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.