braund 2014; Cross 2014; Carrera and Arroio 2011; Davis 2007; Evans 2008; Gazzanig 2008; Hosson et al. 2014; Merten 2011; Odegaard 2014; Pomeroy 2012; Steele 2013). Interestingly though, what does appear to be gaining more attention is the use of creative writing.

Ronnie Kaufman/Corbis (Evans 2008)

In a study by Ganea in 2011, she found that “by 4 years of age, children can learn new biological facts from a picture book.” This finding was based on kindergarten students answering questions about camouflage after reading a picture book that described camouflage in the animal kingdom and its purpose. Additionally, Ganea found that her students then related this information to real animals in their experience. This transfer to reality shows the significance of these stories in shaping the student’s perception of the world.

Though there are many implications of this work (Ballouard et al. 2011), Jason Derry, a PhD candidate at University of Denver, believes that one of these implications is that fiction should be used as a key tool in future teaching of sustainability science. Derry assessed the views that children aged kindergarten through 4th grade had of various exotic and domestic animal species by having them write/draw their own stories and pictures about each animal. He found that most of his students had inaccurate understandings of both species types, and that elephants (of particular importance to us here are TEI) were the most characterized. This means that students’ perception of elephants was largely based on fictional representations of the animal, such as cartoons or books. Derry believes that these findings further prove that children are shaping their understanding of nature, and science, using fictional stories, and therefore we should present children with more realistic fiction. In response to these findings, Derry has started a publishing house called Oakenday Press that will publish children’s books specifically aimed at teaching environmental and ecological lessons. Their first book, My Backyard Elephant, will be available March of 2015.

Oakenday Press

Using narration to teach sustainability science is important, but in regards to the broader field of science education, Ganea’s findings still beg the question: how applicable is this method to teaching more complex concepts? For topics like protein production in a cell, covalent hydrogen bonding, population density calculations, or even parallel lighting circuits, can a fictional piece really teach all of the key components involved so that the student fully grasps the topic, and is this a time efficient method? It seems to me it would require a detail-dense novel worthy of the great author Tolkien in order to cover all of the necessary material in some of these topics. And at that point, I wonder if the student would even take away the inlaid information or just the surface-level characters and plot twists.

To my knowledge, this Lord of the Cells has yet to be published, but I would definitely be interested in testing it out if it does happen to exist. And though I don’t know the practicality of solely using narration to teach these particularly complex subjects, I do very much see the validity in using narration to augment traditional methods. In recalling my own science education, the lessons that I can remember the most are the topics that were taught to me using some sort of story, or were described in a clear step-wise (narrative) fashion. For example, I aced my exam on the endocrine (hormone) system because our teacher seamlessly wove in the cause and effects of hormone release into stories that started with Sally drinking caffeine, progressed through the many catalyzed reactions that then occurred in her body, and then ended with her now feeling more awake and having to pee.


In addition, this use of fiction to help teach science also applies to students creating their own fictional pieces. There is growing evidence that writing, and possibly creative writing, can help students learn scientific concepts (Keys 1999). These findings are supported by other research that demonstrates creating visual art is linked to an increase in a student’s ability to overcome studious mistakes and persist, to envision, and to empathize (Hetland et al. 2007; Davis 2007). If we apply these qualities to the artistic process of creating fiction it seems likely to me that by having a student develop a story related to the science they are learning, it could encourage them to think more critically about the material, develop innovative approaches to the concepts, and evoke in them an emotional connection to the topic. All of which could support the student in further understanding the concepts and better remembering the material.

As the discussion of art-science integration wages on, it seems all sides agree that we need more effective means of engaging students in the sciences, and a greater understanding of how art actually effects young minds. I believe that based on currently published research, and my own experiences in learning and teaching science, the use of narration in science education is a logical and possibly highly effective method for teachers to employ. Creative verse allows both the author and reader to delve into a story and become enveloped in its meaning. And if this meaning ties to a scientific concept, then we may better impassion the next generation to see the almost fictional magic of the scientific world.


Ballouard, Jean-Marie; Brischoux, Fran├žois; Bonnet, Xavier (2011). Children Prioritize Virtual Exotic Biodiversity over Local Biodiversity. PLOS ONE. August.

Braund, M. (2014). Drama and learning science: an empty space? British Educational Research Journal.

Cross, Chrissy (2014). Connections between inquiry and art, incorporating art into an inquiry based science curriculum. PhD Dissertation, Texas Tech University. May.

Carrera, Vanessa; Arroio, Agnaldo (2011). Movies in Natural Science Education. New Trends. Natural Science Education. Volume 3:32, pages 36-43.

Davis, Jessica (2007). Why Our Schools Need the Arts. Teachers College Press. New York.

Derry, Jason (2014). Animal narratives: a case study in how children perceive local and exotic animals, including animal eating habits and animal placement in human culture. MSc Thesis. University of Denver. May.

Evans, Karin (2008). Arts and Smarts. Greater Good Science Center, University of California Berkeley. December 1. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/arts_smarts

Ganea, Patricia (2011). Young Children’s Learning and Transfer of Biological Information From Picture Books to Real Animals. Child Development, 82 (5), 1421-1433.

Gazzanig, Michael (2008). Learning, Arts, and the Brain. The Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition. Dana Press. New York

Hetland, Lois; Winner, Ellen; Veenema, Shirley; Sheridan, Kimberly; Perkins, David (2007). Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. Teachers College Press. New York.

Hosson, C. De; Bordenave, Laurence; Decamp, Nicolas; Hache, Christophe (2014). Learning Science through the Conception of Comics: the SARABANDES Research Project. France. March.

