Everyone on the USAT staff LOVES documentary films. Due to advancements in film-making technologies and science visualization starting in the 2000s, such as tiny cameras that can take us into a scorpion den and incredible computer modeling of the scientific concepts, the documentaries of today bear little resemblance to what we all sat through when we had a substitute teacher in Biology. This is a great example of where different aspects of STEM can come together. New technologies have been engineered in order to answer scientific questions and share those results with a wider public.
Documentaries are also a great way to get kids interested in the world around them when they are having trouble getting excited about STEM. If students are going to be using devices such as tablets and cell phones anyway, why not infuse that experience with some well-chosen content? Plus, watching something together is a great way to build camaraderie in a team. So get your team together, grab some popcorn, and have a great time learning together.
The three of us behind the program have literally spent hundreds of hours watching documentaries on animals, the history of scientific innovation, astronomy, physics, you name it! Below is a list of documentaries and their websites that we recommend for middle school students. Many of these can be found at your local library or borrowed through interlibrary loan, so don’t fret if you don’t have the channels or services listed below.
Hidden Kingdoms (2014) “This is a series about the tiny animals of the forest and jungles. Seen from their perspective, we experience a life where almost everything is a giant.” Narrated by Stephen Fry. USAT says: This series took us totally by surprise. It is fascinating to watch tiny animals such as the sengei and the measures they have to take to survive. Airs: Last aired in August on BBC One, but available on Netflix streaming and Amazon for purchase. Visit the website
Life in the Undergrowth (2005) “David Attenborough’s ground-breaking exploration of a group of organisms that are vast in number, yet often too small to be noticed: the invertebrates.” USAT says: The lives of insects are much more complex and interesting than you could have imagined. Seeing them up close through this series gives you a new respect for these creatures that were the first to walk on land. Airs: available on Amazon streaming. More cool stuff on their website
Nature’s Great Events (2009) “Documentary series looking at the most dramatic wildlife spectacles on our planet, showing how life responds to natural events which can dramatically transform entire landscapes.” USAT says: This series focuses on the power of the seasons and how forces like weather and tides can influence huge migrations of wildlife. Airs: Currently there is no future air date listed on the BBC website, but it is available on Netflix streaming and Amazon for purchase. You can also check out their website for more information and clips.
Planet Earth Series (2006) “David Attenborough celebrates the amazing variety of the natural world in this epic documentary series, filmed over four years across 64 different countries.” In the American version, Sigourney Weaver is the narrator instead of Attenborough, and we actually prefer this version. USAT says: This is an incredible series that is visually stunning in addition to being very informative. People who don’t like shows about nature will still love this. Airs: on BBC One, plus clips on the website and available on Netflix streaming
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014) “Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, COSMOS will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It will bring to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge and transport viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale. COSMOS will invent new modes of scientific storytelling to reveal the grandeur of the universe and re-invent celebrated elements of the legendary original series, including the Cosmic Calendar and the Ship of the Imagination. The most profound scientific concepts will be presented with stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience.” USAT says: We can’t say enough good things about this series. It integrates scientific principles, the stories of real people who developed them, stunning representations of the inner workings of celestial bodies such as black holes and nebulae, and is really easy to follow. It pays homage to the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan, but tells different stories and reports on new discoveries since the original series came out in the 1980s. Airs: National Geographic channel as well as others (check local listings). It is currently available on Netflix streaming and on Amazon for purchase. You can watch clips on the website.
Earth: The Power of the Planet (2007) “Dr. Iain Stewart tells the story of how Earth works and how, over the course of 4.6 billion years, it came to be the remarkable place it is today.” USAT says: This is a great way to understand the inner workings of the Earth. The series explores topics such as the atmosphere, volcanoes, and how our unique position in the solar system allows life to flourish here. Airs: It originally aired on BBC Four, and there is no information about when it will air next on their website, but it is available on Netflix streaming and Amazon.
The Universe Collection (2012) This on-going series made by the History Channel covers a wide range of topics such as the Mars rover, the biggest catastrophes Earth has ever faced, the coldest places in the universe, the facts we know about intelligent extra-terrestrials, and much more. USAT says: A variety of scientists in different fields stop by to give their take on a huge range of topics. They often do demonstrations and experiments as well as using computer graphics to illustrate their points. It is definitely a fun mix of topics. Airs: New episodes air on H2, the History Channel’s second station. Season 1 is available on Netflix streaming, but you can also watch full episodes on the show’s website
How We Got to Now (2014) “is a six part documentary series that reveals the story behind the remarkable ideas that made modern life possible; the unsung heroes that brought them into the world – and the unexpected and bizarre consequences each of these innovations has triggered.” USAT says: We finished watching this mini-series and went right back to watch it again. This is the history of ideas as well as the history of individual technologies that we now take for granted. It uses over-arching topics such as our relationship to cold, the development and uses of glass, and how we relate to time. Airs: You can watch it streaming from PBS.com or on Netflix streaming.
