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Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences
PSCD-11 Communicating Science: Film, Media, Journalism,
Course Instructor (Lectures 1 - 12): Roberto Verdecchia
Office hours: Thurs 4:30 to 6:30
Course Coordinator (Lectures 1 - 12): Mandy Meriano
Office: EV362 Telephone: 416 - 208 - 2775
Office hours: Thursday 1pm to 3 pm
Course Teaching Assistant: Rachel Rigden
Lecture time: Thursday 7 pm to 10 pm
Location: IC 212
Index of Outline Topics
-Lecture Topics and Readings
-General Information about the Assignments
Overview: The making of science documentaries/journalism: goals and realities.
When it comes to science, the media, both in its traditional and emerging forms, plays a
key role in the global transfer of information. Potentially it is a vital bridge, mediating the
gap between scientists and non-scientists, and enhancing the understanding of
pressing environmental, social, and ethical questions. We live in a world where vital
issues increasingly require an understand of complex scientific and technical issues.
But the perennial problems of communication between specialists and the rest of us are
complicated in our times by a highly polarized climate of skepticism towards institutions,
perceived elites, and “fake news”.
How can an understanding of complex issues in science be successfully communicated
to a wider audience? How can we recognize “bad science” even when it is being
communicated brilliantly? How can we help others to do the same? These are just a few
of the related challenges, all of which have pressing implications for the well being of
our society. Finding answers to these questions is both more vital and more difficult than
ever. This course will use traditional (print, radio, film, TV) and new media (including
blogs, vlogs, and Twitter) to explore the role of science and scientists in society, and the
role of media in conveying issues. Students will engage with filmmakers, TV and radio
producers, journalists, bloggers, and academics in order to understand their
approaches, choices, and the constraints within which they they work.
In this course, students will explore practical and theoretical issues around the role the
media plays in communicating an understanding of developments in the sciences, and
their implications in our daily lives. We will turn to filmmakers, radio and TV producers,
broadcast executives, and others working in this field to gain an understanding of the
inner workings and real-world forces that shape their decisions at each step of the
process. Our interest is learning how to communicate science more effectively, but also
how to recognize “bad science” no matter how enticing the packaging.
My specific objective in this course is to provide students with a look “back stage” at the
challenges and choices involved in the production of science journalism for a general
audience. This simple objective raises many questions, not least among them: what are
the influences at play in the making of a science, nature, or environmental
documentary? What about a vlog or radio broadcast? How are complex situations
distilled into narratives for a visual medium like film, short articles for your cell, or
memes for Instagram? What is lost or gained in the quest to both tell the truth and tell a
good story? How are decisions made in the contest between accuracy and simplifying
— that slippery slope to “dumbing down”? Given limited broadcast hours and the
demand for ratings, how do broadcasters decide what subjects get covered?
Each session of Communicating Science will focus on a particular theme (nature,
medicine, mathematics, etc) and a particular medium. During that class we will
deconstruct a specific documentary film, program, website, etc. in order to illustrate and
explore the topic. In each session, the question asked will be how scientific information
has been ‘pictured’ for that media. Specific excerpts or programs will be screened
during class to illustrate issues and demonstrate editorial decisions.
Lecturer Roberto Verdecchia is an award-winning director and writer of television
documentaries. He has been an independent producer for many years and has a longrunning history with CBC’s The Nature of Things, having started his career as a
freelance researcher there over 25 years ago. He will be joined by guest speakers
involved in the making of the works being explored.
Upon completion of this course, you will be better able to:
- understand the relationships between scientific and mass media communications
- explain and better analyse the role of media in communicating science
- understand the differences in how science is communicated through various media,
i.e., documentary films, news, peer reviewed publication, popular science magazines,
science blogs, etc
- develop and articulate a scientific idea in documentary form
- develop a critical appreciation of the role of media, and particularly documentaries, in
In addition to weekly class participation, students will be asked to complete two written
assignments (submitted through Turnitin), give a short group presentation, and write a
Assignment 1 (Due February 13 at the start of class)
An analysis and critique of a science documentary focusing on:
-the variety of ways that science is incorporated into the film.
-the elements of the storytelling that affect, enhance and hinder the strength of the
science behind the subject matter.
-the influence of the film’s style, characters, and scenes as they impact the
effectiveness of the science.
Your paper should be no longer than 5 pages or approx. 1500 words, doublespaced, excluding title page, reference list, etc. and must be submitted through
Assignment 2 (Due March 12 at the start of class)
Students will be asked to produce a thoughtful and credible proposal for their own
science film on a subject of their choosing.
-They will be asked to write up a formal treatment (no longer than 5 pages or approx.
1500 words, double-spaced, excluding title page, reference list, etc.) for a film that
they might theoretically propose to a broadcaster.
-This must include clear explanations of subject matter, theme, thesis, explication of
how the story will unfold (i.e. key scenes and how they interconnect), scientific
groundwork for the story, methods of illustrating the story, elements of film-making
employed, scientific experts if any, scenes, characters, locations, graphics, and other
didactic elements, with an eye to addressing the demand for both
entertainment/engagement value, and scientific integrity.
