30 of the best science documentaries to watch with your students
Updated: Feb 17
As soon as I published my last article on science and math movies to watch with my students I started getting requests to provide a similar list for documentaries. Well, here it is! Like last time, I've sorted them into categories, including documentaries I don't recommend, those I haven't seen that are supposed to be good, and those that are worth watching, but not in school.
Source - Tailwind
Documentaries are a great way to introduce or explore topics in a way that takes full advantage of the captivating power of audio-visual media while maximizing educational value. That said, the length and depth of content needs to be chosen carefully for your class or you might hear that one student complain about "another boring documentary".
The following list is my selection of documentary films and series recommended for sharing with your students, sorted by topic to help you find what you need. I have personally watched each of these documentaries with my students at least once, so I'm confident they will work for you.
In order to take full advantage of these shows and movies, however, you should pre-watch them, and ideally, prepare discussion questions, fill-in-the-blank handouts, writing prompts, or something similar to keep your students engaged.
For classroom purposes, I've made recommendations for which subject and grade level I think would benefit most from watching each documentary. I've also included suggested discussion topics and links for viewing options, ratings (IMDB), and appropriateness (Common Sense Media).
30 of the best science documentaries for your classroom
1. Mythbusters (2003-2018) - Two special effects pros use science and engineering to put everyday myths to the test.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (8.3 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 9+)
If you've somehow avoided the Discovery channel for the past 20 years, you missed out on at least one great series in Mythbusters. Tech wizards Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman take viewer-submitted myths and put them to the test in entertaining and explosive glory. What makes this show great is the transparency and detail that goes into the testing process, which lends itself beautifully to helping students design better experiments. There are almost 300 episodes, but I highly recommend "explosive decompression", "ming dynasty astronaut", "bulletproof water", "killer tissue box", "concrete glider", "walking on water", "exploding water heater", and "phone book friction" (and that's just the first 5 seasons!). One thing to note, however, is that the show sometimes drags out the ending a bit and usually features 2 or 3 minor myths to test alongside the primary one. My advice is to pick one to focus on and fast forward through the others.
Best for: general science, physics, engineering
Topics to discuss: scientific method, experimental design, misinformation
2. Horizon / Nova (1964-present) - Long-running British/American docuseries on science and technology.
Links: Watch on BBC, Amazon - IMDB (8.6 rating) / IMDB (8.7 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 10+)
Horizon is a British documentary series that has been going strong for almost 60 years and has covered almost any science topic you can think of. The PBS series, Nova, borrows many episodes wholly or in part from Horizon, dubbing and editing them for an American audience. Both series are excellent, but I prefer Horizon, personally. Of the hundreds of aired episodes, only a few are available online, which is disappointing, but you can pick up DVDs of many others. I recommend "the secret you" on consciousness, "why are thin people not fat?" on obesity, and "what's killing our bees?".
Best for: all subjects
Topics to discuss: various
3. Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993-1998) - Science rules!
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (8.2 rating)- Common Sense Media (ages 7+)
It's silly and often ridiculous, but something about this 90s series struck a chord with millions of children and continues to be a hit with younger students. Bill Nye literally made science cool when I was a kid, and probably inspired an entire generation of scientists like myself. Nye has done a few updated series since then, but none have managed to capture the early magic of the original.
Best for: general science (elementary)
Topics to discuss: various
4. The Enemies of Reason (2007) - Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins exposes pseudo-science for what it is.
Links: Watch on Youtube - IMDB (8.3 rating)
In this two-part series, presenter Richard Dawkins takes aim at everything from astrology to homeopathy. In his view, such pursuits are not merely harmless activities to explore but dangerous threats to public health and scientific progress. He can be a bit aggressive and condescending at times, but I tend to agree with him more often than not. There's a lot to discuss for older students here, and it makes for an excellent debate post-viewing.