Mythbusters (2003-present) This program employs physics, mathematics, robotics, history, and explosions to explore urban myths, movie special effects, and events in history. USAT says: This is hands-down one of our favorite shows of all time. The hosts are great and accessible, the content is really fun to explore, and they do a good job of explaining their scientific methodology and math in a way that makes sense. It is pitched at a level that is very kid-friendly. Airs: The show will return in 2016 to the Discovery Channel for its final season, but in the meantime you can watch clips and some full episodes on their website or purchase episodes on Amazon streaming.
Particle Fever (2013) “For the first time, a film gives audiences a front row seat to a significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough as it happens. Particle Fever follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation.” USAT says: You don’t have to be a physicist to appreciate this easy to swallow peek into the power of the smallest unit, the particle. It is really cool to see so many people coming together to make the world’s largest science experiment. Airs: You can download it through the website for $14.99 or watch it on Netflix streaming.
Winning isn’t everything, but it is a shame when a team misses an opportunity to get points because of an oversight.Here are a few ways to help your students excel during the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box round.
1.Read the Prompt thoroughly. The P.A.R.T.Y. challenges are never longer than one page. Even though 45 minutes isn’t a long time to do everything needed to develop a skit, it is worth a team’s time to read the prompt more than once.
2.Look at the scoring rubric. It is not a mystery how the performances are going to be scored, the scoring rubric is included on the team copy. Unless penalties are assessed, each performance scores a minimum of 30 points, because we don’t believe in zeroes, and a maximum of 117 points. Some categories stay the same, and others change depending on the story being told. Each section of the “Team’s Use of Materials” category is always worth a maximum of 10 points, for instance, and is about the appearance of costumes and sets. The section with the largest potential for earning points always centers on the plot, and the team’s ability to address the central problem. On its own, this part is worth up to 25 points. Some prompts also require teams to do something specific, like recite a poem or add music, and if gets left out it can mean a loss of 10 points.
3. Take notes. Every Meet there are teams who have to prepare their performance during the first Tri, which means it can be hours between seeing the prompt and when the performance finally takes place. Even though teams can’t take the prompt with them in order to ensure that no other team gets an unfair advantage, there is no reason they can’t take notes about what they are going to do in their skits. In the excitement of performing, kids can sometimes forget their lines and leave out something key to their story. These notes can be kept “back stage” and referred to during the performance to make sure that nothing important gets forgotten. Another place where these notes can come into play is if the team uses a narrator, who can hold onto them during the performance and refer to them throughout.
Just like a character’s costume, the props they use can make people with certain occupations easily recognizable. A person wearing a tie is some kind of professional, a person with a tie AND a clipboard is probably an inspector. A person wearing a baseball hat could just be a fan, but if they are also carrying a glove or bat, that will do even more to make identification by the audience possible.
In some cases, the right prop can also replace a costume. But, if this is your team’s approach, that should also mean that props get enough attention. If you are going to use a single object to tell us everything we need to know about a character, you had better make it a good object. Here a few examples of props that can help you tell the story, even if there is no costume to aid you.
1. Wands- witches, wizards, fairy godmothers and the like all carry these magical sticks. Oftentimes, teams get drinking straws in their boxes, which can serve as a basis for a wand. But don’t just point a straw at your foes, make sure to add something like a star to the end, or have another person throwing bits of paper to show that magic is coming out of it.
2. Scrolls- Some prompts explicitly call for a narrator, but really you can add this pseudo-character to any story. One benefit is that they do not necessarily need a costume, but they do a lot to tell the story and keep it on track. If you do have a narrator, give them a scroll with the script or even just an outline of the skit so they can keep the action moving if someone drops a line, or make sure to keep important parts from being left out by mistake. A bard, herald, or even a royal cook on her way tot he market in the Medieval age could carry scroll as well.
3. Weapons- There is no official policy against violence in the P.A.R.T.Y. performances, but in general we have found that judges respond better to humor than to drama or violence. But, that doesn’t mean that weapons can’t be employed to help tell your story. Even without any armor, a person carrying a broadsword is probably a knight. Maybe your cowboy doesn’t have a ten-gallon hat, but he does have a six-shooter that he pulls on the bad guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an alien who carries a ray gun, either.
