Bringing Science Class to Life


Monterey Bay Aquarium co-founder Nancy Burnett turns her groundbreaking PBS series into a classroom tool.

By L. Clark Tate

Feb. 24, 2014—Observing the schools of tots swirling through the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it’s easy to see that those wild little creatures are part of the animal kingdom. Thrilled by their marine counterparts, these youngsters are amped and ready to learn …science.

Unfortunately, America’s youth doesn’t seem to hold on to the thrill of scientific discovery in the classroom or, later on, career choice.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. ranked 23rd in science scores in a 2012 survey of 65 nations. About average, and definitely not an A. So how do you convince a kid that following in the footsteps of Jacques-Yves Cousteau is way cooler, and more feasible, than growing up to be, say, Batman?

If only there were an aquarium in every classroom. Imagine hopeful little faces enthralled by an octopus’ seamlessly shifting texture and color-changing skin cells, which help it blend into new surroundings, or by the dramatic scene of anemones fleeing the predatory advances of a sea star. And right there, a crack team of scientists to interpret the action.

Maybe that science team could travel the world’s oceans to track down elusive sea creatures, interview other intriguing scientists and share their findings. Perhaps they could even package the breathtaking footage to tell the entire story of the animal kingdom.

Well, all of that has already happened.

The Shape of Life, From TV to Web

The Shape of Life is an award-winning video series co-produced in 2001 for PBS by Monterey-based Sea Studios Foundation in conjunction with National Geographic Television. The series depicts the evolution of the animal kingdom in eight one-hour episodes, each covering a major phylum. (In case you’ve forgotten, “phylum” is the major subdivision of the plant and animal “kingdoms” into categories. Class, repeat: “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.”)

The documentary is incredible. It includes mind-blowing high-definition underwater footage of colorful sea creatures using ingenious methods, many of them violent, in the struggle to survive. Combined with computer animation, The Shape of Life tells the evolutionary story of how these creatures developed new body plans that allowed them to move around, protect themselves and hunt. It shows that human beings owe a debt to our evolutionary predecessors.

The production team worked with the late diver and marine biologist Don Wobber, who captured the first-ever time-lapse footage of sea stars “bouting” for dominance—a kind of jousting Wobber discovered as a graduate student. They also hid a tiny camera inside a mussel to capture the amazing spectacle of a sea star prying it open, then deploying its external stomach to devour the still-alive mollusk (not as gross as it sounds).

Text continues below video.

John Pearse Don Wobber, Biologists: Sea Star Behavior from Shape of Life on Vimeo.

After its release in 2001, The Shape of Life received international acclaim. And then, as even the best TV documentary will, it kind of vanished. But beginning this week, The Shape of Life is evolving. What was born as a TV series with deep connections to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is being reimagined as a science-teaching tool and repackaged for the classroom.

All of the content from the series will now be available to educators everywhere on the worldwide web, thanks to Nancy Burnett, who co-produced The Shape of Life, co-founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is herself a Stanford-trained marine biologist.

The result: nearly 100 videos, two to 15 minutes long, available to download for free (or as a DVD set—$5 for shipping).

Evolution of a Dream

Around the time Burnett and her siblings were finishing up their university studies, she recalls, they had a conversation with folks from the Packard Family Foundation—the philanthropic organization established by Nancy's father, Silicon Valley icon David Packard, and her mom, Lucille. “Do you guys have any projects you’re interested in?” The response: “We’ve got an idea.”

“So we got the Aquarium going,” she says matter-of-factly, “because we loved the kelp forest off Hopkins” (Stanford’s marine institute on Monterey’s Cannery Row). “We wanted to share that with everybody.”

The idea to convert an abandoned cannery into an aquarium started small, Burnett says. “When my dad got involved, he loved all of the mechanics of it, and the engineering, and things just kept getting a little bit bigger. It all worked out.”

But despite the Aquarium’s obvious success, Burnett, who has a contagious passion for science, was not 100 percent satisfied.

“For us scientists it was very frustrating,” she says, “because we wanted more science.” To appeal to the Aquarium’s broad audience, including tiny children, she says, “You had to keep things really simple.”

A side project videotaping the Aquarium’s animals opened an avenue. To capture some of the animals' more intriguing behaviors, Burnett says, "You have to have a video of it because they don’t do it often enough." So that’s what she did, with the help of some good friends.

