I can remember exactly two times when I felt engaged with my public school science education. In grade 9, my older sister rescued me from my teacher’s complex written explanations of radiation, conduction, and convection. “Ok, Pam, think of it this way,” she said. “When you put your hand on top of the stove element, that’s conduction. When the sun comes in through the dining room window and warms up your back, that’s radiation. And when the heat from our fireplace escapes into the living room, that’s convection. Get it?” Well, that made a whole lot more sense to me than trying to figure out electromagnetic waves or vibrating atoms, and the next day, I nailed the exam question on heat transfer.
The following year, my biology teacher took our class to a marshy pond outside the city. In our rubber boots, we sloshed through tall grass and lily pads, and scooped up jars of murky water to take back to our lab. We dribbled water from eyedroppers onto slides, and watched in awe through our microscopes as a community of organisms whirred and crept across our field of view. We sketched what we saw, and pored over manuals to identify the little creatures, competing with each other to see who had the most diverse collection.
Unfortunately, two engaging experiences in 12 years of school led me to conclude that science was not for me. Biology, chemistry, and physics seemed to exist mostly between the pages of battered, hardcover textbooks, and on dusty chalkboards of notes and formulae. Science was about memorizing facts and finding the right answer. Those facts never seemed to be a part of my day-to-day life, and so I opted out of the scientific world as quickly as I could, taking up permanent residency in the social sciences and humanities.
Fast forward to 2003. My husband has invited me to watch a new TV show called Mythbusters. “These two special effects guys use science to debunk urban myths and legends,” he enthuses, “and blow up a whole bunch of stuff in the process.” Internally, I heave a martyred sigh, but, in a nod to strengthening relationship bonds, I figure I can probably endure one episode.
It doesn’t take long before I’m hooked.Concepts that bored me in high school- implementing the scientific method, building prototypes, consulting the table of elements – are reintroduced in the context of discrediting YouTube scams, uncovering movie truth-stretching, and putting worn adages to the test. And yes, there are some spectacular explosions and collisions, delightfully detailed by multiple-angled, high speed cameras, and replayed in exquisite slow motion.
The show inspired me to consider how science instruction could be restructured to engage the kind of non-scientific student that I had been. In my job as a post-secondary education instructor, I encouraged student teachers, secondary school instructors, and university professors to use their students’ existing talents and interests to welcome them into the world of science. I found an article that connected poetry writing with the study of minerals, and a website that promoted keeping a sketch journal to record observations about the natural world. I played an hilarious student-made rap video on chem lab safety, and a parody of the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer, in which ukelele-strumming, University of Alberta pediatrician, Sarah Forgie, musically engages her medical students in the wise administration of antibiotics.
I have no way of knowing whether any of my ideas to breathe life into science teaching found their way into classrooms. But my own interest in the scientific world was kindled. So, a few months ago, when my husband mentioned that the Mythbusters were coming to town, I knew I had to be in the audience. We joined a sold-out crowd of families, university students, middle-aged couples, and seniors. When hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman bounded onto the stage, we greeted them like rock stars. ” A lot of people think that science is about facts,” said Savage, “but really it’s about relationships. ” “And when you play with those relationships,”chimed in Hyneman, “things get really interesting.”
For the next two hours, enthusiastic children of all ages joined the pair on stage to play with science. A tiny, bespectacled boy with a big sledge hammer bested the bell-ringing efforts of a man 5 times his age and weight. Two bike-riding men draped in plastic ponchos used pedal power to fill suspended water balloons which eventually drenched them from above. A chubby-cheeked ten-year old had his mouth raspberry recorded by a high speed camera, and replayed in side-splitting slow motion.
At the end of the evening, Adam Savage told us that they often receive letters from kids wanting to know how to become a Mythbuster. “Read everything that interests you. Stay curious. And remember that science isn’t really about saying ‘Eureka.’ It’s more about saying, ‘Hmm…that’s funny.” Good advice, I thought, and hoped that more than a few science teachers were listening and taking notes.