Another interesting thing I noticed in my own USAT days, as well as during judging, is that oftentimes the idea for the answer to the prompt comes from the materials available. More than once I have seen multiple teams decide to have a wizard in their skit because there was already something that looked like a wand in their box. On one hand, this is a good thing and they were able to make a quick decision and execute it. On the other hand, the three similar skits blended together in the minds of the judges, which made it harder to judge them individually and made them seem less creative than they really were.
To be safe from this problem and to get noticed, it is a good strategy to alter any object at least in some way before using it in a skit. If the long, shiny thing just screams “wand” at you, at least make the handle longer or have it make a silly noise when you’re using it. In general, seeing something used for something other than its intended purpose will be more memorable, and so be more likely to earn you more points. For instance, it is much more interesting to see a milk carton as a hat than to see it being used to pour imaginary milk.
My own teams never made it to State, but we sure had a lot of fun! But, for some teams, the competitive aspect of USAT is part of the experience and enjoyment of participating. For my final installment of this series, I will be posting P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Time: Close Reading in order to give some tips about maximizing points during this round of the competition.
People spend a lot of time thinking about their own appearance. We wear make-up, iron our shirts, match our socks and do all sorts of things ranging from meticulous to menial when it comes to how we look. Humans make snap judgements based on how someone is dressed all the time, and there are ways for students to tap into this and use it for their own benefit during a P.A.R.T.Y. skit.
If you have ever watched these short plays, you will have seen at least one student put arm and head holes into a garbage bag and wear it as a costume. The opaque trash bags certainly cover a student’s street clothes, but it doesn’t really do anything to inform the audience about who they are supposed to be seeing instead. This is where accessories become indispensable. With only a short time to prepare the skit and a short time to perform it, teams can’t afford to leave the judges guessing. There are many small, easy to make pieces that can be added to costumes in order to inform and delight the audience. And don’t forget, there is no rule that says the backdrop paper can’t be used in your costumes.
1. Ties. Making an entire suit for a character would take a long time, but there are many people who become much more recognizable if they are wearing this kind of formal attire. Lawyers, business people, generic “dad” characters, etc could all be delineated by adding a tie. You can add further interest by making the tie colorful or dull, patterned or plain, crumpled or immaculate. And there are, of course, many different shapes for ties. Most people would see a bow tie and go straight to scientist (thanks to Bill Nye, the Science Guy), or within a line or two this person would be easily recognizable as The Doctor from Doctor Who. A cravat or bolo tie would paint a totally different picture.
2. Head gear. When you enter a room looking for a king, what would you expect to see? Well, a crown of course! Hats are another accessory that can do a lot to define your character and don’t have to take long to make, though a very elaborate hat will definitely get the attention of your judges. You can use head gear to show someone’s job. For instance, football players, motorcycle drivers and stunt people all wear helmets. You can also use hats to quickly tell your audience where they are in time. In the 1940s, no one would be caught dead without their fedora, for example.
3. Masks. Totally covering the face can be tricky because it could be hard for the judges to see your emotions, but in the case of becoming something other than human, a mask can be invaluable. Want your alien to be more alien? Give it a green face! Does your story involve a pack of wolves? A mask would be a quick and easy way to give your wolves ears and fur without having a full body costume. Masks can be held in front of the face, or held on by a strap made from paper and tape.
4. Anything worn on the torso. The audience and judges will mostly be focused on the faces of the actors, and the next biggest space near the face is the torso. Even if you don’t have the right pants or shoes, decorating the torso of your character goes a long way to informing your audience. The epaulettes of a general, or instance, go on the shoulders, and a few metals on the chest would make it easy to recognize that this person is in the military. Even if your sheriff is missing his hat, a yellow star on the chest will tell the audience they are looking at the law in these parts. Even an over-sized “Hi, my name is …” badge can add characterization, and often humor, to a skit.
5. Belts. Like hats, belts can tell you about a person’s job. Plumbers, handymen, construction workers, even Batman, have distinctive belts that can be recreated in paper. Add a couple plastic cups and you’ve even got a place to store paper wrenches and screw drivers.
6. Don’t forget the box! Besides the backdrop paper, another building material that teams often overlook is the box that contains their P.A.R.T.Y. supplies. This cardboard is much more valuable as component of a costume or prop than it is to make it easy to carry your stuff! Cardboard is rigid, so it can give the appearance of armor for a samurai or knight. It can add bulk to a strongman in a carnival, or be the basis for comically large clown shoes. This is one of the materials you can always count on getting in a Meet, so why not practice changing it into costume components?
Do you have other good ideas for adding distinctive accessories to costumes? Please leave us a comment by clicking the link below the title!
Next week, check out PA.R.T.Y. in Box Time: Props add Pop for more ideas!