“But the Aquarium can only show so many videos,” she says. So the filming team, Sea Studios Foundation, created the film series that became The Shape of Life.

Burnett found herself fulfilling a longtime dream in the process: seeing a nautilus in the wild. “I just sat there on the edge of the reef and watched it swimming around,” she recalls, enchanted by the memory.

Even then, Burnett had an idea that this project would wind up in classrooms. “I knew at the time that it was wonderful educational material,” she says. Unfortunately, unlike television, “You can’t get money to spend millions of dollars on educational footage.”

Seizing An Opportunity

Burnett decided to expand The Shape of Life’s educational potential around 2010, when the program’s patent expired, says Natasha Fraley, Burnett’s longtime friend and co-worker.

“She really jumped on the opportunity to make all that information available,” Fraley recalls.

Burnett, Fraley and Robyn Hutman, a Monterey-based film editor, sat down and “cut all the videos up into little pieces so teachers can use them in the classroom,” Burnett recalls.

“We spent long hours chopping and dicing," says Fraley. "It was really challenging. Chocolate was involved.” So were children. “We did it at Robyn’s house—she has three kids,” Fraley says. “It wasn’t dry work in any way. It was rich, with a lot of personal interaction.”

Text continues below video.

Nematocyst Animation: Fighting Tentacles from Shape of Life on Vimeo.

“For me, that was fun because I was a little bit more in control,” Burnett says of the editing process. “I’m not a consumer-driven person. I’m not going to give somebody what they want—I’m going to give somebody what I want them to have.” That would be science.

Shape of Life has been soliciting direct teacher feedback from the beginning. After the first rough cuts, a group of teachers attending a workshop at the Aquarium were solicited for comments. “We got a lot of good feedback,” Fraley says. The workshop helped to define Shape of Life’s vision, shorten video lengths and add vocabulary lists.

This real-world interaction continues. “The goal is to offer a turn-key perspective to teachers that includes lesson plans, complementary partners, resources and direct feedback from teachers," says Denise Ryan, who is helping spread the word about Shape of Life, and who (full disclosure) sits on Hilltromper’s board of advisors. “We’re trying to build it to be more of a dialogue than a monologue.”

With this in mind, the videos are organized by topic. Burnett and Fraley paired them with appropriate educational standards, both California’s own Common Core State Standards and the new, national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Peggy Lubchenco, a lecturer at UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, was tapped to create lesson plans around the films that align with both Common Core and Next Generation standards. Teacher candidates and master teachers will test the material and provide feedback.

Educational Raves

These plans are available on the Shape of Life website, as well as Share my Lesson, a free online platform for teachers. Shape of Life’s lofty goal: to create a lesson plan for each and every video.

Kelly Booz, Share My Lesson’s director of partnerships, is working to grow the site’s science resources. She believes the Shape of Life series will be key.

“We’re just really, really thrilled to be working with a group that has such quality resources to give to our teachers,” Booz says. “We know that this is going to be a really popular resource.”

Shape of Life is also running a pilot program whereby volunteer teachers will test run the videos and create lesson plans tailored to standards in their state.

Diana Cost, a Massachusetts-based National Science Foundation master teacher, is one such volunteer. “It’s a really cool thing because they’re asking educators what they need,” Cost says. “Autonomy in education is huge.”

Cost says Shape of Life allows teachers to offer students a “simulated real-world experience,” which is super-valuable in classrooms because “you can’t take them scuba diving.”

Patricia Griswold, a 7th-grade science teacher in Washington, agrees. “The videos are beautiful,” she says. “Since we live at least two hours from saltwater beaches, this exposed the students to a new experience.”

So what do kids say? “Lots of wows,” says Griswold, who used the material to teach classification. “They were able to see how special each species is, so differentiating between them was easier.

“These kids are digital natives, so they love using these videos."

During a Shape of Life workshop for docents at Santa Cruz’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center—itself an excellent educational resource—Burnett said she hopes that the great storytelling in the videos will turn kids on to biology—just as great teachers in college and grad school turned her on to biology.

“I really believe the more you know about something, the more you’re attached to it,” Burnett says. “I’d like them to say, ‘Oh I didn’t know that! That’s totally cool!’ I want them to be wowed about something—and I also want them to learn something. Not just watch that octopus catch that crab. It’d be nice if it went one step beyond that.”