There is a time and a place for teaching science using a textbook, but wise educators know that students learn best when the material is presented to them in multiple ways. Students need opportunities to explore and to experiment with science.
Additionally, students need to understand how science concepts relate to them. Who hasn’t heard a student complain, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” A fantastic way to make science concepts relevant to students is by using science movies. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best movies and documentaries available that you can use to teach science.Disclaimer: Some of the following links are affiliate links. I make a small commission from some of the links on this site. You can read my full disclosure here.
Note: While an attempt has been made to include movie/TV ratings, parents should always determine whether a movie or documentary is appropriate for their children and aligns with personal family values.
Science Movies and Documentaries for Kids
Temple Grandin (2010)
Dr. Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and an animal behavior consultant to the livestock industry. She also has autism. This movie tells the remarkable story of Dr. Grandin’s life and the many struggles she faced growing up in a world in which little was known about autism. The film is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, but one thing is certain: Temple Grandin is an inspiration. Not only does this movie give a glimpse into the workings of the autistic mind, we also learn about the amazing advances to understanding animal behavior that we owe to Dr. Grandin. Rated PG.
The Lorax (2012)
The Lorax is a film based on the Dr. Seuss story of the same name. The animated movie takes place in a world in which trees no longer exist. The protagonist Ted lives in a walled city in which everything is artificial, made of plastic, metal, and other synthetic material. Outside of the city, there exists nothing but an abandoned wasteland. Ted learns the story of what happened to the world from the Once-ler. The movie is a cautionary tale about pollution, deforestations, and the effects of neglecting the environment. Rated PG for brief mild language.
Free Willy (1993)
Willy is an orca whale captured by whalers and sold to an amusement park. Jesse is a 12-year-old boy in the foster care system, tasked with cleaning graffiti from the walls of the amusement park as part of his probation. After Willy rescues Jesse from drowning, the two develop a bond. When Jesse learns that the owners of the park plan to let Willy die in order to collect the insurance money, he sets out to return Willy to the ocean. Rated PG for some mild language.
March of the Penguins (2005)
This documentary, narrated by Morgan Freeman, follows the course of Emperor Penguins on their yearly journey from the ocean to their ancestral breeding grounds in Antarctica. Watching the film, viewers learn many interesting facts about these remarkable creatures. For instance, after the female lays her egg, she transfers it to the feet of the male.
His job is to protect the egg and keep it warm while the female travels back to the sea to feed. Months later, the female returns in time to feed her hatched chick. While the documentary is rated G, it does contain material that may be upsetting to younger viewers, including scenes showing the death of some penguins (including chicks). Rated G.
First Man (2018)
First Man is based on a true story. The film focuses on the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by actor Ryan Gosling) spanning the years from 1961-1969. Not only does the movie detail Armstrong’s prior missions in space flight, we also witness the exciting events of the first moon landing. I enjoyed learning more about the life of the first man to set foot on the moon. His life is a great example of how past failures don’t have to define us. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.
October Sky (1999)
One of our family favorites, October Sky recounts the true story of how Homer Hickam–a coal miner’s son from West Virginia–was inspired to explore rocketry after the first Sputnik launch. Along with his friends, Homer teaches himself the math and science necessary to launch homemade rockets, and makes it all the way to the National Science Fair. October Sky is an inspirational film that demonstrates the power of passion and determination. Rated PG.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of the female African-American mathematicians who were integral in putting the first Americans into space. Set during the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s, the movie portrays how these women, known as “ human computers”, broke gender, race, and professional stereotypes and played a vital role in American space exploration. It is amazing to see the types of calculations these mathematicians were able to perform on paper, without the aid of our modern-day computers. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
Osmosis Jones (2001)
Most folks have never heard of this movie, which is surprising considering some of the big-name actors in it. This movie is definitely one of a kind. The movie goes back and forth between live-action scenes (featuring Bill Murray as zookeeper Frank Detorre) and animation (featuring Chris Rock as white blood cell Osmosis Jones).
The movie focuses on the internal battle that takes place within Frank’s body after he is exposed to a contagious germ. I think the movie is quite clever, and attentive viewers will get a kick out of the way that all of the parts of the body (the digestive system, the nervous system, the immune system, etc.) are portrayed. While there are certainly more mature ways to learn about the body systems, this movie seems perfect for elementary and middle school students. Rated PG for bodily humor (No joke. It was pretty gross.)