-The purpose of the “pitch” is to sell a project. That takes a good telling of a good
story, it takes creativity and an eye for what your buyer (the broadcasters) needs for
a compelling, entertaining and understandable presentation of the science in a form
suitable for their audience.
- This assignment must be submitted through Turnitin (30%)
Assignment 3: In-Class Group Presentation (Mar 19 and Mar 26)
- students will work in groups of three and asked to explain a scientific theme or
issue at three different levels of complexity: for a 7-8 year old, for a high school
student, and then for a university peer.
- the entire group presentation should take about 5 minutes
- the group will receive a mark for the presentation as a whole, based on the clarity
and creativity expressed for each appropriate level, including the use of analogies
and other devices as discussed throughout the course
- presentations will take place over the course of two weeks (5%)
Grade Distribution Summary (percentage of total)
Assignments (2 @ 30% each)
Total Grade Possible
LECTURE SCHEDULE (tentative):
Schedule may vary according to the availability of our guest speakers.
Week 1: Thursday January 9
Objectives: understanding the structure of the course and its basic goal — the realworld factors influencing how science is communicated to a wider audience.
Screening: LHC – To the Heart of Matter; Feynman: Fun to Imagine; other clips
Our first class deals with the basic theme of the course: Communicating science and
scientific ideas. We’ll screen, among other clips, a short documentary on particle
physics and an interview with one of the top scientists (and science communicators) of
the 20th century, Richard Feynman.
There’s a great popular appetite for understanding physics at a non-specialist level.
Many years ago, Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time became one of the
best-selling science books of all time, but also the book most likely to be left unfinished.
On the fiction front, Dan Brown’s mega-selling novels like to reference physics and
quantum computing, while other popular films and books on the topic are criticized as,
“quantum mysticism” or pseudoscience. As Feynman himself said, “If you think you
understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” To what
degree is it possible to explain ideas of pure science to people who have not spent
years studying it? How do you bridge the gulf?
Suggested reading for next week’s class
A good article on how to look more actively at documentaries of all kinds.
Week 2: Thursday January 16
Topic: Learning to Look at Science Films
Objective: An in-class study of the elements that go into visually translating and
communicating scientific ideas.
Screening: The Code
Can you translate things like Einstein’s theories to a general TV audience in a
meaningful way? What do you do when the work is so complex that even experts can’t
agree on what a study means, or on the risk of a particular activity? Every film, book,
program or article has to deal with reducing a large amount of often very complex
information into a manageable size of comprehensible content. Those issues are never
more daunting than when the science in question is mathematics or physics. How we
can we make the abstract concrete? How can we turn the most rarefied thinking into
something accessible to any interested viewer/reader?
The Code is a mathematics-based documentary series directed by Stephen Cooter and
Michael Lachmann, and presented by Prof Marcus du Sautoy. Now on Netflix, it
originally aired on BBC Two in 2011. In the first episode, Du Sautoy reveals “a hidden
numerical code that underpins all nature and that has the power to explain everything,
from the numbers and shapes we see all around us to the rules that govern our lives.”
Suggested readings for next week
Week 3: January 23
* Topic for Assignment 1
Topic: Complexity / The Nature film
Objective: Communicating at the right level. / Analysing documentary tropes.
Guest: Director Caitlin Starowicz
Screening: Mommy Wildest
Before our main screening, we’ll go over the topic of the first assignment. We will also
look at a series of videos that explain scientific ideas at different levels of complexity, in
preparation for the in-class presentations to come.
Natural History or wildlife/nature films explore the life and life cycles of individual
species interacting in a complex natural environment. They are among the most popular
form of documentary film (science or otherwise), and often the most expensive to make.
They require not only specialized skills and equipment, but also involve unique dangers
absent in many other genres. Besides the dangers inherent in filming in the wild, there
are also editorial dangers. For example, the danger of reducing the natural world to
nothing more than a collection of beautiful images. Or the parallel danger that lies in
ignoring the environmental threats that besiege the creatures and environments the
films showcase. Where is the line dividing a nature film and an environmental film?
Mommy Wildest: We used to think the wilderness was ruled by males – the lion, “king of
beasts”, the mighty bull elephant, and the imposing baboon male. This documentary
journeys to the African savannas to reveal a very different story. Mommy Wildest is a
compelling, intimate portrait of three animal families where it’s the females that rule and
mother who knows best. We enter the lives of fierce lion sisters, majestic elephant
grandmothers, and regal baboon mothers who form sisterhoods to raise their families.
Suggested readings for next week
http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/03/scientists-look-indoor-biome-new-researchfrontier and, “Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science with
Nonexpert Audiences”: https://www.pnas.org/content/111/Supplement_4/13614
Week 4: January 30
Topic: Information and Entertainment
Objectives: Learning to analyze, continued. To explore tone and the balance between
scientific content and entertainment.