Keys, Carolyn (1999). Revitalizing Instruction in Scientific Genres: Connecting Knowledge Production with Writing to Learn in Science. Science Education. Volume 83. Pages 115– 130.

Merten, Susan (2011). Enhancing Science Education Through Art. Science Scope: National Science Teachers Association. October.

Oakenday Press. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://www.oakenday.org/

Odegaard, Marianne (2014). Science Theater/Drama. Encyclopedia of Science Education. March. Pages 1-3.

Pomeroy, Steven (2012). From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand. Guest Blog. Scientific America. August 22. Accessed December 13, 2014. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/08/22/from-stem-to-steam-science-and-the-arts-go-hand-in-hand/

Steele, A, Ashworth, EL (2013). Walking The Integration Talk: An ArtSci Project. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Volume 4:2:6. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pachyderm Personas!

            Recently the Instagram blog featured a piece about me (Elise, one of the TEI research assistants). A couple of weeks ago, a community manager from Instagram sent me a message saying he had seen my Instagram account and liked my photographs. After learning more about me he thought my story would be interesting to tell. It was a fantastic opportunity for me so I accepted and soon after received a series of interview questions in an email. The questions were great! I talked a lot about the elephants, living in Thailand as well as my art. I sent it back and waited to see what sort of story he wrote up about me. The result was a great piece that you can view here: http://bit.ly/1y4dqMU
            I thought it was interesting that he chose to feature a quote by me as the start to the blog where I talk about elephant personality. I discuss that one of my favorite parts about the research we do is getting to see a range of temperaments between different individuals that come to the site. People respond well to this idea of elephants being similar to humans in that they have a range of different ‘personas.’ I thought I would expand on that idea here and showcase some different examples of the characters we study in Thailand.

            When I talk about personality I mean it in the anthropomorphic sense, as in I am attributing human-like behaviors and definitions onto a non-human animal. This is not a valid scientific analysis, but it does allow the reader to understand these elephants in a relatable way. For example, let me talk about an elephant we work with named Lynchee.

            Lynchee is eight years old, and when you consider that elephants live to be 65-75 years old, she is very young. When Lynchee comes to research and there is a new task she tends to be very engaged. She is quick to learn and when she is paying attention she goes through trials faster than most other elephants. She is quick, intelligent and gentle. When she is in this mood she is great to have at research! However, some days Lynchee shows up and she has an off day, just like anyone could. She will arrive and act very distracted, moving away from the apparatus to pull down some close reaching bamboo or backing up to meticulously pick up every last sunflower seed that is laying on the ground. On days like these, I feel like I am working with a young child who got bored and does not want to cooperate anymore. When this happens we end our sessions early and let Lynchee go back to playing in the grass.
            Another cute personality trait I have seen in Lynchee is quite apparent when her normal mahout, P’Pong is not there. Mahouts have a 24/7 job. The elephants do not take the weekend off from eating which means the mahouts work all the time with their elephants. It is fair for them to take time off and let one of their friends or family takes over their elephant care duties for a short time. This happened recently where Pong took some time and our friend L’Lord stepped in. Lord is an experienced mahout, but he is not the mahout that little Lynchee had gotten used to. There is no animosity between them but it was apparent at research that she did not feel as comfortable. The days when Lord brought Lynchee to research she was extremely distracted, slow to respond to our prompts and overall looked to be uncomfortable. If we think about this situation from the human perspective it makes a lot of sense. You can imagine a child that is normally excited and ready to learn becomes shy and closeted when they are dropped for school on their first day. All of a sudden the safety and comfort of the constants in their life (namely the presence of parents or guardians) is gone. Most of us would probably react this way at this age. I think maybe this is what goes on with Lynchee. (Good news, Pong is back and Lynchee is doing great!).

            Meet another one of our research personality queens, Lamyai. Lamyai is another young elephant, being about fourteen years old (so more of a teenager than Lynchee). Remember when I said that Lynchee was fast and gentle? Lamyai is more like faster and borderline violent. I do not mean that she hurts herself or us, but she may be the cause of a number of bucket deaths (we use a lot of plastic buckets in our apparatus design). She is a bit bigger than Lynchee so that may play a part in her destructive nature but I think more of it is her more rambunctious personality. In general she seems to be stronger in her movements, and more likely to lose patience. In one of our studies the elephant has to smell two buckets and try to locate the food in one. For most of the elephants we need to secure the buckets only by placing them into small metal cages. Not for Lamyai. When Lamyai shows up it requires zip ties, screws and a research assistant ready to catch any buckets she decides to hurl into the air. All in the name of science.
            I will finish up this entry by talking about an elephant that I may admit to having a crush on. His name is Somjai, and am I right or is he a handsome elephant?

            Somjai is in his twenties and has become a research superstar. He is a very big male. The other elephants I described were young, relatively small females, so when Somjai saunters over to the research site it is a striking difference. Before I learned about these elephants I would have guessed that the younger, lady elephants would be gentle with our equipment and that we would need to be careful around the big males. It turned out to be the opposite. Somjai is exceedingly gentle with the equipment. He is much slower and more relaxed than the other two. He seems in control of his movements. He certainly can get distracted and is not a perfect test subject, but he is one I can always count on to leave the research site in one piece when he finishes a session.

            I think the research team gets a unique view into the elephant personalities here. We work with them for short sessions every day where they are exposed to novel puzzles and different tasks. We are there to observe how the elephant behaves which enables us to see, right there in front of us, how the elephants think. It is an incredible experience.