World of science captured on film

20th April 2012 at 01:00
An award-winning project has produced more than 600 pieces of pupil-friendly footage that help to deliver Curriculum for Excellence. Douglas Blane reports

Anyone can make a film clip now and many people do, some even in their first year at primary school. But there is a world of difference - in the process and the product - between an amateur video and a professional film. That is why, in the light-filled Glasgow studios where Glow Science films are made, dozens of researchers, artists, editors, writers, producers, voice-over artists, graphic designers and online experts are hard at work on powerful Macs with big, split-screen displays.

It does seem a lot of power and expertise to make three-minute film clips. But they don't make film clips, says marketing manager Jobina Hardy. "We make short films, each of which tells a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end."

Aimed at pupils from age 8 upwards, Glow Science now consists of more than 600 of these films produced by a young company called Twig, which, at the end of its first year of operation, won the 2012 BETT Award for secondary digital content. "We've also just won best educational resource including ICT at the Education Resource Awards," says Jobina. What's more, they appear to be getting approximately 5,000 unique visitors each month, with a very good return rate.

Free to Scottish schools until now, and for at least the next three years, since Education Scotland has just renewed the licence, Glow Science films cover every aspect of physics, chemistry, biology and earth science, all the way from the Big Bang that began the universe to the genes we pass on to our children.

The starting point for the content of the films was the science curriculum in 20 countries around the world, Jobina explains. "We broke it down into sections, such as the human body, and then brainstormed with teachers in Scotland and the rest of the UK to find out the interesting stories, what bits were hard to teach, what gets the kids excited - or not excited."

At that point professional scriptwriters were enlisted, she says. "That part is tricky because the films are short but contain lots of information, so you need professionals. Then, once we have a script for each film we get teachers and academics involved again.

"Then we start looking at footage from the best film archives around the world, such as BBC, CBS, NASA and others, to create the film to go with the script. One three-minute film might be put together using clips from 20 different original films."

Besides the brief, punchy, pupil-friendly films that form Glow Science's core content, there are additional learning materials in the form of short illustrated texts, and questions and answers, written by teachers, as well as a mapping of all the films to Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes.

The Glow interface is polished and user-friendly, allowing teachers to search for films and find them fast, using subjects, topics, curricular outcomes or keywords - the last of which produces an appealing mind-map with active links to relevant content.

Despite the wealth of talent within the company, the contribution of teachers is critical, says Twig's head of education, and former publisher and teacher, Inta Bakewell. "In physics, for instance, we work with Scottish teacher of the year, Iain Houston. He wrote the physics support materials, which are very readable. He also gave us extension questions that don't necessarily map straight onto the curriculum, but are just fascinating in themselves, even if you know nothing about physics.

"Iain compares Glow Science to a guidebook you take on holiday with you. If you're in Rome, for instance, you don't want your guidebook to tell you exactly where to go on Monday morning at 10 o'clock. You do want it to tell you the stories of the most interesting landmarks, so you can really enjoy your visit."

Creative tensions

Archive film footage works well for many science topics, says Twig senior editor Fiona Cairns. "But some, especially in physics, are more abstract. So that's when we get one of our graphic designers involved."

She indicates a young man studying a flesh-coloured, 3-D diagram of a human body with the kidneys and urinary system highlighted.

"We work with software such as Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects," says Ross Watkins. "Here's an example of images I developed for some of the films on electricity in Glow Science."

He pulls up an image of light bulbs and batteries in series and parallel circuits. "As a graphic designer I was given the freedom to create this image - but only up to a point. Quality is what we all aim for, and a lot of different things contribute to that . But the most important factor is accuracy. Everything we do is checked by experts."

Each subject has a lead adviser on content, usually a teacher, says Fiona.

"We also use university scientists. No one person could know everything or do everything to the standard we require. There have been times when a designer goes `This looks really cool' and someone else has to say, `Yeah but it's wrong - change it'."

It is annoying when that happens, Ross admits. "But there is no room for compromise. You have to get it right, in every detail."

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