Creative use of animation, clever narrative and a dash of humor were the main ingredients of the winning short video in the first AAAS-sponsored “Science in a Minute” video contest. The video, “Newton’s Law of Gravitation ,” was produced by Nick Hanlon and Ken Maxwell of the University of Cincinnati.
Inspired by the HowStuffWorks  podcast, Hanlon and Maxwell created a video which uses images of Earth and the moon along with animation to help students understand gravity.
Watch Nick Hanlon and Ken Maxwell’s winning video.
Hanlon and Maxwell completed the video as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Project S.T.E.P. grant, under which graduate students around the United States teach engineering to local high school students. Hanlon is a graduate fellow of the S.T.E.P. program; Maxwell is the program’s new media and technology specialist.
The colleagues created the video because “we thought it was a good opportunity to reinforce some of the concepts that are being taught in the classroom,” Maxwell said, “and that it would be a fun and interesting way of presenting the material.” They received an iPad from AAAS as a prize.
Rahman A. Culver, project director for AAAS Education and Human Resource Programs, said that the video contest and subsequent film festival came about from a desire on the part of AAAS to find a way “to engage people in an innovative and creative way that we haven’t tried before.”
With the idea that film is a wonderful medium through which to accomplish their goals, Culver and his colleagues decided to tap into the talents of the graduate students who are part of the NSF’s Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program (GK-12), because they had both a strong background in science and in teaching.
For the contest, AAAS invited the young researchers to represent science in a fun and educational 90-second video. Reviewers representing a range of science fields selected four finalists from the 20 videos submitted to the competition.
The four finalists’ videos were viewed and voted on during the AAAS Public Science Days Film Festival held 15 February, just before the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. After screening the videos twice, the audience was asked to vote for their favorite video to determine the grand prize winner of the contest.
The three other finalists were:
Hanlon, who was responsible for contributing the scientific content to the winning video, said that he has found visual material to be extremely helpful in the high school classroom.
“At the high school level, most kids have very short attention spans and don’t do well with straight-up lectures,” Hanlon explained, “so visual aids are very beneficial to the students because they help to keep their attention and help them to better connect to the concepts we’re trying to teach.”
Nick Hanlon (left) and Ken Maxwell
For “Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation,” Hanlon said he approached Maxwell with a story board of ideas for the film. Although he had the basic elements of the narrative in place, Maxwell’s visual eye and sense of humor helped to turn Hanlon’s ideas into a compelling and memorable piece of art.
Hanlon will use the video with his students in the future and has already received word that scientists involved in a different program in Cincinnati plan to show the video in their classrooms. He hopes the video will be used widely to help explain the concept of gravitation to middle school and high school students.
“We are pleased with the experiment in that we got fellows who are part of the STEM community to think harder about what might interest audiences and how to tell their stories,” said Shirley M. Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. “But doing a good job of explaining a concept in this way is very difficult. At the end of the day, what we really want is to urge these scientists to become good storytellers.”
AAAS provides technical assistance to the graduate GK-12 fellows program through meetings that bring together graduate students, faculty, K-12 teachers, evaluators, and coordinators from more than 100 projects around the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
In addition to the contest videos, several other science-related films and television programs produced without AAAS support were screened at the festival. Dr. Aziza Baccouche, science media producer at Aziza Productions, previewed her new PBS show, “Hanging with Dr. Z,” for the audience. The documentary series features Baccouche, a.k.a. “Dr. Z,” following a group of scientists as they go about their work. The first episode, which is scheduled for broadcast this spring, focuses on hurricanes and follows a team of scientists as they seek to understand how hurricanes are formed.
Baccouche, who is legally blind and a physicist by training, says that it is vitally important for the public to become scientifically literate. She hopes that her films and television programs will help people to understand the world around them and react more quickly in the face of danger.
“Hurricanes are the most damaging of the natural disasters,” Baccouche said, and they are occurring more frequently. But she said that she was surprised to learn that governments and the general public—even in hurricane-prone areas such as Barbados—are not adequately prepared to deal with them.
Baccouche, who has also produced science programs and documentaries for CNN and the Discovery Health Channel, said that she hopes more scientists become involved in bringing their work to the screen and that more programs are produced that give adults a better understanding and awareness of scientific concepts. “The best way to get to kids is through their parents,” she said, “so it is really important that we reach adults with engaging programming to make sure we are building a scientifically literate society.”