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Aug 24, 2022

How A Short Film Helped Students Understand Evolution

A short film that centers children as the protagonists in scientific discovery helps pupils thrive.

By Benjamin Reeves

Science education at the primary school level brings with it an array of challenges. Teachers often say it can be difficult to make the subject matter engaging, particularly for students who may not be inclined to embrace the subject matter. The Association for Science Education, with backing from Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Big Questions in Classrooms priority, recently launched “Key moments in history and science: a fossil hunter’s story,” which uses the real life story of 12-year-old Mary Anning’s discovery of an ichthyosaur in 1821 to educate students about fossils and evolution.

The curriculum resources center around a short film, Sea Dragon, directed by James Morgan and produced by Terhi Kylliäinen. (The film has won numerous accolades, including the Children’s Jury award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.) After watching the film, teachers lead students in a series of activities, including roleplaying, to help them understand not only the scientific concepts presented, but the historical and social context of Anning’s discoveries. Broadly, the curriculum resources were intended to teach content knowledge about fossils and evolution, procedural knowledge about scientific inquiry and epistemic knowledge about the historical, religious and social context surrounding the scientific discovery. This innovation, the film Sea Dragon, had to support all three of these areas in just 15 minutes and in a way that was engaging to children.

The team piloted the curriculum resources at ten primary schools in the United Kingdom and then conducted a broader trial at 38 schools. After the trial, teachers’ assessments showed “good progress” by their pupils in 50% of learning outcomes “related to content knowledge,” 59% in learning outcomes “related to procedural knowledge” and 50% of “epistemological outcomes,” indicating that the resources were broadly effective. Indeed, in their final report, the team notes that “Children, including those regarded as low achieving and/or with typically low levels of interest in science, made progress in their learning.” The combination of the film and dialogue-based, multidisciplinary science curriculum helped students learn not only the facts about complex topics — such as evolution — but also the context of the discovery and the scientific methods used.

Association for Science Education Director of Curriculum Innovation and Sea Dragon Executive Producer Marianne Cutler recently spoke about the process of producing the curriculum resources and film and why they were so effective.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Templeton: Why a short film? Why not a more traditional curriculum?
Cutler: We knew that Mary Anning is mentioned specifically in [England] national curriculum as one of the few scientists that the government would like children to encounter in their primary education. We also knew that most teachers lacked confidence in their effectiveness to bring Mary Anning, fossils and evolution to life. So we started from the premise that if you want to engage young people, you need to put them in the shoes of the protagonist whom you’re exploring. 

With the structure of the film, we wanted young people to be engaged immediately, and we wanted the protagonist to be the age of the children who are viewing it. That way, immediately they can feel they could be in it. In the case of [our previous film about the smallpox vaccine], it wasn’t overtly about Edward Jenner himself, but focused on the boy, James Phipps, who we know from the historical records Jenner experimented on as he developed the world’s first vaccination. Of course, James survived and in fact became the gardener for Edward Jenner.

It sounds like a key factor is having a protagonist who children can relate to and whom the lessons revolve around.
In the case of the smallpox vaccine, we had a boy of about the same age, and then for Sea Dragon we had Mary Anning, who really made that first discovery at age 11 or 12 (documents indicate both ages). Everything is rooted in evidence, but beyond that we don’t want to just tell a story, so for Sea Dragon we wrapped the history up in a heist, which was a nice idea from the script writers. It’s not just a fun story. What we needed was to show the children who are watching how and why Mary was exceptional. She was the right girl in the right place at the right time, but on top of that, she had this exceedingly inquiring mind. She developed these observational skills. She really looked in detail at everything she found. But then she looked beyond it and came to some conclusions that [the ichthyosaur] had never been seen before.

How does this help children learn?
It’s about what we do in primary science. Teachers really need to start getting children to think like a scientist and to start developing those observational and critical thinking skills and reasoning skills. What we wanted to show in the film is how Mary started to do that from a young age.

This project goes beyond just talking about a scientific topic but really puts it into a historical and social context.
This was very much of interest to us. Mary Anning was a girl of her time, and in her time there were religious beliefs which played a very great part in everyday lives. How she looked at the fossils and the rocks was rooted in that in the first place, and this really informed her thinking and developing theories. Later on in the resources, the children find out that Mary came from a dissenting church that probably enabled her to have a little more lateral creativity, to think outside of the box when observing her fossil finds. These behaviors grounded her and influenced how she thought about what she observed, leading her to conclude that some of her fossil finds, including the ichthyosaur in Sea Dragon, were something different, and not previously seen. Nowadays, we call them transitional fossils, which are fossils that show a link between one form of ancestral animal or plant and another, descendant form. They have features of both. 

And students really begin thinking in terms of the context around the science?
We interviewed groups of children who were involved in the trial, sometimes three months after they did the work. One might imagine they’d forgotten much, but, my goodness, they had not. Many children could remember word-for-word the final scene in the film, the culmination when Mary passionately puts forward her evidence. And then the question I followed up with was, ‘what do you think that meant?’ They could remember in detail, but they could also talk about what the film enabled them to start thinking about: Who was Mary? What was she thinking? Why was she unsure?

There’s a whole ecosystem of material around this film for teachers to use. How did this come about?
The short film is not enough by itself. If you want it to be used and for children in schools to engage with it as a meaningful learning experience, you need a whole suite of teaching resources around it. We produced core resources which we really asked the teacher to use with the children, and we also provided enrichment resources if they had more time or had children who were flying along particularly. Each of these resources focuses around a key question. The key question each time [was intended to encourage] the children to investigate and respond to it and answer it in the context in which Mary was living. All of the resources reminded children to bring the context to the table. We give them the original sources to look at, and they have to then justify their arguments. They have to debate it. 

At the time, Mary Anning — we know from the records — was accused of potentially creating a fake fossil by putting together, intentionally or not, bones from two different fossils to create a newly discovered species. So we ask, why might someone want to do that? And the children learn about the huge value of the specimens and the corruption that went around that. And then we look at the evidence in the geological papers of the time. Did Mary Anning do that? 

This really takes them through the process.
The children understand she didn’t do that very bad behavior, but they also learn how complicated it was, and is, to determine whether a fossil was a new species or not. And they learn what scientists do when they look at the fossil features to determine if something is new and different or not. And they start to think about what can you learn from fossils and how much more we know today than we did in Mary Anning’s time due to technological advances.

Science is always developing, and we still have big questions and unanswered questions. We want children to understand that science is definitely rapidly evolving technologically, and they still have big questions to explore — some of which may be answered in time by science, or perhaps not all.

Find out more about the Sea Dragon curriculum in a piece by Bonnie Zahl, Principal Advisor for Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Big Questions in Classrooms.

Learn what teachers are saying about the curriculum.

Marianne Cutler is the Director of Curriculum Innovation at the Association for Science Education and the Executive Producer of Sea Dragon.

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at or follow him on Twitter.