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School science gets a screening

Making a documentary is an excellent way to learn about a topic, says Richard Hollingham

In a Manchester museum, two teenagers are clinging to a fast-moving wheelchair. It is being pushed backwards by a scruffy-looking boy in a hooded top, who is being shouted at by a girl with pink hair. This isn't a dangerously out-of-control school outing, but a well planned "piece to camera", or PTC, as these students have learned to call it. The two 14-year-olds squeezed into the wheelchair are clutching a video camera and the girl is sporting a radio microphone.

They've been given the equipment, expertise and just one afternoon to make a short news film about stem cells. The boys are using the wheelchair to follow the reporter (the girl with pink hair) along the corridor - a tracking shot. When they deliver their final report, it will have all the hallmarks of a professionally made item, suitable for an early evening TV news programme.

The exercise formed part of Big Screen Science, run by First Light, the film-making initiative for 5to 18-year-olds set up by the Film Council and backed by the Wellcome Trust. The project, which is open to schools across the UK, is aimed at getting pupils to explore biomedical science through filmmaking.

"Because children are so used to absorbing information from TV, having them make films is a great way of putting across complex science topics," says Pip Eldridge of First Light. In making a film, she says, they have to understand the science first. "Storyboarding, development, characterisation, all involve discussion and make them think."

Big Screen Science is a competition that began last year with teacher seminars, followed by pupilteacher workshops. It will end in July, with six 10-minute films from across the UK, written, directed and acted by the winning schools. The films - documentaries, dramas or animations - will then be screened in schools and cinemas across the UK.

The process itself seems to have benefited teachers and pupils. It's also encouraged teachers to work together - formidable creative partnerships have been formed between biology and arts and drama teachers.

The winning ideas cover everything from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to a drama about face transplants. Stanwell School in Penarth, Wales, has been working on a film in the style of a reality TV show, looking at the morals and ethics of stem cell therapy. And Ballyclare High School in Belfast has made a documentary examining stem cell therapy through the eyes of a former pupil left paralysed after a rugby accident.

Tony Sherborne runs the Science UPD8 website, and has developed software that lets pupils produce news reports from video clips. "I've a strong belief that students learn best through problem-solving," he says. "In constructing arguments around the video material they have to engage with the science."


* The basics are a digital video camera with FireWire cable to connect to computer. Basic editing software is free: iMovie comes as standard on Mac computers and Movie Maker for Windows XP can be downloaded from Microsoft.

* First Light is happy to offer advice. Resources for young filmmakers are available on the website and a teacher's resources pack will include DVDs of the winning films. To register for the resources pack email:

* The Wellcome Trust charity also operates Pulse, which offers grants for "imaginative ways of engaging in science and its impact on society".


* Science UPD8:

* BFI (has extensive education resources)

* Helen Clare (Lancaster University) Email:

Richard Hollingham is a science writer and presenter for BBC Radio and previously a TV science reporter for BBC news

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