Untamed Science' Brings the Solar System to U.Va.

August 10, 2009

Aug. 10, 2009 — The sun came out over Scott Stadium Thursday, allowing the sun to come out.

While rain earlier in the day had threatened to dampen a planned video shoot, the skies cleared in the afternoon, permitting a living astronomy lesson. Nine local middle-school students representing the eight planets and the sun in our solar system were arrayed the length of the David A. Harrison III field for an "Untamed Science" video filmed at Scott Stadium.

The "Untamed Science" team, a group of filmmaking scientists who record short, lively films to explain science to a young audience in ways that will captivate them, earlier issued a casting call for young volunteers who wanted to learn about science and video production.

"The students involved in the video were given the chance to actually be a part of their own educational curriculum," said Danni Washington, 22, an "Untamed Science" producer and on-air personality. "Isn't that awesome?"

Abbey Wheat, 12, a student at J. T. Henley Middle School who played Saturn, complete with a Hula Hoop for the rings, said she was excited about the experience because, while she had performed on stage, she had not been part of a video production.

"It's a different creative experience," she said. "Not everything has to be perfect as it was on stage. It was more comfortable than I thought it would be."

Matthew Toscano, 11, a student at Walker Upper Elementary School, was Mercury. "I enjoyed working with a lot of fun people," said Toscano, who was impressed with seeing the relative location of the planets. "And I learned a lot about the solar system. I could actually see each planet proceed in its orbit. It helped me to visualize it and it made more sense."

The sun was positioned at the edge of the end zone and the planets were arrayed down the football field, with Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars within 10 yards of the sun, Jupiter around the 15-yard line, Saturn around the 30-yard line and Neptune in the far end zone, a little beyond Uranus.

"We wanted to show the relative distance, the true perspective," Washington said. "We calculated the distances and worked up a formula to show it on a football field."

"Untamed Science" is in approximately 65 percent of the schools in America, according to Dan Bertalan, 59, director and behind-camera talent for the production. The show has its own Web site and is included as a DVD in science teacher's textbook guides.

In existence for two years, "Untamed Science" evolved from a science filmmaking initiative called Wild Classroom.

"It was started several years ago as an educational-based Web site for students and teachers that gained national recognition," Washington said. "Our dynamic videos captured the attention of the largest science textbook publishers in the country, who later requested that we replace the high school video series previously produced by Discovery Channel."

Bertalan said while most companies producing science films have separate writers, directors, producers and researchers, the "Untamed Science" staffers handle all their own tasks. They are all scientists from a variety of disciplines, and they write their scripts, handle a lot of their own camera work and film editing and block out the shoot.

"It's a group of filmmaking scientists who have gotten together to make independent productions," Bertalan said. "There are seven core people, six of whom are on camera. Their talents overlap in a lot of areas."

While each filmmaker brings his or her own style to the productions, they all work on keeping the approach fresh to attract youth.

"We want to weave action and adventure into discovering science, and motivate them with personal discovery," he said. "We want to give them ownership of the planet Earth and let them know that science is the solution to many of our problems as we move forward."

"I've always dreamed about this," said Washington, who produced a video of the oceans and marine life while a senior at the University of Miami. "It is a great opportunity to reach out and shape my passion for science."

"Untamed Science" has shot videos in several foreign countries, including Iceland, Borneo, Belize, Scotland, Sweden and Honduras, and most of the states of the Union. This was their first time in Virginia.

"Virginia was one of the states that had been selected, and we thought what better place to represent the state than the University of Virginia," Washington said.

Presenting accurate science on film shot under all sorts of unpredictable conditions is a challenge.

"Environmental filmmaking is a fun, demanding job," Bertalan said. "It is worthwhile shaping the next generation that will inhabit the Earth."

The solar system video will become part of many science curriculums. Students around the country will see not only local youth, but a bit of Scott Stadium as well.

For more information about "Untamed Science," visit www.thewildclassroom.com.

— By Matt Kelly