Honors Seminar 200-0006: Biology in the Movies (2 credits): Course Syllabus


Instructor: Dr. Christopher Rose


Office hours: Mon 1-4, Fri 8:30-10:30. Look for me in my lab if I am not in my office. If you cannot attend at these times, email to make an appointment in one of the following time periods: Mon before 10, Tues 12-1 or after 2:30, Thurs after 12 or all of Friday.


Office: Burruss 213         Lab: Burruss 339

Phone: 568-6666            email: rosecs@jmu.edu


Course webpage: http://csm.jmu.edu/biology/rosecs/HonsBioMovies3.html


Adding/dropping class: Policy and deadlines can be found at http://www.jmu.edu/syllabus/


Disabilities: Policy and deadlines can be found at http://www.jmu.edu/syllabus/


Attendance policy: Since this class is based largely on discussion and watching movies, attendance is mandatory. Failure to attend two classes without valid excuses will result in a reduction of your final grade by one letter; this policy is cumulative.


General description:


Science as an institution is highly trusted by society, and viewed as the primary means to improve our daily lives and save us from disasters, disease and the ravages of old age. At the same time, scientific theories, breakthroughs, and predictions are often treated at best with misunderstanding and doubt, and at worst with mistrust and emotional recoil. Part of this paradox can be attributed to popular culture. Hollywood has long exploited biology as a source of bankable plot material. Novelists and filmmakers frequently capitalize on the publicity generated by recent scientific discoveries to produce books and movies with science-based plots that are timely, engaging, and at some level credible to an increasingly aware public. Because of their mass appeal, such books and movies play a significant role as disseminators of scientific information and misinformation. This course uses Hollywood movies and novels as a starting point for understanding scientific phenomena from a scientist's point of view and for appreciating the forces that shape the public understanding and perception of that science.

This lecture and discussion course will focus on biological phenomena selected from the following: cell and gene-level modifications of animals and humans, genetically modified foods, cloning, genetic engineering and designer babies, evolution theory, evolutionary history of life, human evolution, humans and the environment, humans and disease, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life and intelligence, human sexuality, alternate conceptions of life/organism design, consciousness and perception of reality, and science, health and public policy. These phenomena will be researched and discussed with five goals in mind.




1. for students to gain an informed and accurate understanding of each scientific phenomenon and to learn how and why the particular science is done or is important from the scientists' viewpoint.


2. for students to critically evaluate the relationship between the real world science and the way that science is portrayed in movies and novels. This requires students to research the additional information that would be necessary to support or understand the scientific event, theory, process, etc. as portrayed in movies, or to expose the theoretical flaws or technical limitations that would make it impossible.  This research might also reveal previously unappreciated parallels between the fictional and real world science.


3. for students to appreciate movies as a form of rhetoric, i.e., a narrative device that impacts how the viewer thinks about and responds emotionally to the science being conveyed. The course will consider how science is portrayed in movies in terms of the amount, accuracy and plausibility of scientific information conveyed, the objectives of the science, and the net balance between positive and negative outcomes for society in general. It will also consider how scientists are portrayed in terms of character, motivation, ethics, and value judgments, and their ability to control their science and exploit it for its intended purposes.


4. for students to develop interdisciplinary research skills by searching for, critically analyzing and synthesizing information from peer-reviewed papers and texts in biology, sociology, bioethics and media journals.


5. for students to enhance their oral communication and creative writing skills by producing a research presentation and paper on a topic of their choice that integrates material from the fields of natural science, social science and/or humanities and that demonstrates some ability to synthesize information into an original perspective, thesis or point of view.


Course structure:


The course is introduced with the professor demonstrating the format for student presentations with discussions on the topics of cellular chimeras and genetic engineering in human society.

