Animating science: Student videos explain ecological challenges

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In the Princeton University class "Ecology: Species Interactions, Biodiversity and Society," taught by Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Robert Pringle, undergraduates study how wild organisms interact with each other, the environment and humans. The students' final projects are animated videos that explain a local environmental issue.

Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

Conveying science to a broad audience in a way that is understandable, accurate and entertaining is an important — and challenging — task. Last semester, Princeton University students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology got a chance to try their hand at that skill, creating animated short videos that focused on a wide variety of ecological challenges.

In the class "Ecology: Species Interactions, Biodiversity and Society," undergraduates studied how wild organisms interact with each other in relation to their physical environments and human society. For their final projects, they were divided into small groups to translate a local environmental issue, such as extinction or species invasions. Students decided what information to include in creative and informative videos.

This was the second time that Robert Pringle, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, taught the class. The first time, the final projects were more conventional, with written reports and PowerPoint presentations.

This year, said Pringle, "we wanted to try something a little different."

"The Bog Turtle," about a local endangered species, is one of the videos produced by students in the class "Ecology: Species Interactions, Biodiversity and Society." (Video by Jonathan Choi, Victor Pomary and Raymond Wu, Princeton University)

Thirteen teams created projects on topics including why bog turtles are endangered, why bee colonies are suffering from colony collapse disorder, the importance of eelgrass restoration and the characteristics that make Norway maples an invasive species. All of the final videos can be viewed on the class's YouTube channel.

The student-produced video "Colony Collapse Disorder" is about the recent phenomenon of bee colony collapses. (Video by Aaron Ladd, Katie Grabowski and Renata Diaz, Princeton University)

The inspiration for this type of final project came from a blog called CreatureCast, published by researchers at Brown University and originally funded in part by the National Science Foundation to convey complex scientific ideas to the general public.

"The public are the people who vote, and they're the people who fund scientific research," Pringle said. "So if we don't find a way to report the science back to the public, then the system is broken."

The students tackled the challenge well, Pringle said.

"The students were good at seeing the big picture. I think they had good intuition for what is the essential background, and what is too much information," he said. "I was very impressed with what the students accomplished for this project. And they seemed to enjoy it."