When 100 of the world’s most eminent scientists and thinkers were asked to identify the most important explanations of anything, ever, the most common answer was Darwin’s Natural Selection. That challenging concept is one of the two tenets at the core of biology and is absolutely essential to understand for anyone wanting to figure out how the fascinating, natural world really works.
The lifelong learning goal of Amazon Adventure is to increase science literacy, specifically the public’s understanding and acceptance of the phenomenon of Natural Selection through the entertaining and mindboggling world of mimicry and Henry Bates’ perils, adventures and discoveries in the rainforest. It was the big idea from the film's inception and in seeking major funding from both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
"Masters of Mimicry" live stage show
It is one thing to have an audience learn all sorts of new, interesting and important facts about some aspect of the man-made or natural world, but having as your film’s objective, the comprehension of an entire, complex and major mechanism of science like Natural Selection is a very different thing—some might say crazy, especially since we were targeting youth. Indeed, there were times throughout the many years of research, writing, testing and approval process of the film, when we thought we were crazy for having undertaken such an ambitious goal.
So what can a producer do before he/she even makes a film to increase its potential for lifelong learning? And what is the best way to evaluate if that goal was achieved and to what degree?
It’s easy to claim that any natural history/science related film automatically ensures some degree of lifelong learning, the broader the goal, the easier to claim that it has been achieved, but whether it’s a general goal or a specific one, it’s not so easy to prove. Anecdotal viewer response is always satisfying to receive but does not confirm lifelong learning, which would require testing on a more significant scale. Such evaluations take time and resources. SK was fortunate that the film received support for these activities from its funding partners. However, there are a few simple and informal things that SK did itself that can also help increase the chances of lifelong learning.
Museum of Discovery and Science, Fort Lauderdale, had 85 elementary teachers see Amazon Adventure and then do a scavenger hunt in its Giant Butterfly Maze exhibit and activities in its learning labs.
In the giant screen industry, lifelong learning is on a wide spectrum of comprehension that includes all ages from children to seniors. While we want this film to be enjoyed and understood in varying degrees by all age levels, the focus of the evaluation testing that was developed and some of it already undertaken and analyzed, was predominantly directed at youth.
When the main funding partners are the NSF, through the Pacific Science Center (PSC), and the HHMI, through its Tangled Bank Studios, we have to get all the science just right, and having over 125 scientific advisors and a core team of 5 NSF-approved advisors certainly guided that process. But how do filmmakers and distributors ensure that the audience, including youth, will actually absorb the information and concepts, even when the scientific components have been intensively vetted and approved? And, at what point does the learning become lifelong?
SK’s first step was to have film’s script pre-tested, especially with kids/youth. We had previously conducted audience tests of plenty of rough and fine cuts of films over the decades, both independently and informally. However, we had never conducted student readings and formal surveys of just the draft script, before filming even began—all to test for comprehension of the scientific concepts/and the appeal of Bates’ adventure and mimicry discovery story. Some things we thought students would have trouble understanding, they did not, and other things we thought would be easier to understand, were not. So, we were able to adjust accordingly—unpack the complex thoughts as much as possible and repeat and reinforce those that were the most difficult for youth to absorb. We aimed to do it in a kid-friendly and entertaining way, while building toward the revelatory discovery moments, and at the same time, depicting the human elements of Bates’ story, so that youth would relate to him more.
Also, we had relied on informal feedback after films were released but never with the degree of evaluative testing that the NSF and HHMI both committed to support. We kept in mind Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that would assist educators in strengthening the lifelong learning by developing related Educational Outreach materials and activities.
The script’s pre-testing guided us in shaping the rough cut of the film for sure, and then the NSF-funded testing of the rough cut, referred to as “formative testing,” was also very valuable in making further changes to the film and script for the final cut film, always with a view to increasing the chances that the lifelong goal would be met for better understanding of Natural Selection.
Pacific Science Center under Diane Carlson, the PI for the NSF grant, was responsible for overseeing the evaluation process and also for developing the extensive Education Outreach plan and materials for the film, with the same major goal at the forefront of increasing the understanding of Natural Selection through mimicry and again with NGSS in mind. The activities and materials included such things as an entertaining and educational kids’ live stage show— called Masters of Mimicry—which is available to all theaters, educator workshops attended by 33 museum theaters in Seattle, and eye-catching and age-specific educational posters on mimicry and camouflage.
