Filming Evolution: International Award for NUI Galway Student Documentary Project

Dr John Murray (centre, holding MEDEA Award statuette) and some previous History of Life student film-makers celebrate their win back in NUI Galway. Front row L-R: Orla Bath-Enright (2014, holding dinosaur skull), Alida Zauers (2015, holding clapperboard). Middle row L-R: Shane McQuillan (2019), Rebecca O’Connor (2015), Oscar Ryan (2018), Eavan Collins (2014), Weston Harding (2019). Back Row L-R: Bébhinn Anders (2015), James Burns (2019), Seán Wheeler (2014). Photo: Aengus McMahon
Jul 02 2019 Posted: 10:39 IST

An innovative project at NUI Galway which encourages students to explore the evolution of life on Earth through the medium of film has received a significant international teaching award. The History of Life film project was overall winner in the category for ‘User-Generated Education Media’ at the 2019 MEDEA Awards in Leuven, Belgium. It also scooped the ‘Audience Favourite’ prize amongst the shortlisted finalists, which was decided through a live vote taken by the international delegates attending the ceremony. The MEDEA Awards were established to recognise best practice in the use of media in education and are supported by the Media and Learning Association.

Since 2011, final year undergraduate science students at NUI Galway taking the class module History of Life, have worked in small groups to produce short documentary-style films on any aspect of evolution they choose. A diverse range of topics have been investigated by the student teams in the nine years the project has been running, including the origin of life on Earth, the evolution of the first forests and land animals, catastrophic past mass extinction events and the emergence of early human ancestors. These short films are then uploaded to a specially created YouTube channel, where they have reached a wide global audience online.

All past student film productions are available on the playlist section of the History of Life YouTube channel here:

The project was developed and is run by geologist and palaeontologist Dr John Murray from Earth and Ocean Sciences in NUI Galway, with continuing support from the University’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT).

Dr John Murray commented: “This teaching initiative is primarily an exercise in science communication; it allows students to enhance their learning through visual expression and experimentation. The message all of these student-produced films convey is an extremely important one - it principally concerns the story of where ultimately all life on Earth has come from, including humans.”

Dr Murray added: “The vast majority of the students who make these films have no prior training in film-making, nor do they have any production budgets. Neither of these factors have ever proven to be a limitation. The student teams have consistently risen quite admirably to the challenge and the very high levels of enthusiasm, imagination and creativity on display in these films has always been nothing short of inspiring.”

The finals of the 2019 MEDEA Awards took place in June in the historic Town Hall of Leuven, Belgium. The prizes were presented at the ceremony by recently elected mayor Mohamed Ridouani, who highlighted the position of Leuven as a deeply multicultural city with strong roots in the past. 

Entries to the MEDEA Awards this year came from all over Europe, as well as Australia, Canada, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the US. According to the judging panel, the History of Life film project “is a very good attempt to encourage students’ interest and curiosity in science and also to help in building their research, communication and presentation skills. The project already has quite a good database of videos that can be used for different purposes both from teacher and learners, both for classroom and individual use.”

Alida Zauers, an Earth and Ocean Sciences graduate from NUI Galway, created a short film examining the evolution of the beak in birds with a team of fellow students in 2015. She is currently Public Engagement and Outreach Officer at Tyndall National Institute, UCC. Congratulating NUI Galway on their awards, Alida Zauers said: “The History of Life film-making project was the first time I was exposed to science communications in my undergraduate degree, which ultimately led me to pursue a career in public engagement and outreach in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While it was challenging at times, I really enjoyed the entire process from start to finish. It taught me the importance of communicating science without the jargon and helped me realise how crucial communicating science to our peers and the public is. This project is vitally important in preparing students for what lies ahead in their future careers, and I hope it will be adapted and rolled out across all science disciplines in the future.”

A short film compilation explaining more about the project, which was premiered at the MEDEA Awards event in Leuven and features music by alt-rock Dublin band Empire Circus, is available on the History of Life YouTube channel here:


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