Students telling biological stories through Creaturecasts

A DSLR camera mounted in a copy stand and pointed at a white sheet of paper with a rectangle outlined on it.

How do you teach introductory biology students to tell meaningful biological stories while giving them experience in collaborative writing, researching, and multimedia production? Through Creaturecasts! Creaturecasts were developed by the Dunn Lab at Brown University, and combine animation, narration, sound effects, and music. Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Jason Andras' learning goals for his introductory biology class were to give his students the chance to develop expertise in a particular biological story and to improve their writing and presentation skills by producing a video podcast of that story. Students (mostly first-years), got the opportunity to team-write the script for a video podcast that told a biological story about some form of symbiotic interaction between organisms. They workshopped their scripts with other teams in the class, and then made those stories into 3-5 minute video podcasts to be shown on the last day of classes in fall 2013.

Creaturecasts are intended to use low frame rate animation, which is quicker to produce and allows students more time to make that deliberately low-fi method look good. Any medium that works for stop-motion is fair game for a Creaturecast. In this course students used colored paper cut-outs or colored markers on transparency sheets to draw their stories. They took inspiration from existing Creaturecasts and from other animators, such as Terry Gilliam's famous paper cut-out animations for Monty Python.

The biggest challenge in doing this was fitting periodic writing assignments, workshopping, and time for learning multimedia skills in with the biological content students also needed to learn. It took multiple planning meetings between Andras and Library, Information, and Technology Services (LITS) liaison Sarah Oelker to develop a plan that incorporated all of the pieces into a single, semester-long course. Andras and Oelker met over the summer to talk logistics and planned out a rough, month-by-month project workflow. They refined this plan via email in September. Oelker coordinated with colleagues in LITS to enlist help from Media Lab student employees and Video Consultants.

Library research skills instruction sessions were provided for students during their lab days late in September. Students then learned iMovie and basic animation skills during lab in late October. Professor Andras visited the Media Lab to see the work student employees there were doing to help students photograph their animations with a DSLR camera and copy stand. Students later made heavy use of the Video Consultants as they edited their projects. When the last day of classes rolled around, Professor Andras hosted a classroom pizza party as everyone got together to enjoy the final projects. 

Interested in trying something like this with your students? Contact your LITS Liaison.