‘Amazon Adventure’ Film Brings Evolution to Life for Students

By Kate Stoltzfus — April 20, 2017 3 min read
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A leaf that can fly. Bird droppings that walk. A bright flower that becomes a spider. These were just a few of the onscreen marvels at the Washington premiere of the IMAX movie “Amazon Adventure” this week. And for many of the middle and high school science teachers in the audience, the film provoked planning for a school field trip to the theater.

“Amazon Adventure,” which made its official debut at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, will bring the Amazonian explorations of naturalist Henry Walter Bates to life in theaters across the country.

The film traces Bates’ 11-year journey through the Amazon rainforest as he searches for clues about how and why species—butterflies in particular—were changing and adapting over time to thwart predators. He was working in the same era as scientist Charles Darwin, and his challenges and setbacks as he looked for proof of what later became known as natural selection are illustrative of scientific methods in action.

But the science lessons are masked by a compelling storyline, which is key for keeping students engaged in learning that will stick with them, said co-executive producer Sean Carroll, who is also vice president of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (The institute’s HHMI Tangled Bank Studios produced the movie with SK Films.)

The 45-minute film has detailed footage of the Amazon that seems to thrust viewers into the rainforest--lush green vines crawling off the screen, a sloth dangling a tree branch, vivid butterflies that hover 3D in midair, miniscule insects captured up close.

“There are no cellphones, no distractions. I don’t think you can overestimate the value of being immersed,” said Carroll. “Often, we’re too worried in the classroom about understanding particular content. Let’s get them inspired first. All good teachers know that.”

Tama Hobbs, a science content specialist at Shady Grove Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md., was in the audience on Tuesday, but had seen a sneak preview two weeks earlier at the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conference in Los Angeles. After the second viewing, she had no doubts about bringing her students to see the film. While Hobbs’ classes study scientist Charles Darwin and “survival of the fittest” theories, she said they’d never talked about Bates.

“Our students don’t really think of scientists as real people,” Hobbs said. “You watch how Bates turns his childhood love into a lifelong passion. It’s an opportunity for them to see a scientist stick with a problem from beginning to end. They’ll see science doesn’t have to be in a laboratory. They can start with something they’re in love with and use that as their guide.”

Bates made lesser-known, but vital, contributions to the theories of evolution and natural selection in the 1800s. His work included a theory called Batesian mimicry (where animals develop traits of other animals in order to survive), which provided proof to his friend Darwin’s own evolution theories.

Though teaching of evolution in public school has often been cause for controversy, its coverage has become more thorough in recent years, according to a 2009 study. For three years, including a 45-day shoot near Manaus, Brazil, only reachable by airplane or boat, a film crew and more than 100 scientists and historical advisors worked on the film to make sure “Amazon Adventure” stayed true to its scientific history. The Natural History Museum of London also provided Bates’ scientific field notebooks and drawings, as well as an opportunity to film the butterflies he collected more than 160 years ago.

Because “Amazon Adventure” is meant to be useful for science learning, especially for grades 3 to 12, the film’s website has supplemental classroom resources such as fact sheets and downloadable posters on mimicry and camouflage; video lectures; curriculum outlines; and an in-depth film guide for educators with articles and quiz questions on key concepts, created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“Amazon Adventure” is now showing at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington and will be coming to IMAX theaters this year in Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, St. Louis, Tallahassee, Fl., and other locations. Educators can also request that their local IMAX theater screen the film.

ABOVE: Henry Bates (played by the actor Calum Finlay) and his guide Tando (played by the actor Begê Muniz) walk across a waterfall in the Amazon

Photo credit: SK Films

Related stories:

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Teaching Evolution Isn’t About Changing Beliefs (Opinion)

Evolution Coverage Improves, Review Finds

Corrected 4/20: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified naturalist Henry Walter Bates’ middle name.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.