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Case Study: BIOL 220W

Environmental Documentaries

BIOL 220W is essentially an ecology and population biology course, and a primary aim of the class is to raise student awareness of topical environmental issues. The students worked in groups of 3-4, and were required to identify and research an important environmental topic, and then produce a 5 minute documentary on that subject. Their chosen topic could be of local relevance (e.g. Beaver campus, Beaver county, or western PA), or of relevance to a larger area (e.g. the entire USA, or global). They were given free-reign to choose their topic, and decide how to present it. Some students chose to interview local experts (e.g. faculty or staff), some used the Free Media Library for much of their content, others incorporated their own original footage.

Project in Brief

Course: BIOL 220W (Biology: Populations and Communities)
Instructor: Cassandra Miller-Butterworth
Number of Students: ±20 per semester
Semester: Spring 2012-Fall 2021
Duration of Assignment: 15 weeks

Key Benefits
Students researched an important environmental topic, and by producing a video that was shown to the rest of the class, they educated not only themselves, but other students too. BIOL220W is a writing-intensive course, and the students are therefore required to write several detailed lab reports. This video assignment offered them the opportunity to focus on a different set of skills, while still emphasizing the importance of accurate research and clarity of communication.
Application to Other Courses
This project illustrated that scientists need to be able to communicate their research in many different ways, not only through formal scientific papers (a concept that is also emphasized in other 200-level courses at Penn State Beaver, e.g. BIOL 230W and BIOL 240W).
Project Description for Students
One of your primary assignments for this course is to research and produce a 5 minute video documentary on a topical environmental issue. You will work in groups of 3-4 students. Each group should choose and research a topic that affects:

  • Penn State Beaver campus,
  • Beaver county or Western PA,
  • Pennsylvania or the USA as a whole, OR
  • it may have global significance

The choice is yours!

Examples of possible topics are:

  • Construction of bat houses on Penn State Beaver campus
  • How “green” is Penn State Beaver?
  • How clean is our water in western PA?
  • Pros & cons of “fracking”
  • Pros & cons of drilling for oil in Alaska
  • Earth Day
  • Plastic pollution in the oceans

Examples of previous videos produced for this class can be found here.

The assignment will count 10% towards your overall course grade. Everyone must contribute equally to researching and producing the documentary, but it is up to you to decide how it will be presented. For example, you do not all need to appear on camera – one person can do all the on-camera work, or you may rely exclusively on voice-over and/or interviews with experts. Again the choice is yours!

The following resources are available for you to use as you produce your documentary:

“Video Assignment” folder on Canvas. This has links to:

  • the Media Commons website: https://mediacommons.psu.edu/
  • online support: https://mediacommons.psu.edu/support
  • the Free Media Library: https://mediacommons.psu.edu/instruction/freemedia
  • instructions for uploading your completed video to YouTube (login details to our private account for the course)
  • examples of previous videos produced in this course

The Media Commons website (mediacommons.psu.edu). This website has multiple resources, including:

  • helpful tips for how to film and edit your video
  • instructions for using iMovie to edit your video (this software is supported by Penn State)
  • contact information for Media Commons tech support (hotline)
  • information on copyright concerns (make sure that none of the digital media you include in your video is copyrighted)
  • Free Media Library: copyright-free pictures, video clips and music that you may download to include in your video
  • online back-up space to save your video footage
  • release forms for download (if you choose to interview or feature other people in your video, everyone shown on camera must sign a release form)

Video cameras and other equipment are available for loan from the library.

Contact the library staff to reserve and check-out cameras, tripods, microphones etc. You may use your own video camera or cell phone to film your documentary, but make sure that the resolution of resulting video is high enough. If you choose to borrow a campus video camera, please keep in mind that other classes also have video assignments – be sure to reserve the cameras ahead of time, and give yourself enough time to film (and if necessary re-film!) your material.

Computers with editing software (iMovie) are available in the library and in the computer labs.

Important Due Dates

January 25

  • students must identify group members and choose a documentary topic
  • complete the survey on Canvas (in the Video Assignment folder): identify your group members, and provide a one-line description / title of your video topic

February 10

  • upload a PowerPoint outline of your proposed documentary to the Canvas dropbox
  • this must include more detail than the one-line description provided previously

February 25

  • Nick Smerker from Media Commons will present a workshop on video production

March 15

  • upload a storyboard of your documentary to the Canvas dropbox no later than 5pm
  • storyboard is worth 10 points
  • see Media Commons website for tips on how to storyboard, and to download a template

March 17

  • groups will meet individually with Nick Smerker during lab to discuss their storyboards

March 30

  • Nick Smerker from Media Commons will present a workshop on how to use iMovie

April 11

  • rough draft of your video is due: it should be uploaded to our private YouTube channel no later than 5pm (see instructions on Canvas)

April 28

  • videos must be completed and uploaded to our private YouTube channel (see instructions on Canvas)

We will view the videos and discuss them as a class during the final lab session. An example of the rubric that will be used for grading your videos is on page 4.


  • Choose a topical, highly relevant issue!
  • Research it thoroughly and accurately.
  • Avoid copyrighted material.
  • Appropriately cite any digital media included in the video that you did not produce yourselves.
    • This may be a list of credits at the end of the video, or may be submitted as a separate list on paper.
  • Plan, plan, and then plan some more! Prepare a storyboard, think about who/what to include, and how you will fit it all into 5 mins (points will be deducted if you go over-time).
  • Give yourself enough time to:
    • interview people (if you choose to do so) – remember that you will need to accommodate their schedules!
    • film your footage, and correct any errors (don’t leave your filming to the week before it’s due!)
    • edit your video (this will take longer than you think!)
  • Have fun!
Grading Process
The assignment counted 10% towards the overall course grade. Students were graded on the quality of their storyboard (10 points) and of their video (60 points). Grading of the video focused primarily on production quality, content (scientific accuracy, level of detail), originality/creativity and entertainment value. The grading rubric was provided to students ahead of time so they knew what to expect.

Download the Rubric


  • iMovie
  • Video camera
  • Green screen
  • Podcasting mics


  • Researching environmental issues
  • Working in groups of peers
  • Interviewing experts

Target Skills

  • Researching
  • Writing
  • Presenting findings
  • Communicating clearly

(Instructor’s) Lessons Learned

“In the first year (2012), I required students to choose their topic at the beginning of the semester, and to turn in a detailed outline a couple of weeks later, and then there was no further formal assignment until the final due date (although I verbally reminded them about the video several times). Despite these reminders, many students left everything until the last week, and then struggled to complete the video on time. The overall quality of the final product was fair to good (grades ranged from 61% to 90%, with only one group achieving 90%).

In subsequent years I included additional deadlines during the semester, and this has led to a significant improvement in the quality of the videos as the students no longer leave everything to the last minute. In 2014, I offered bonus points to groups who turned in a detailed storyboard after spring break, but in 2015 and 2016 I made the storyboard mandatory and incorporated it into the grading rubric (10 points). Each year, Nick Smerker from Media Commons has come to campus and given the students 2 workshops (one on how to make videos and a second on how to use iMovie), and has helped with online assessment of the storyboards and PowerPoint outlines, and with grading of the final videos. In 2016, Nick also met face-to-face with each group to provide feedback on their storyboards, and the students commented on how extremely helpful this was. The final products in 2016 were by far the best we have seen in 4 years of conducting this assignment.”