Based on the book by the same name, Hoot is the story of a group of kids who wage a campaign to protect a population of endangered owls whose habitat is threatened due to construction. While I haven’t seen this movie, it seems like a great way to explore the topic of habitats, endangered species, and taking a stand for causes one believes in. Rated PG for mild bullying and brief language.
Dolphin Tale (2011)
Inspired by true events, Dolphin Tale tells the story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin who is stranded on a Florida beach when her tail becomes tangled in a crab trap. When Winter’s rescuer— 11-year-old Sawyer—visits the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, he meets Hazel, the homeschooled daughter of the resident veterinarian. Doctors amputate Winter’s tail, but she adapts to swim without it.
Over time, Winter’s new way of swimming damages her spine and threatens to cripple her. Following Sawyer’s suggestion, a prosthetic tail is constructed for Winter and she becomes a local hero and phenomenon. (Trivia: you can see Winter in person by visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida). Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo is the sweet story of Marlin, a clownfish who travels from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney in search of his son Nemo. Suitable for all ages, the movie is a great way to introduce many topics in marine biology. In fact, the folks who wrote the film tried their best to make it as scientifically-accurate as possible (other than the talking sea animals, of course). Watching Finding Nemo, kids can learn about the ecosystems of a coral reef, the types of creatures that live in the dark depths of the ocean, ocean currents, how certain organisms live in symbiotic relationships, and more. Find the movie guide on my store or Teachers Pay Teachers.
The Lion King (2019)
The animated Disney classic is brought to life in this new family-friendly movie. Lion cub Simba is destined to be the king of the jungle, but his evil Uncle Scar has other plans. After Simba’s father is killed and Uncle Scar takes control of the pride, Simba is forced away from his home. After making new friends with Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Nala the lioness, Simba learns that his homeland is struggling under Scar’s rule. With the help of his friends, Simba confronts his uncle and restores balance to the kingdom. While some critics have argued that the movie isn’t scientifically accurate, it does a great job introducing younger kids to different types of animals, how different species live together in balance, and of course, to the “Circle of Life”. Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.
This award-winning documentary gives viewers a close-up look at the insects living in meadows and ponds. The filmmakers spent three years using specially-designed cameras and lenses to capture the shots in this movie. From a review on Rotten Tomatoes, “Utilizing astounding close ups, they give the viewer a bug’s eye view where water drops are the size of planets, and grass blades become alien skyscrapers.” Rated G.
Fly Away Home (1996)
Fly Away Home is based on true events. 13-year-old Amy is miserable after moving to Ontario following the death of her mother. That all changes when she discovers a nest of goose eggs, abandoned by the mother goose. Amy cares for the eggs and eventually the hatchlings. The goslings imprint on Amy, viewing her as their mother.
When Amy and her father learn that geese learn their migratory paths from their mother, they wonder how to teach the goslings how to migrate south for the winter. The two use Amy’s father’s ultralight aircraft to teach the goslings how to fly, and to lead them to a bird sanctuary in North Carolina. It’s a touching story, and the movie is great for exposing students to animal behavior and migration. Rated PG for an opening accident scene and some mild language.
The Aeronauts (2019)
Amazingly, The Aeronauts was inspired by true events. In the late 1800s, aeronauts took to the air in hot air balloons to study science. In the movie, we follow the harrowing adventure as scientist James Glashier and pilot Amelia Rennes embark on a flight that will take them higher in the sky than anyone in history. On their voyage, Glashier makes observations that allow him to better understand weather in the hopes that one day, the weather could be forecast. In this way, Aeronauts tells the story of the birth of meteorology. Other than flashbacks, the entire movie takes place in the basket of a hot air balloon as it climbs high into the sky. This exciting movie is a fascinating blend of history and science, and I was shocked to learn that this was how early studies in weather forecasting were done. Rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements.
Movies and Documentaries for Grades 5+
Mystery of Matter (2015)
The Mystery of Matter is a 3-episode series that originally aired on PBS. Narrated by Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest), the series documents the history of how we’ve come to understand matter and the elements, with actors recreating key events. In episode one, Out of Thin Air, we learn about the men and women who first realized that matter was comprised of unique elements and the studies that aided in their identification.
In episode two, Unruly Elements, we witness the remarkable genius of Dmitri Mendeleev and how he organized the known elements into the periodic table. We also learn about Marie Curie’s pioneering study of radioactive elements. In the third episode, Into the Atom, we learn how scientists investigated the internal structure of the atom and discovered the existence of protons, neutrons, and electrons. This episode also covers atomic energy and the atomic bomb. This series is very well-done, and everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it. Not only does it explain the history of our modern understanding of chemistry, it recounts the ways these men and women used the scientific method to investigate the world around them.
