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As parents and teachers around the country adjust to a new year of largely remote schooling, many are looking for resources to teach effectively about a variety of topics. In the absence of hands-on science classes, parents and teachers can turn to the educational impact campaign associated with “Inventing Tomorrow,” a Peabody Award-winning film that has captured our hearts and minds since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2018. Directed by Laura Nix, “Inventing Tomorrow” follows high school scientists from India, Hawaii, Mexico and Indonesia—all driven to solve real environmental problems in their own communities—on their journeys to the International Science and Engineering Festival. The classroom materials use the stories of the students in the film to inform lessons for middle and high school students.

The film’s educational resources include a remote-learning toolkit and a series of virtual teacher town halls, held in partnership with PBS and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios (the editorially independent production company of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also served as co-producer on the film).

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios was deeply involved as a partner in the project, and—among many other things—the partnership is enabling the film team to distribute free DVDs to teachers and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and Canada. “We look to get involved in projects that are inspiring stories about science,” said Jared Lipworth, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios’ Executive Producer & Head of Outreach and Impact. “We’re looking for the stories of success that really focus on the moment of discovery and provide an optimistic, truthful look at how science works. . . From the beginning, this was a project that checked a lot of those boxes.”

And focusing on impact was at the core of the approach from the start: “With every project, we look at both the film and what other impact we can help generate,” Lipworth said. “From Day 1, we were thinking about the impact and the outreach campaign they were going to build.”

What makes their approach different is HHMI’s broad commitment to science education, said Dennis Palmieri of Impact Media Partners, who is leading the film’s impact campaign. “Other institutional funders who are funding impact campaigns are concerned about a range of areas, but they don’t have the kind of organizational throughline to this science commitment that HHMI has.”

We recently chatted with filmmaker Laura Nix about the “Inventing Tomorrow” impact campaign, how the COVID-19 pandemic led to strategic pivots, and the advice she has for funders.

Media Impact Funders: What are the main objectives of this impact campaign? We know that you started working on the impact strategy before the film was out, but did it change at all as you got deeper into the campaign?

Laura Nix: Just like the students in “Inventing Tomorrow,” we wanted to encourage young people to look around their own communities, identify a local problem, and use STEM to create a solution. We were inspired by the concept of “If you see it, you can be it.”

When we began our impact campaign in 2018, our objectives were to:

  • Support youth environmental literacy and stewardship
  • Promote equal access to high quality STEM education
  • Expand grassroots civic engagement around STEM
  • Champion active learning

In 2018, we conducted a program that included school field trip campaigns during our theatrical release, a series of educational screenings, and special events at conferences designed to get as many students and educators as possible to see the film. As a result, 10,000 students viewed “Inventing Tomorrow” through our outreach.

We developed lesson plans and resources in alignment with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), focusing on the film subjects’ experiments in the areas of air, water, and soil. We distributed 2,297 screening guides and 1,992 lesson plans to students and educators across the country, largely through the opportunities provided by the screening events.

Due to the interest we received from educators and students, we wanted to do more. In 2019, we launched the second phase of our campaign, expanding the program in conjunction with our domestic broadcast on POV/PBS.

For the launch, we created an educational toolkit, developed in partnership with STEM educators. The toolkit helps teachers integrate concepts from the film into the classroom and inspires students with hands-on STEM and STEAM learning, and includes:

  •  A free DVD with 87- and 55-minute versions of the film, courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios
  • Our lesson plans, available to download from PBS and the film’s website
  • Learning modules consisting of our online lesson plans tied to short film clips, on the PBSLearningMedia website
  • Screening guides
  •  An invitation to participate in documentary subject Sahithi Pingali’s WaterInsights citizen science project
  • A webinar created with POV that shares best practices for using the film in a learning environment and introduces all the elements in the toolkit

MIF: “Inventing Tomorrow” is a great example for how a film can find life long after its release. So while it has been screened hundreds of times around the world, it’s the educational curriculum you’re building out now that should have impact for years to come. How did you land on this strategy?

LN: Our goal has always been to reach educators and students in strategic locations across the U.S. who lack more advanced STEM programs in their high schools. This specifically targets  frontline communities—those that experience systemic socioeconomic disparities, environmental racism, and other forms of injustice which affect their civic power. These communities often suffer the “first and worst” consequences of toxic pollution, but their students are not often represented in the advanced science fairs.

We’ve found that the easiest way to reach these educators is to provide them with concrete materials to distribute. So after our PBS/POV broadcast in July 2019, which reached 2.2 million people nationwide, we decided to focus on new strategies for sharing our materials in the classroom.

In the fall of 2019, we developed a Teacher Town Hall program with Dennis Palmieri of Impact Media Partners, in partnership with 10 local PBS stations. The Teacher Town Halls are led by hand-picked “Inventing Tomorrow” ambassadors, many of whom are former State Teachers of the Year.

Each Teacher Town Hall includes training on how to use the film’s educational toolkit, along with hands-on active-learning resources: Foldscope microscopes and film subject Sahithi Pingali’s WaterInsights water testing kits. So far, the program has reached 400-plus educators in 10 markets around the country, from Nebraska to Texas.

Based on the success of the Town Halls, we decided to expand the program once again and improve our educational materials. This fall, we are launching the third phase of our campaign in partnership with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, which will expand to 12 PBS markets.

In this phase, we will revamp our lesson plans and learning materials in collaboration with research scientist Dr. Jessica Bean, incorporating her research from her program “Understanding Global Change.” We were inspired to revise our lesson plans to bring them into alignment with Dr. Bean’s mission so that educators can encourage students to identify problems in their own backyards and create STEM solutions.