Screening: The Great Wild Indoors
What are the tricks that nature films use to keep you watching? And how has technology
changed how we view nature (or nature docs)? We will screen some short videos that
go behind the scenes, and behind a director’s thinking, too.
Nature films are big business in the world of science documentary. But what kind of
nature are we talking about? Why the bias towards whales, eagles, tigers and bears?
Within the quiet confines of your home, wild things are also afoot. The great struggle to
survive, the drama of life and death, goes on all around you. The Great Wild Indoors is
a wildlife documentary that never goes outside, focusing on a new front of biological
research: the indoor biome. It is also an example of balancing scientific content with
entertainment in its use of narrative devices more typically seen in so-called ‘reality
Suggested readings for next week
https://gizmodo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-the-new-tool1702114381 and https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/crispr-gene-editing-damage1.4748980
Week 5: February 6
Topic: The social and ethical challenges of scientific breakthroughs
Objectives: To explore how documentaries tackle cutting-edge developments and the
larger issues raised by them.
Guest filmmaker: Robin Bicknell, director
Screening: The Genetic Revolution
Many current scientific advances are thrilling for the possibilities that they present,
but at the same time they pose deep ethical challenges to society. Perhaps none as
much as the science and technology of gene editing. Imagine a simple procedure to
erase a faulty gene in utero – no more babies born with Down Syndrome, for
example. At the same time, imagine the threat of designer babies, all blue eyes,
blonde hair and above-normal IQ. What role does science journalism have in raising
red flags over these kinds of issues? And how are people to form opinions when the
science is so complex?
The ability to gain control of our DNA is ground-breaking and revolutionary but there are
conflicting opinions among scientists as to how the technology should be used. The
Genetic Revolution, for CBC’s The Nature of Things, follows the science as it
progresses at a breakneck speed.
Suggested readings for next week:
Nature.com article on science and filmmaking: “Put it on camera: How to get into
scientific film- and video-making” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08862-6
Week 6: February 13
*Assignment 1 due at the start of class / * Topic of Assignment 2
Topic: Communicating science in smaller-size chunks.
Objectives: To appreciate how format affects content.
Guest: Su Rynard, filmmaker (tbc)
Screening: Don’t Blink
How does format, audience and content affect your presentation? Effective
communication depends on knowing who it is you are speaking to, as well as delivering
your content in the form that is appropriate. How much scientific wonder and info can be
transmitted in 5 minutes? Playfully poignant and delightfully artful, the short series,
Don’t Blink is a photographic and scientific exploration of the extraordinary parts of our
daily world that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Created specifically for Discovery
Channel GO and SCI GO, the show aims to reveal the magic and wonder in the
everyday world. In each short episode, viewers explore imagery of different natural
phenomena and dive deeper into the science behind them.
We will also look at some more video examples of explaining ideas at three different
levels of complexity.
Reading Week: February 20 [ enjoy! ]
Suggested reading for next week
In preparation for your third assignment, have a look at the summaries of different
lengths about global warming and how it works
How Global Warming Works (35 words, 400 words, videos)
And the following videos:
[Quantum Computing Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty]
[Biologist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty – CRISPR]
Week 7: February 27
* Topic of Assignment 3 – group, in-class presentations
Topic: The business of science documentary
Objectives: To explore the role of the producer, and to learn what’s involved in getting
that key sequence that makes your film.
Guest: Bryn Hughes, producer
Screening: Gorilla Doctors
The making of a science film is usually an expensive proposition. How are these films
financed? One of the keys to the funding of documentaries in Canada is having an
assured TV broadcast. But what does it take to get your idea accepted for production by
a broadcaster? What role does the broadcaster play and how much say do they have?
And what kind of work does it take behind the scenes to get the footage or access you
Producer Bryn Hughes presents Gorilla Doctors, a film that takes you to the spectacular
Virunga mountains in Rwanda and DR Congo and into the world of the mountain gorilla,
putting you right alongside jungle vets as they weigh the risks of intervening to save
these endangered apes.
Preparation for next week
Listen to one of the audio stories and consider specific ways in which the same story
might have to be presented differently in a book, or film.
Week 8: March 6
Topic: Audio Communication – radio and podcasts
Objectives: Extending our discussion to include the differences between primarily visual
and auditory media.
Guest: Producer, CBC Quirks and Quarks
For forty years the award-winning science program Quirks & Quark has brought science
to the public by radio and podcasts. What are the challenges and possibilities of
communicating science through an audio rather than a visual medium? Our guest
producer will speak with us about how ideas are generated and turned into stories
suitable for radio, and how that differs from television. Interviews and research are part
of the process in both cases but the specifics vary: a story that might be a great radio
item might not recommend itself as appropriate for a visual medium, and vice versa.
Suggested reading and viewing for next week
Visit https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology and read a few articles from this week, in
preparation to discuss them at next week’s class.
Consider the difference between science communication and science journalism:
Week 9: March 13
*Assignment 2 due at the star ...