For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, For Parents, Resources, STEM Education

USAT and STEM: Documentary Recommendations

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.

Natural History/Animals

Hidden KingdomsHidden 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 UndergrowthLife 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

Natures Great EventsNature’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.

planetearth-shark-103814Planet 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

Astronomy/Planetary Science


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 Power of the PlanetEarth: 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.

black_hole_by_vanishin-d32u47yThe 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 nowHow 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 or on Netflix streaming.

Kari Byron, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Tory Bellaci and Grant Imahara (from left)
Kari Byron, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Tory Bellaci and Grant Imahara (from left)

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-span-master675Particle 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.

For Coaches and Teachers, For Parents, Resources, STEM Education

USAT and STEM: The Role of Museums

Getting kids excited about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math can take many forms. They get a certain type of exposure to these subjects in school, but museums also offer great opportunities to explore these principles in a different setting and on a different scale. When kids interact with objects, be they the original things or exhibits that present their mechanisms, they can’t help but learn by doing. And these are the experiences that adults still remember long after their middle school years have passed. (If you would like to learn more about the impact of science centers on learning and personal growth, you should check out this meta study.)

In Minnesota alone there are several science and technology-based museums. The Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus, for instance, is a place for kids to learn about animals through dioramas and hands-on exploration of fossils. The Mill City Museum explores the history of industry on the Mississippi waterfront. You have probably never heard of the Bakken Museum, but it is a unique way to discover the power and uses of electricity and magnetism. The Works Museum in Bloomington is dedicated to the inner workings of machines and engineering, and the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St Paul is dedicated to the technology of getting from point A to point B. Of course, there is always the Science Museum of Minnesota as well.

“I would definitely say that the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) played a big role in my interest in science later in life. I had a great time visiting both the old building and the renovated one, so when I was looking for an out-of-the-box job for my final year of undergrad the SMM seemed like a perfect fit. I not only got to work in the Collections Department and the Big Backyard, but took some of the free classes they offered. I will never forget when I was first introduced to the concept of computer coding by learning how to write a simple program that turned LED lights on and off in the order I wanted. It turns out that coding is both easy and fun, and now there are so many different applications across diverse platforms. The possibilities for expanding this kind of technology are endless.”

~Alison Weaverdyck, Creative Director

And the best part is that the SMM still offers a variety of free classes for kids of all ages! This weekend the fabulous staff, as well as female scientists from around the state, will be celebrating women in science with their “Girls, Science and Technology” day. The demonstrations below are included in the admission price, but for one day only museum patrons can get FREE admission for up to four kids with the purchase of one adult ticket. Find out more on their website (link to embed:

On Saturday, November 14 from 10-4 you are invited to:

  • Learn how lungs work with ventilated pig lungs
  • Explore mathematics and learn how to calculate probability and percentages
  • Manipulate medical guidewires and stylets through human anatomy models
  • Bring magic to life with sensors and 3D printers, and learn how sensors improve and assist with our lives on a daily basis
  • Explore the properties of air with hands-on windbag activity
  • Touch real pig hearts and learn about the wild world of the heart
  • Play dentist and apply sealants to plastic teeth models
  • Create your own hoop glider and fly it down a runway
  • Discover what’s inside your mouth with intra-oral cameras
  • Learn about the mechanics and technology of robots with FIRST Tech Challenge
  • Find out what it’s like to do a weather forecast on the Fox 9 Green Screen

Looking to infuse your USAT practice with a little technology but don’t have time to take a field trip to a museum? Here are a few brainstorming and project ideas to get your triathletes in the right mindset.

  • Name things with batteries. If the batteries are removed, what else can be done with these items? Can they be taken apart and the components used for something new?
  • What are games that you play on a computer or smart phone? Do you play any games that are also available in another format, such as Scrabble? Which method do you prefer and why?
  • What are some things that computers can do that people can’t? What are things that people can do that computers can’t?
  • Choose an item of technology that students would use regularly, and ask them to research different components. For instance, we all ride in cars all the time, but how did we end up with rubber tires? What is anti-freeze made of? Do hubcaps serve a purpose?



