Dennis Liu January 26 2017

7 Videos That Use Beautiful Storytelling to Advance Science Education


Labocine showcases seven HHMI Biointeractive films and conducts an exclusive interview with Dennis Liu, Head of Educational Media and Outreach at HHMI.

HHMI Biointeractive

A nationally recognized expert in science education, Dennis Liu has directed the production of educational media at HHMI since 1997. Today, his team produces a wide array of educational products for the classroom and public audiences including lectures, short films, animations, virtual labs, and supplementary materials.

Before joining HHMI, Liu conducted research in neuroscience and genetics, earning a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Oregon and completing postdoctoral studies at the University of Washington, where he later assumed a faculty position in the Department of Genetics. Liu has taught courses in neurobiology, genetics, and comparative physiology, and has a passion for explaining science to all audiences. He has also been an advisor on numerous museum exhibits, and he writes a regular feature for the journal Life Sciences Education.

HHMI’s BioInteractive website provides a wide array of free science education resources for the classroom. They are produced by a core team of scientist-educators, graphic artists, video producers, and outreach professionals working in close collaboration with science teachers and undergraduate educators, scientists, film producers, animators, and programmers.

More about HHMI Biointeractive at

HHMI Biointeractive YouTube Channel

Interview conducted by Alexis Gambis, Executive Director of Imagine Science Films


Seeing Fireworks: A unique group of cells in the eye’s retina specifically detects the upward motion of objects, such as a ball thrown in the air or…fireworks.

I’m Dennis Liu, head of HHMI’s Educational Media and Outreach group, comprised of HHMI BioInteractive in support of classroom-based science education, and Tangled Bank Studios creating science documentaries for general audiences.

At HHMI BioInteractive, teachers are the driving force behind the content we develop. Our approach to making educational media began with the idea that we wanted to produce high-quality videos to convey the most important aspects of science to students. To do that, we work hard to make sure our films are useful for instructors, which means they are tied to the curriculum and short enough to leave time for discussion and other classroom activities.

I felt from the beginning that to have an impact we needed a team of people who understood science, science education, and media production. So I started building a team of talented educators, scientists, animators, and filmmakers.

Our films cover a broad range of topics in all disciplines of biology, but also environmental science, ecology, biogeography and earth science. We select topics that are covered in the high school and college curriculum, highlighting stories that we think best illustrate specific concepts and that will “stick” with students.

Our portfolio includes more than 30 videos (6-30 minutes) and over a hundred animations, all available for free on HHMI’s BioInteractive website. We tend to release a new video about once a month, although we don’t have any hard and fast rules about frequency of production.

The Cape Cliff lizard sports a bony body armor

Our focus across HHMI BioInteractive and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios is to help audiences understand how science works and why it’s important and to share some of the passion that scientists have for deciphering the natural world. Film is an important tool for engaging diverse audiences in the classroom and beyond.

Every film starts as an idea. Our ideas come from our network of scientists and science educators, but also from our review of important research trends and findings, and how they relate to great stories in science since EVERY research finding and idea has a lineage.

Moth Mimicry: Using Ultrasound to Avoid Bats

For HHMI BioInteractive films, we solicit teacher feedback when we premier our films at big educator conferences. Although we still produce DVDs, most people will see our films streamed online from our website or YouTube channel, or downloaded. After a film’s premier and promotion, we watch how it gains momentum and track the buzz on social media. Our strongest films typically climb to tens of thousands of views in the first months after release. A key thing that I look for is to see if the views are matched by an increase in use of the supplements because that’s an indicator that the film is being adopted by instructors and seen by students. Our Rock Pocket Mouse video is one of our most popular videos from 2011 and is still being viewed by tens of thousands each year, matched by continuing downloads of associated classroom activities.

When making our films, we’re completely focused on serving teachers and students and developing supplements that give the films legs into deeper learning. That said we’re also proud when the beautiful graphics our team makes are acknowledged and when the filmmakers’ craft is recognized with awards. Also, awards can give a nice boost for us and an opportunity to re-promote the film. And we value the important partnerships we’ve forged that convey our messages and films to fresh audiences.

In addition to our HHMI BioInteractive classroom videos, we have also worked with media outlets to promote science education. We produced a video in collaboration with The New York Times called “Animated Life: Seeing the Invisible” celebrating 17th-century scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microbes and we partnered with Nautilus magazine to produce a video series called “Think Like a Scientist.” While these series are more general in nature, we know they are often used in the classroom as well. The series as a whole celebrates scientific pioneers and discoveries that changed the way we see the world.

The Origin of Species: The Making of a Theory

HHMI BioInteractive films are produced first and foremost with educators in mind. Having said that, we recognize the importance of storytelling to engage audiences. We work with independent filmmakers and value that interaction as they tend to push us on the storytelling, while we push on scientific content and process fidelity. Usually, two to three HHMI staff will form a core editorial team that has lots of back and forth with a filmmaker commissioned to produce the piece. Once rough cuts and fine cuts of the film have been produced we bring in more staff to help review and audience test the film. We never compromise on accuracy and emphasize explaining the evidence that leads to a particular conclusion. 

Think Like a Scientist--Gorongosa

HHMI is the largest private nonprofit supporter of biomedical research in the country. We are also the largest nonprofit supporter of science education, and that is the focus of my group. We are immensely proud to be a part of HHMI and happy to have contributed to the reputation for fidelity, dedication, and quality. While our work benefits from the HHMI association there is no institute mandate that we feature HHMI research or scientists. We feature the best scientists for the stories we are telling. We engage very deeply with the scientists who star in our films; they review the scripts and often work with us on supporting materials.

The Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation

In the early days of HHMI BioInteractive, we were producing hour-long lectures by leading scientists. Those were used by educators to expose students to cutting-edge science that had not yet made it into the textbooks. Our first documentary-style film, The Rock Pocket Mouse, was produced in 2011. In just five years, our portfolio has grown significantly, and our films are now well known in the science education community. Educators appreciate the fact that they can trust the science but also engage students with highly produced, well-crafted stories. We are now experimenting with interactive videos, where students can engage with the content, and non-linear stories. Our advantage is that we have a strong team of scientific, educational and artistic experts working together to ensure that we produce relevant, up-to-date science concepts in clear, accurate and engaging ways.

Popped Secret: The Mysterious Origin of Corn

Most citizens view science as an enterprise for generating facts and eventually useful inventions. Most scientists—while not indifferent to practical benefits—are interested in ideas and concepts and in understanding how our world works. Each of these videos demonstrates how scientists think and how they do their work to help viewers enter into the spirit of the scientific endeavor for a few minutes. We hope they provide diverse examples of scientists at work and inspire people to embrace the scientific way of thinking. 

Animated Life: Seeing the Invisible

I’m always interested in meeting talented people with a deep background in science and in making connections that can make our work better and advance science communication in and out of the classroom. We welcome compelling, original science stories and are happy to hear ideas for classroom videos at