Apollo 13 (1995)
This movie is inspired by the true story of the American Apollo 13 attempted voyage to the moon. It follows the fate of three astronauts on their seemingly doomed trip, since just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The movie is positively thrilling, and my favorite part is getting a peek at how so many great minds came together to bring the astronauts home. Apollo 13 is a great example of using the tools and knowledge available to solve the problem at hand, especially when failure isn’t an option. Rated PG for language and emotional intensity.
Interstellar is one of my all-time favorite movies and one I can watch again and again. The movie is set in the not-too-distant future, at a time when widespread drought and crop failures have led to famine and wide-spread dustbowl conditions. A team of astronauts embarks on a mission to investigate whether or not three distant planets are suitable for human life.
The movie explores many science topics including robotics, gravity, space/time continuum, and relativity. It’s a thrilling movie made even more exciting by the amazing soundtrack. Case in point (and a bit of trivia): as the astronauts explore the water world planet, each tick heard in the accompanying music corresponds to one day passing on earth. Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.
The Martian (2015)
The fictional story of Mark Watney—an astronaut believed to be dead and abandoned on Mars—and how he survives until his rescue. Not only is this moving thrilling to watch, it highlights many scientific disciplines. Watney uses his knowledge of botany to grow his own food and his knowledge of chemistry to produce his own water. Back on Earth, scientists use physics and advanced math to figure out how to arrange a rescue mission in the shortest time possible. No matter how many times I watch this movie, it still keeps me on the edge of my seat. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.
The Imitation Game (2014)
During World War II, the newly-formed British intelligence agency MI6 gathered together a group of great minds in an attempt to crack the “unbreakable” code of the Nazi Enigma. Each day, the team, led by mathematician Alan Turing, has 24 hours to crack the day’s code. Turing constructs a code-breaking machine to aid the team’s efforts, and this machine is the forerunner of today’s computers. This is another great film that ties together math, history, and science. Find my movie guide at my store or on Teachers Pay Teachers. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and mature thematic material.
Spare Parts (2015)
This movie is based on the true story of a group of students from a poorly-funded high school who build a robot and go on to compete against MIT in a national robotic competition. Because they lack resources, the group is forced to come up with innovative ways to construct their robot. An inspiring story of teamwork, community, out-of-the-box thinking, and grit. Rated PG-13 for some language and violence.
Apollo 11 (2019)
This documentary features never-before-seen footage and photographs of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Events of the film span from the final preparations before liftoff from Earth to the safe return of the astronauts when their mission was completed. Rated G.
This movie takes place in a future society in which the human race is divided into two categories: the genetically superior “valids”—artificially conceived in a laboratory through eugenics—and the genetically inferior “in-valids” who are conceived naturally but are subjugated to menial jobs. The protagonist Vincent was conceived naturally (without genetic engineering) and is considered an in-valid, but he longs for the life of the genetically superior. Vincent enters into an arrangement with Jerome, who is genetically pure but paralyzed, to assume Jerome’s identity. The storyline is clever, unique, and offers great topics for further discussion including eugenics, self-worth, and the ethics of keeping personal DNA information private. It’s interesting that this movie was written well before the human genome was sequenced and before commercial DNA sequencing kits were available. In a way, the future world imagined by the movie’s writers no longer seems so impossible. Rated PG-13 for brief violent images, language, and some sexuality.
Gravity is the story of two American astronauts who are stranded in space after a freak catastrophe kills their crew members and destroys their space shuttle. The astronauts make their way to the International Space Station in order to use its machinery to take them back to Earth, but complications ensue. While some critics have nitpicked the scientific accuracy of key film points, it does get a lot of the science right. In particular, Gravity demonstrates the properties of forces and the laws of motion well. Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
Are there any other movies or documentaries you would add? If so, comment below with your favorites!
Dr. Kristin Moon earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology and a doctorate in Molecular Genetics from the University of Florida. She left lab life behind to stay home and raise her two sons. Not only did she homeschool her own children from birth through high school graduation, she has taught hundreds of students in homeschool co-ops, science clubs, online academies, and live lab intensives. She blogs about the science of everyday life in simple-to-understand ways, and has developed several self-paced, online courses which can all be found on her website (https://kristinmoonscience.com/). You can also find Kristin on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where she shares resources and ideas for helping others understand, teach, and love science.