Best for: general science, TOK
Topics to discuss: nature of science, technology, pseudo-science, misinformation, scientific method, evidence
5. AlphaGo (2017) - Google's machine learning AI challenges South Korean prodigy Lee Sedol in a series of gaming matches.
Links: Watch on Youtube - IMDB (7.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 10+)
AlphaGo surprised me, not because of the outcome of the games, but because of the humanity it captures in telling this story of man versus machine. Lee Sedol - a quiet and thoughtful individual - is noticeably shaken by the abilities of the AI he is facing, leading to an exciting and unpredictable series of matches. With the recent advances and popularization of AI, this film is more relevant than ever.
Best for: computer science, psychology, neuroscience
Topics to discuss: artificial intelligence, learning, creativity, interaction between humans and machines
6. Connections (1978-1998) - A fascinating historical perspective on the development of modern technologies.
Links: Watch on Youtube - IMDB (9.3 rating)
Connections is a masterpiece of documentary storytelling available in 3 series shot over 20 years. James Burke narrates and stars in this whirlwind tour of the subtle events and historical changes that led to our modern conveniences. Don't let it's age put you off - Connections is exceptional content that even the most skeptical students should appreciate. The only problem with the series is that it can be hard to get your hands on it. You may be able to track down a set of DVDs if you are lucky, but some of the episodes are available for free on Youtube for the time being at least.
Best for: general science, physics
Topics to discuss: technological progress, engineering
7. Acid Test (2009) - Short film about a secondary problem associated with carbon emissions.
Links: Watch on Youtube - IMDB (7.6 rating)
At under 25 minutes, this documentary by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) quickly and clearly spells out the problems associated with ocean acidification. It all sounds pretty dire, but ends on a more hopeful note by suggesting that we can choose to fix this problem if we commit to replacing fossil fuels.
Best for: environmental science, chemistry
Topics to discuss: sustainability, climate change, ocean acidification, carbon emissions, fossil fuels, mass extinction
8. The Story of Maths (2008) - Professor Marcus du Sautoy covers the history of math from ancient times through to modern discoveries.
Links: Watch on BBC - IMDB (7.9 rating)
I don't show a lot of videos in math class, but this is one series I keep coming back to. I recently did an interdisciplinary unit with the history teacher where students learned about ancient mathematicians and showing this documentary fit perfectly with our plans. Marcus du Sautoy is very relatable and explains things in a way that even my youngest students (grade 6) can understand. One thing that I like to discuss with students after watching this series is how much math (and knowledge in general) must have been lost to time due to poor record keeping and language issues.
Best for: math
Topics to discuss: practical math, units, data management, transfer of knowledge
Earth and Space Science
9. The Planets (2019) - Professor Brian Cox explores each of the 8 planets that make up our solar system.
Links: Watch on BBC - IMDB (9.0 rating)
If you think you know all about the planets, you might just learn something new from this recent series. We are constantly discovering more about our planetary neighbours in the solar system and the connections between them. Brian Cox is always a pleasure to watch so strap in for a few more documentaries from him below.
Best for: astronomy
Topics to discuss: space exploration, the solar system, exoplanets
10. Wonders of the Universe (2011) - An exploration of all that cosmology has to offer.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (8.8 rating)
I told you Brian Cox would be back. In this series we get to explore some of the biggest ideas in physics, with full episodes dedicated to time, stars, gravity, and light. This is best shown to middle or high school students, but it's not hard to connect to your classroom content depending on what topics you are covering.
Best for: astronomy, physics
Topics to discuss: time, light, gravity, stars
11. Through the Wormhole (2010-2017) - Morgan Freeman narrates 8 seasons of space and philosophical exploration.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (8.6 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 12+)
A long-running series that delves into the mysteries of the universe from a variety of perspectives, often veering into the philosophical realm. Some episodes are better than others, but there's a lot to choose from here. The content can be a bit much for elementary and middle school students, but it depends on your classes. It's definitely worthwhile in high school, though.
