Mangrove Scientists Gone Wild

What happens when mangrove researchers from around the world get together for a writing workshop in the Florida Keys? For one thing, they learn how to make a video about their research.

I recently attended the Mangrove and Macrobenthos Meeting (MMM4) in St. Augustine, followed by a workshop in the Keys to plan a series of papers about mangroves. At the workshop, I gave a brief tutorial on how to make a video to share science and then challenged the attendees to make a video about mangroves or some other topic of interest.

I began my tutorial with a tongue-in-cheek movie trailer—featuring some of the workshop attendees. I had been filming our drive from St. Augustine to the Keys and our field excursions with my iPhone. I used the footage to create a movie trailer in iMovie for iOS. The idea was to start off my tutorial with a fun example and to show how easy it is to film, edit, and publish a video about an event or other activity using a smartphone.

If you are a newbie videographer, you can use one of the iMovie trailer templates to produce a brief video about an event such as a conference or a workshop. It took me about an hour to create the trailer with the template (most of the time was spent screening the footage and deciding which to use). It’s a great way to advertise an event or to share activities with people who were not able to attend:

How Long Does It Take to Make a Video?

This question is the one I get most often from science professionals attending my workshops and seminars. Everyone is busy. I get it. You get it. People want to know how much of their valuable time is going to be diverted toward an activity that is not going to contribute to their h-index.

So I’m going to try to answer that question in this blog post.

The most honest answer is: it depends. People vary wildly in their abilities to craft a compelling story, to visualize how to tell it, and to operate the recording equipment and editing software. The actual amount of time you will spend will depend on your skill level at using the equipment and software required for making a video. If you’ve never used movie editing software, then it’s going to take you longer to edit your clips compared to someone who’s played around with iMovie, for example. The same goes for designing and filming.

Consequently, I’m going to give some ballpark estimates based on a relatively inexperienced person–someone who typically takes a video-making workshop.

In my workshops, I’ve found that people can generally design their video (overall story and how to tell it) in an hour or so, especially if they are given a template to follow. Filming can take a couple of hours or days, depending on your topic, length of the planned video, and where you need to film. Workshop participants, working in pairs and using smartphones or tablets, were able to film the main segments of their 3-minute video in two to three hours. Another hour might be spent shooting B-roll or searching the Internet for video clips, animations, photographs, maps, and illustrations to augment the filmed segments. After a brief tutorial, editing might take another couple of hours.

Based on these estimates, the total time required to produce a rough cut is six to seven hours. Another couple of hours will likely be needed to polish or reshoot problematic clips. In other words, plan on spending (at a minimum) the equivalent of an entire day making your video.

As you gain experience, though, you will find that you can use your phone to shoot and edit a video on the fly. For example, when you are conducting fieldwork, it’s easy to shoot brief clips that are immediately imported into an editing program such as iMovie. While waiting for your electrodes to equilibrate or for sample bottles to incubate, you can do some trimming and editing of those clips. I can take this approach while on a field trip and have one or more videos ready to upload by the end of the day. See this example that I filmed with my iPhone:

Before I went to the site, I spent some time searching the Internet for information about the mangroves growing in the region. Armed with that information, I began planning the video (in my head) during the drive to where this mangrove stand was located on Yakushima. I spent around two hours at the site filming various aspects of the mangrove stand and jotting down notes about some of the plant characteristics I observed. I started editing this video on my phone with the iMovie app for iOS while I was on site and could retake any clips that needed improvement (I had to reshoot the segment in which I spoke several times).

As the story began to crystalize, I walked around shooting B-roll to illustrate important points to be made. By the time I was ready to leave, I had a rough cut of the video finished and ready to polish. After returning to my hotel room, I added voice-over to the video and also some images of maps and other items that I had to download or modify using my computer. Making this video was fun and informative and made the excursion to see this unique stand more memorable.

How long does it take to make a video? For me, the answer doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that I’ve made a video and, in the process, learned something new.

Use Video to Enhance Class Lectures

Video is a fantastic way to augment class lectures and let students see examples of habitats, organisms, and various physical/chemical/biological phenomena. Instead of just listening to a lecture about mangrove forests, students can go on a virtual field trip by watching a video. Quite a few educators are now using videos routinely to illustrate scientific concepts. The number of videos suitable to accompany science lectures is growing (here is a great list of videos for teaching ecology). Many of these are produced by professional filmmakers, but some are created by science practitioners and students.

Ecologists who work in different types of ecosystems and study various processes can make an important contribution to science education by making short documentaries (three to five minutes) focused on a particular topic. You may be doing research in an alpine forest, a grassland, or a coral reef. Or, you may teach a field course in a tropical rainforest or a desert. By shooting some footage and putting it together with a brief explanation, you can provide a unique insight into that ecosystem. If you get into the habit of creating short videos during such excursions, you will eventually build up a library of footage to augment class lectures. Students who take field courses or who are conducting field research can also produce informative videos in which they share their experiences and insights with other students or the general public.