SK is very gratified with the testing results completed to date by HHMI and the levels of learning achieved and that yes, creatures have and do change over time and how that happens. The choice of the 4-inch moth caterpillar that Bates discovers hidden in a tree that evolved to look like the head of a poisonous viper snake was a winner example that youth cited most often with explanations and reasoning for their choice. It also clearly amazed, entertained and enlightened them as an example of Natural Selection, followed by the mimicking butterflies, thus indicating that they understood the concepts.
In addition to the results of the NSF pre-finished film testing, which SK really appreciated and was pleased with the overall results, the next phase of its evaluation, known as “summative testing” of the final film, is underway and will not be finished until September, as it will include testing months after the film was first viewed.
On a general note, educational research has shown that one of the most effective ways to generate understanding of scientific concepts is to connect audiences to the human story of the scientist, the struggles she/he overcame, so there is an emotional relationship to the underlying ideas. Audiences were queried if they related to Bates and his perils. The surveys also used various indicators for testing levels of learning including for gauging knowledge of Natural Selection, mimicry, and key storyline elements such as whether Bates had provided Darwin with what he called “the beautiful proof” for Natural Selection.
Some student survey excerpts:
“I liked it when Bates saw two butterflies that looked the same but one had 4 legs and the other had 6 legs and he was smart to figure out (a drawing was made) that one had poison in it and the copier one did not.”
“The caterpillar changed over a long time to look like a deadly snake. Cool!"
“Natural selection is one of the basic mechanisms of evolution. The caterpillar evolved to look like a snake.”
“My favourite part was when Henry Bates figured out the butterfly chain of change in his mind and gave it to his hero Darwin” (also depicted with a drawing).
We were very moved by the Teacher Testimonials—many teachers expressed gratitude regarding the amount of science in the film. Many were looking forward to bringing their students to experience a film that covers such an important concept and also includes the scientific process itself, yet told as an inspirational story in such an exciting and youth friendly way with Bates’ unstoppable curiosity and questioning like a science detective and, of course, aligning with the NGSS. We were honoured when the film was selected by the National Science Teachers Association to be premiered at its annual conference of thousands of science teachers.
A recent study showed that when Americans understand the science behind how Natural Selection/evolution work, they were inclined to accept them regardless of background. (Click here to read the study.)
Another lifelong learning goal that was tested through several museum theaters by HHMI was whether students were more interested in studying science as a result of seeing the film. We were very encouraged by the results.
It is rare for national film reviews to focus on the educational and learning aspects of a film, so this Variety review was particularly important to SK: “As it happens, this 'adventure' is an exotic learning opportunity, which plays at museums and science centres...it should make parents and teachers rejoice…it boasts such a high level of writing, acting, and overall production polish that youngsters may be fooled into thinking they’re watching a mindless blockbuster, when in fact they’ve actually been fooled into thinking."
SK would like to thank Valentine Kass, Sean B. Carroll and the educational team at HHMI, Pacific Science Center, Diane Carlson, Sandra Welch, Janet Coffey, Greg Boustead, Mary Nucci, Amber Hawtin, Valerie Knight-Williams, London’s Natural History Museum, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The Simons Foundation, the film’s science advisors, the survey museums in Toronto, Chattanooga, Saint Paul, Houston, Seattle, St. Louis, mimicking creatures, Henry Bates, Alfred Wallace and, oh ya…Charles Darwin.
The lifelong learning goal of SK’s next film, Secrets of the Serengeti, which we are excited to be partnered again with HHMI and Digital Crossing, focuses on the second major tenet of biology—the scientific rules that regulate all ecosystems that were largely discovered in the iconic Serengeti, home to the largest mammal migration on Earth. We hope to inform, ignite and inspire!
Submitted by Wendy MacKeigan, Writer/Producer of Amazon Adventure, and Executive Vice President at SK Films, pictured here on location in the remote Amazon rainforest.