The body of the course to have students work either individually or in pairs to develop research projects that will culminate in presentations and papers. This occurs in multiple steps: selecting a biological topic, meeting with the professor to develop a focus for the topic, selecting a number of movies (usually one to six depending on the topic), generating an outline of subtopics and research strategies (including what you want to learn from watching the movies), and then proceeding to do the research, write a paper and give a presentation on the topic and its portrayal in popular culture. Students are encouraged to incorporate ideas and information from other forms of popular culture (art, novels, comics, mythology, history) into their discussions. Students are also encouraged to design and carry out their own surveys for registering the impact of watching movies on the public understanding of science. Topics and movies are chosen in consultation with the professor, and the professor assists in generating an outline of subtopics and research activities. The professor also helps provide the scientific background needed for all students to understand the relevant concepts before or during the class discussions. Presentations will involve showing parts of one or more movies (60 minutes are available per student) on Tuesdays, and oral presentation plus class discussion (30 minutes are available per student) on Thursdays.

The course concludes with lectures/discussions on the nature of science and scientists as they are portrayed in movies and literature, and how this portrayal might influence the public opinion and understanding of science.


Lecture and film schedule:



Tues, Thurs

lecture topic or film on Tuesday

lecture topic or film on Thursday






Jan 10, 12

Introduce course, hand out (questionnaireIntro)

Professor gives background lecture on Introduction to Genetics and Developmental Biology


Jan. 17, 19

View 1958 version of The Fly (questionnaireFLY1958)

Professor leads class discussion of Reconstructing life: cellular chimeras


Jan. 24, 26

View GATTACA (questionnaireGATTACA)

Professor leads class discussion of Genetic engineering in human society


Feb. 31, 2

Class brain-storming of presentation topics and relevant films, novels, and other sources

Students select topics, and meet with professor to develop research objectives, make film choices and order/locate movies. Guide for researching and preparing your presentation and paper


Feb. 7, 9

View film 3.

Professor leads class discussion of film 3.


Feb. 14, 16


Student/groups meet with professor to discuss progress made on research objectives and movies viewed, and to finalize research plans.


Feb. 21, 23

Student film viewing Day 1: Alicia: organ transplants

Student presentation Day 1


Feb. 28, Mar 1.

Student film viewing Day 2: Sarah: ET intelligence

Student presentation Day 2, Progress reports are due.


Mar. 6, 8




Mar. 13, 15

Student film viewing Day 3: Taylor and Silken: alternate realities

Student presentation Day 3


Mar. 19, 22

Student film viewing Day 4: Lauren: cloning

Student presentation Day 4


Mar. 27, 29

Student film viewing Day 5: Carl: disease

Student presentation Day 5


Apr. 3, 5

Student film viewing Day 6: Andrew: AI

Student presentation Day 6, Assigned reading will be given out.


Apr. 10, 12

Class discussion on how science is portrayed in films. Assigned reading will be given out. Research papers are due.

Class discussion on how scientists are portrayed in films.


Apr. 17, 19

Students view an unidentified movie in class


Students write an in-class essay on unidentified movie


Apr. 24, 26

Class discussion on unidentified movie and class debate on whether the representation of science in popular cultures matters for the future of society.

Discussion of class essays and review


April 31-May 4




Course time and place: Class meets on Tuesday 9:30-10:45 if no movie and 9:30-11:30 if movie, and on Thursday 9:30-10:45 in Miller G029.


Questionnaires and reading assignments: For the introductory class and first two films, students are required to complete a questionnaire and hand it in to me before the next class period or immediately following the screenings. Reading assignments will be handed out on the class day before the day of discussion. Students might be asked to complete a small writing assignment based on the reading, which will be due on the day of discussion.  


Recommended (but not required) texts:

"From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature," by Roslynn Haynes

"The Science of Jurassic Park" by Rob Desalle and David Lindley

"The Biology of Science Fiction Cinema" by Mark C. Glassy

"Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films" by Leroy W. Dubeck, Suzanne E. Mosher, and Judith E. Boss

"Hollywood Science, Movies, Science and the End of the World" by Sidney Perkowitz


Grading and exams: Grades will be based on the research progress report (10%), research presentation and research essay (40%), an individual in-class essay based on an unidentified film (10%), class participation (10%), questionnaires and reading assignments (5%), and a final exam (25%). The exam will test basic understanding of concepts and ideas raised by the films, class discussions, student presentations and readings.