Resources, STEM Education

USAT and STEM: US Science and Engineering Festival Resources

image via
image via

When we first had the idea for this series, we had planned to write a different post for each of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects. But, the more research we do into STEM initiatives, the more we see that this approach would be antithetical to the cause. The concept underlying STEM education is to give students the opportunity to do projects and ask questions that require more than one of these disciplines in order to answer them. You can use math to figure out how to answer a scientific question by engineering a piece of technology. for instance.

So rather than trying to tease out the individual subjects, we will be bringing you a series of resources to inspire our triathletes. In prior years, our program has mostly employed science and math in the Face-Off! round of each meet, but now you can expect to see more STEM appearing in Mind Sprints and P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box challenges as well. Alison Weaverdyck, our curriculum guru and head writer, has over 10 years experience working with kids in informal science settings, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and she has exciting new ideas for bringing science to life for middle school students.

In the meantime, you should definitely take a look at some of the resources available through the federal government for making STEM subjects accessible for the next generation. In 2014, Washington DC hosted the largest gathering in US history, and it was all about celebrating science. We can’t hope to encapsulate the experience of the 650,000+ participants better than the video created for their website, which is below.

This website for the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival (which is unfortunately on the same date as the US Academic Triathlon state meet) is chock-full of short videos that draw on the mission of STEM education. Speakers knew they would be addressing an audience of young people and tailored their subject matter and level of complexity to be kid-accessible. For instance, future scientists can learn about the physics of super heroes, how the film Fantasia inspired one scientist to improve the world’s visual science vocabulary, and how engineering concepts go into Nike footwear.

Those videos are available here and on the festival’s YouTube channel.

For Coaches and Teachers, For Parents, STEM Education

USAT and STEM: The Role of Creativity

If you are a parent or educator, you have probably heard the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) acronym thrown around a lot lately. This is due, in a large part, to studies that have shown a decline in interest in these subjects by American students. As a whole, our society will suffer from this trend as this generation enters adulthood without the tools to think critically and find ways to meet new challenges.

In response, federal and local governments, as well as independent philanthropic organizations, have implemented several measures and funding opportunities over the last few years. This takes the form of recruiting teachers trained in STEM fields, training existing teachers in best practices for integrating STEM into their classrooms, and funding for special projects that promote student interest in these intersecting fields.

At United States Academic Triathlon, we have always worked to provide our students with questions and challenges that span a variety of disciplines, including those represented by STEM. Over the next several weeks, this blog will feature posts that pertain to each of the four subjects, the ways the USAT addresses them, and creative ways to inspire students to embrace them.

During the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box portion of the competition, students are often asked to approach an old question in a new way, or think critically about the consequence of decisions
During the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box portion of the competition, students are often asked to approach an old question in a new way, or think critically about the consequence of decisions.

No subject exists in a vacuum, and creativity is something that can enhance any endeavor. After all, computers can do complex calculations but they will never be “inspired” to do them. It is curiosity that drives us to ask questions and seek to understand our world and creativity that provides us with a means of applying tools such as mathematics and engineering. As a species, we have done a great job of answering many of the questions that confront us in our daily lives, but there is so much more to learn. The “way it has always been done” is not necessarily the “best” way, and what makes something better than something else is completely objective.

The pursuit of new and creative solutions can result in failure, but this does not negate the journey. Oftentimes, these “failures” turn out to be successes – they are simply the answer to a different question. For instance, when the glue commonly used in sticky notes was created, the people working on it were trying to create an extremely strong adhesive. When they “failed” to make something super sticky they opened the door to possibilities of impermanent adhesives, and just one application now sits in desk drawers all over the world.

As parents and educators, the best thing we can do for the next generation is to help them stay curious and creative. This can take many forms. We can help them to research the answer to a question they ask, encourage them to read for pleasure, make them turn off their electronic devices in favor of going out into the world, or play games that require imagination. At the beginning of a task, ask your children or students how they would solve a problem. Even if you feel like you know the “best” or “right” answer, ask them for their opinions even if they might be totally outside of the realm of possibilities (fix the broken pipe with peanut butter? Probably not).

This type of interaction encourages them to think constructively and creatively, and reinforces a sense that their ideas matter. Only after they feel confident in their ability to ask and answer questions can they use tools like the STEM disciplines to answer them.