Best for: physics, astronomy, philosophy
Topics to discuss: various
12. Cosmos (2014-) - A thrilling walk through science, history, and nature as an update to Carl Sagan's original work by the same name.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (9.3 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 10+)
The original series remains a timeless masterpiece, but this update and its sequel, possible worlds, make many of the same topics more relevant and more engaging for your students. The nature of the series involves jumping between subjects quite a bit, so it can be hard to nail down which topics you could show this for, but some episodes are more focused than others. My students particularly enjoy the animated sequences that describe the lives of famous scientists and the events that shaped history. If nothing else, you can spark some excellent discussions just by showing those clips. I recommend the episodes "hiding in the light", "sisters of the sun", "the electric boy", "Vavilov", and "a tale of two atoms". If you like the series, consider picking up the book.
Best for: general science, astronomy, physics, all subjects
Topics to discuss: various
13. Earth: The Power of the Planet (2007) - A thrilling look at the forces and systems that make our planet unique.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (8.7 rating)
Geologist Dr. Iain Stewart takes us around the world to understand how our planet works, with episodes on ice, volcanoes, the atmosphere, and more. My ESL/EAL students find the narrator's Scottish accent hard to understand, so put on the subtitles if you can. Any earth science unit could make use of this series, and it's suitably appropriate for students from upper elementary right through to high school. I particularly like to use it when discussing the layers of the atmosphere and the carbon cycle.
Best for: geology, earth science
Topics to discuss: nutrient cycles, atmosphere, water, natural resources, climate
14. Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story (2014) - An entertaining and informative look at food waste and what we can do about it.
Links: Watch on Youtube - IMDB (7.3 rating)
In this Canadian documentary, a couple tries to survive on nothing but discarded food for 6 months. In the process, they speak with experts on food waste and learn that this is a problem we can all solve. Students are often shocked to learn about how broken our food distribution system is and are sometimes motivated to do something right away. Also, unlike many environmental issues which are simply too big for students to do much about, food waste is something they can get to work on immediately. The film features some beautiful camera work as well.
Best for: environmental science, food science
Topics to discuss: agriculture, food waste, natural resources,
15. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) - Former vice president Al Gore's presentation on climate change.
Links: Watch on Amazon - IMDB (7.4 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 13+)
Say what you want about Al Gore, but he managed to explain climate change better than a generation of scientists and bring this issue to the forefront of our collective consciousness. The recent sequel was largely more of the same, but I still show the original every few years, particularly to younger audiences who aren't as familiar with the subject matter.
Best for: environmental science
Topics to discuss: climate change, carbon emissions, fossil fuels, the precautionary principle
16. Seaspiracy (2021) - An environmental activist dives into the world of commercial fishing to find that regulations and animal welfare standards are often ignored at sea.
Links: Watch on Netflix - IMDB (8.1 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 15+)
A widely available and recent Netflix documentary that exposes some of the issues with trying to regulate what goes on at sea. I've begun showing this as an alternative to the 2009 film The Cove about the killing of dolphins in Japan. It's more broadly appropriate for a global audience and has wide implications for the food we eat. Of course, there are biases and issues here, but these can be discussed alongside the film, particularly with older students. Also worth checking out is Cowspiracy (2014) on the practices involved in factory farming.
Best for: environmental science, biology, food science
Topics to discuss: food regulations, animal welfare, overfishing, ocean ecosystems, international policy
17. The Year Earth Changed (2021) - A short, uplifting story about nature's ability to rebound if we let it.
Links: Wach on AppleTV - IMDB (8.2 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 8+)
At just 48 minutes running time, this is a perfect film to show your elementary or middle school students. It follows a variety of species around the world as they take advantage of a world gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of human presence.
Best for: environmental science, biology
Topics to discuss: endangered species, human-animal interactions, ecology, wildlife management
18. Sharkwater (2006) - The late Rob Stewart's personal journey to expose the global shark fishing industry.