British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Science on Screen

Dr Chris Willmott, Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Leicester, explains how teaching staff can put the moving image to work in science education.

chriswillmottAbout the Author: Dr Chris Willmott is Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and has a special interest in bioethics teaching. He is the author of the BioethicsBytes blog:, which recommends clips for teaching about bioethics. He has also contributed chapters to two books on Doctor Who and philosophy.

There is tangible evidence for the growing importance of moving image in science education. For example, in 2014 an Institute for Scientific Information impact factor was awarded to The Journal of Visualised Experiments and many scientists are now posting educational material on YouTube. In this article I will argue that there is another valuable moving image resource that is often overlooked by academics – broadcast media.

When I have discussed my enthusiasm for using television footage in university bioscience teaching, some colleagues can barely conceal their view that I have suggested forming a pact with the devil. At a recent academic conference one of the delegates said what I’m sure others were thinking – television science is ‘dumbed down’ science.

Now of course to some extent this is absolutely right; a large percentage of science on television is watered down or plain wrong. However a sizeable amount of television science content is accurate and, as I hope to illustrate, even the science that is wrong can be valuable for teaching.

I’ve come to realise that one of the reasons for scepticism about the merits of using broadcast media in teaching is a belief that the only motivation for doing so would be to convey factual content to students. This is a caricature of Open University broadcasts circa 1975 in which the primary motivation was to replace lectures for students unable to attend full-time, campus-based courses.

Although content can be important I would argue that the primary motivation for showing television clips is to promote engagement. Limitations in the application of broadcast material to science teaching may therefore stem from a lack of creativity, coupled with uncertainty about what might be available, and how to get hold of it. Let’s deal with these issues in turn.

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