I recently visited a unique ecosystem in southern Japan and decided to make a short video about it. I spent about two hours at the site shooting footage with my iPhone (attached to a monopod). I would have spent that much time anyway taking photos and just exploring the site. I additionally spent about five hours over the subsequent three days editing the clips (with iMovie) and incorporating information from the literature. Whenever I had a few minutes during my travels (waiting for a plane or bus), I trimmed the footage or searched the internet for information to include in the video. I did most of the initial editing on my iPhone, but finished the video on my computer using the desktop version of iMovie.

The resultant 4.5-minute video would be suitable to show in a lecture about climate controls on plant distributions or a more specialized lecture about mangrove ecosystems.

Now, some of you may be hesitant to make such a video, thinking that it will take a lot of time or will never be as good as professional science documentaries. Well, your videos don’t have to be of BBC quality to be effective. Also, you don’t need fancy equipment or a film studio to produce an informative and high-quality video. I used an iPhone 6 to film this video, which was rendered in high definition (1080p). As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the iPhone is easy to use to capture video, especially if you know a few basics. Movie-editing is also quite easy with applications such as iMovie. Video-sharing sites allow creators to easily upload their videos online where they are readily shared with others.

The main point here is that with a little effort, I was able to create a mini-documentary about a topic of interest to students and researchers studying mangrove forests. Students may read about the distributional limits of mangroves, but text descriptions are dry and often not very interesting. A video, on the other hand, takes the viewer across oceans to a remote site they will likely never have the opportunity to visit and creates a memorable example of mangroves growing near their northernmost limit. The video is also understandable by non-specialists who might travel to southern Japan and want more information about unique coastal vegetation found there.

Can You Explain Your Research to a Lay Audience—in 3 Minutes?

Imagine you are a scientist who has been asked to describe your research at a press conference to a gathering of journalists and the lay public. You are expected to explain not only what your research is about but why it is important and why the public should care about your findings. The press conference organizers are expecting you to present information that resonates with a lay audience. The idea is to minimize any use of data and tell a story that conveys the relevance of your work to society or perhaps what motivated you to conduct the research. And….you have only three minutes to get your message across.

The question is: Can you unlearn years of scientific training and be a more engaging communicator?

That was the challenge facing me and other participants at a science communication “boot camp” held at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. These boot camps are week-long events in which science professionals participate in various exercises designed to improve communication skills. During that week, we participated in improv exercises, a realistic TV interview, and preparation of the three-minute talk described above (view the full agenda here). The latter two exercises were critiqued and also filmed so that participants could later review their performances.

Our three-minute talks were developed during a series of exercises in which we gradually built and then honed our stories into (hopefully) effective and memorable talks. For some of us more accustomed to giving technical talks to colleagues, this exercise was difficult. We were pushed way outside our comfort zones. I was impressed, however, with how well all the speakers incorporated what they had learned during the workshop to produce creative and interesting presentations.

I decided to take the recording of my press-conference presentation and, with a bit of editing, produce a brief video for distribution on one of my websites devoted to the topic of wetlands—my area of interest. I used iMovie to trim the footage, to create cutaways (to photos illustrating some of the things I mentioned in the talk), to add text titles, and to change up the perspective a bit to make the video more visually interesting. If you are interested in learning more about movie-editing, check out my Tutorials.

The press conference was, of course, imaginary. Our audience was composed of workshop participants and organizers who played the role of journalists and who asked questions about what we presented. As you will see, I went a few seconds over my three-minute limit, but managed to get across my message:

What everyone discovered in this exercise is that it is difficult to “wing it” when trying to deliver a scientific message to an audience completely unfamiliar with the topic. What works for an audience of your peers will not work for a lay audience—or even an audience of scientists trained in other disciplines.

To be successful requires (1) an ability to distill your message so that it is clear and concise, (2) an understanding of what your audience needs in the way of information and emotional connection to the topic, and (3) some skill at storytelling. Giving professional talks at conferences to your colleagues will not really prepare you. A week-long course focused on science communication won’t do it either—although you learn a few things and get some preliminary experience. Like any skill, it takes practice to become comfortable explaining your work to the average person on the street.

Most science students receive little or no training in communication techniques and mainly learn how to talk to technical audiences. That is how I was trained. However, scientists are increasingly asked to speak to the media, to policy-makers, and to the general public about their research. Not everyone is cut out to be a science communicator, of course, but we can certainly improve our communication skills so that we can interact more effectively with lay audiences when the need arises.

Academic institutions are recognizing the importance of science communication skills and are developing curricula to meet this growing need (e.g., Communication across the Curriculum, Louisiana State University). Several science societies are also offering workshops at annual meetings that focus on improving communication skills by members (e.g., AGU). Some institutions have special centers, like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which offer intensive summer courses or workshops for anyone interested in acquiring new communication skills.

If you have the opportunity to take a science communication workshop or course, you should consider it, especially if you are a student or early-career scientist. Acquiring these skills early will benefit your career in the long-run. Also, you might discover that learning to distill your message, to consider your audience’s needs, and to use storytelling techniques can have beneficial feedback effects on your scientific writing and presenting.