Grading of student research activity, progress report, presentation and essay: Each student is required to work individually or with a maximum of one other student to research the treatment of a particular scientific topic in movies and develop their research into a 25 minute (per student) presentation plus class discussion and a 10+ page double spaced essay on their topic. The decision to research, write and present a topic as a group is entirely up the student. Students who choose to proceed as a group are also choosing to accept the risks and limitations inherent to group activities at the start of their commitment and the professor is not responsible for groups encountering problems of divisiveness, unbalanced individual performances, or difficulties coordinating activities. Essays done by groups should be at least 15 pages long, but need not be 20 or 30 pages long. The content and format of both presentation and paper will be developed in consultation with the professor. Students are expected to view the minimum number of movies deemed appropriate by the professor for their choice of topic. Students/groups will choose one or more film excerpts totaling no more than 40 minutes per student to show in the Tuesday class period before their presentation. Students/groups are strongly encouraged to be creative with their presentation formats, e.g., have class debates or panel discussions on key issues, to incorporate ideas and information from other forms of popular culture (art, novels, comics, mythology, history) into their discussions, and to design and carry out their own surveys for registering the impact of watching movies on the public understanding of science. The early development of the presentation and paper will be graded on the basis of preparedness for the two meetings with the professor scheduled during class time and a two page progress report received by March 3 that provides evidence of the thought and research activities undertaken during the first four weeks.  The final presentation and paper will be graded collectively on the basis of 1/ research effort, 2/ organization and style of oral and written communication, 3/ depth and breadth of coverage of the relevant scientific information, 4/ how well the objectives established for the topic are met, and 5/ ability to develop an original perspective, point of view, or thesis. Presentations and papers are graded collectively to accommodate the differences in time available for students to prepare presentations and to respond in papers to comments raised during presentations. If necessary, within-group performances will be also graded using a within-group peer evaluation system.


Final letter grades: will be assigned using the standard numerical scale (e.g., > 90 = A, 80-89 = B, etc.). Grades of WP and WF will not be given out in this class.


To access movies for research projects: Students are requested to check in this order the following sources: the professor (if I do not already own it and if you ask early enough, I might order it for the course), the JMU library (students can borrow movie DVDs and vidoetapes for 2 days), the Harrisonburg City library, rental boxes, and Netflix if you have a membership. To see what movies are available from the professor and the JMU library, click here.


Missed classes, exams and deadlines: If you have a valid excuse (school-recognized religious observation; official school business; job, court or graduate school interview; sickness with doctor’s note; death or serious illness in family) for missing a class, exam or assignment deadline, contact me by email at least three days before the date in question and you will either be given an extension or make-up exam or have your grade calculated on the basis of the remaining evaluations. If you do not have a valid excuse or fail to contact me three days before the date, your grade will be zero. Failure to attend two classes without valid excuses will result in a reduction of your final grade by one letter; this policy is cumulative. Students who miss class are expected to come to office hours to make up the missed material.


Inclement weather policies: Missed classes and labs will be made up at times to be announced at the next class meeting. On days when the start of school is delayed past the start of a class, the professor will announce by email whether the remainder of the class will still be held as scheduled.


Religious observation accommodations: Policy and deadlines can be found at http://www.jmu.edu/syllabus/.


Honor Code: All students are expected to be familiar with and abide by the JMU Honor Code (http://www.jmu.edu/honor/code.shtml). Forms of academic dishonesty include cheating on tests or homework, lending your work to another person to submit it as his or her own, reporting false data, selling or uploading unauthorized documents from a class, deliberately creating false information on a works cited or reference page; and plagiarism, presenting another person’s writing, ideas or results as your own, whether intentional or not. Work submitted for this course must be your own and written for this course. To avoid plagiarism in writing, paraphrased and quoted materials must be properly cited in the text and referenced in the bibliography (see above); unnecessary or excessive use of cited direct quotations will be penalized; use of uncited direct quotations will be treated as plagiarism.


Consult the following websites for information on educational rights and privacies:

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974

FERPA for Parents

FERPA for Faculty

JMU compliance with FERPA

Return to Chris Rose's Personal Webpage

Return to Faculty Home Page

Return to Biology Home Page