We are also creating two new short films, cut down from the original film. Each is accompanied by a specific lesson plan, creating two new learning modules to empower young scientists to engage in careers that will sustain human populations and ecosystems around the world.

MIF: With teachers and students trapped at home for the time being, how are you making the campaign work right now for your target audience? Have you had to make any pivots in light of the pandemic?

LN: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we pivoted quickly, revamping our Teacher Town Halls from in-person to virtual events and retooling our educational materials for remote learning. We piloted this new approach with small groups of teaching professionals, which gave us the opportunity to refine our Virtual Town Halls for maximum impact in the current teaching and learning landscape.

For educators finishing the school year via remote learning, we began offering a streaming option of the 55-minute version of the film through our educational distributor Good Docs. Educators can still order the DVD on the Good Docs website or via the PBSLearningMedia “Inventing Tomorrow” curriculum page and the film’s website.

MIF: You’re telling a story about how young people can make a difference essentially from their own backyards. How do you share that message at a time when communities across the U.S. are in conflict about the role of science and evidence in our lives?

LN: It is critical that we move the conversation about climate change and other environmental challenges out of the realm of political and social opinion and replant it firmly within the arena of fact-based scientific evidence.

In the next phase of our impact campaign, we are initiating a robust social media campaign titled “Explain It with Science.” This new initiative builds upon our previous social media efforts, during which we grew our Facebook presence to 18,163 followers and garnered 25.91 million social media impressions.

The goal of this program is to spark conversations about how the quality of human life is connected to environmental resources; how we know the world is changing; and how we can design evidence-based, scientific solutions to create a sustainable future.

The campaign will focus attention on media stories to help educate, connect and inspire students to work and think as young scientists. It will also contain a customized social media toolkit for educators, students, organizations and other stakeholders; online and at-home activities; and a series of original graphic images that present scientific evidence in basic terms about climate and other environmental changes that harm ecosystems and human health.

MIF: How have you been assessing the impact of this campaign? Can you give us some examples of impact?

LN: Overall, we have assessment and evaluation built into all our programs. For example, after each Town Hall, attendees fill out surveys created by science educators that ask them about the effectiveness of the Town Hall and their experience using the materials in the classroom. As we finish up our first round of Town Halls, we are also conducting a thorough evaluation of the program to assess impact and inform our upcoming second round.

Perhaps the most exciting and moving information we have discovered is the program’s impact on young people. In one focus group, students reported feeling awe as they witnessed the film subjects tackling big environmental issues in their communities, noting both their ability and their sense of civic responsibility. Research around the emotion of awe shows it as an immense feeling that forces the brain to accommodate new ideas. Our young viewers were able to connect to the subjects because they were “just like them,” which both allowed a greater degree of empathy and expanded their sense of what is possible.

For our new curriculum and learning materials, we will pilot them with a group of teachers who will give feedback before they are completed. We are also partnering with the Chief Science Officers program of the SciTech Institute, a STEM leadership program led by high school students from around the world. The CSOs will give us input on the new lesson plans as they are being developed. After the final Teacher Town Halls, we will follow up with teachers using the materials in the classroom, employing an evaluation program we are developing with the team at HHMI Tangled Bank Studios.

MIF: Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has been instrumental in funding the impact campaign for this film, including its Tangled Bank Studios serving as co-producer. Tell us about what that support allowed you to do, and what you want other funders to know about supporting this kind of work.

LN: HHMI Tangled Bank Studios’ support has been crucial as one of the film’s major funders, their underwriting of the free DVD program, and now their support of our expanded impact campaign.

Their ongoing sponsorship of the Free DVDs to Classrooms program has resulted in distributing free DVDs and streams of the film to 4,423 classrooms across the U.S. and Canada. We are thrilled HHMI is supporting the next phase of our campaign, which includes our expanded Teacher Town Hall program; Dr. Bean’s creation of a new extended curriculum and learning materials; two new short films extracted from the full-length film that focus on air and water; our “Explain It With Science” social media campaign, and a thorough evaluation process tailored to our program.

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios’ ongoing support will help us to reach thousands more students and educators with these programs and meet our expanded impact goals, which include:

  • Centering the voices and experiences of people of color and frontline communities
  • Helping students connect problems they see locally to global environmental issues

Promoting youth engagement in STEM as a path towards solving the planet’s greatest environmental challenges

I would share with other funders that this type of vital engagement often happens over many years’ time, so the team can evaluate what’s most effective and adjust accordingly. Doing this work means remaining flexible and open to changing your program based on what you hear in your evaluations.

The “Inventing Tomorrow” team is hosting two upcoming Teacher Town Halls, on Oct. 6 and Oct. 10. Check inventingtomorrowmovie.com for details about upcoming broadcasts. The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Media Impact Funders

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Media Impact Funders traces its roots back to the Council on Foundations, a longtime philanthropy-serving organization. Formerly Grantmakers in Film, Video & Television, MIF began on a volunteer basis in 1984 as an affinity group for funders interested in the power of film to highlight social issues. Reflecting changes in technology and media behavior over the past decade, it was renamed Grantmakers in Film & Electronic Media (GFEM) and formally incorporated in 2008 to advance the field of media arts and public interest media funding. It had 45 members and was headed by former MacArthur Foundation Program Officer Alyce Myatt. GFEM was renamed Media Impact Funders in 2012 and has since expanded its strategy to include a broad range media funding interests such as journalism, immersive technologies, media policy and more. Since that time, MIF has grown to more than 80 organizational members representing some of the largest foundations, and holds more than 40 in-person and online events yearly.