Science educators find ways to teach the joy of discovery

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 28, 2016

 A paper coelacanth swims in front of a submarine in “Animated Life: Coelacanth.” The “Animated Life” series, which debuted on the New York Times’ website, has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award.

A paper coelacanth swims in front of a submarine in “Animated Life: Coelacanth.” The “Animated Life” series, which debuted on the New York Times’ website, has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award.

Image provided by Sharon Shattuck


METRO DETROIT — Effective science education can give people a greater understanding of the world around them, but conveying complex ideas is not always easy.

At the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, the staff tries to make science understandable with hands-on programs, Head of Communications Steven Pagnani said.

Currently, Cranbrook has a program about bats that features live animals and “superhero characters” based on bats to help explain their role in the ecosystem and what is threatening their population. These include coloring sheets for kids and information for adults on how they can help safeguard bats.

More generally, he said their staff tries to explain things to different groups in different ways, based on age and how much visitors know coming in. Cranbrook also tries to have lectures and field trip programs with plenty of time for questions, Pagnani added.

“It can be tricky when you have people of different ages and experience levels, but I wouldn’t say it’s a problem,” Pagnani said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an adult-child activity where the adult is mostly reminded of a scientific theory or fact they may have learned in school, or the child may be learning for the first time.”

Pagnani said it helps to have adults and children coming through the museum together, as both age groups tend to know things they can inform the other about — like kids who know all about dinosaurs. Additionally, highlighting recent scientific news can be a gateway to educating visitors on a topic. For example, Pagnani said studies have indicated that there are additional hidden chambers in King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt.

Other resources — like libraries, the Internet or documentaries — can be a boon to science education too. New York-based science journalist Flora Lichtman and documentary filmmaker Sharon Shattuck co-founded Sweet Fern Productions, which uses paper-model puppetry to make science-based short documentaries.

“We, for a living, make puppet videos about science,” Lichtman quipped during a talk in Ann Arbor March 13. “We know this is unconventional. We’re living in the glory days of digital animation, where you can create these 3-D worlds and explode anything you want with the click of a mouse, and we are opting for the most analog, timeintensive, painstaking, physical-object-based visualization that I can think of.”

Shattuck said that before making a short, they do a lot of research and try to find speakers who are not only experts in their field, but who are able to have a conversational tone while discussing the topic. That means avoiding jargon, speaking colloquially and informally, and even making jokes.

“We’re looking for a diversity of voices (with our narrators), and that means we’re looking for people of different ages, genders and nationalities,” Shattuck said. “We really want people to feel that science is for everybody.”

Shattuck said they try to be as historically and scientifically accurate as possible with their pieces, even though they are using paper puppets.

She added that while their approach is labor-intensive, the end product is so different from the norm that it commands attention.

Lichtman agreed and added that they are not trying to be a high-end science documentary series like “Planet Earth.”

“It’s not just about making weird puppet art; it’s about engaging people with science, and particularly engaging audiences that might not think of themselves as science-philic, people who don’t necessarily seek out science media,” Lichtman said. “I think the way we’re trying to do that is through these visuals. The science can seem intimidating, overwhelming and not for everybody, and I think by using these childlike and unassuming visuals, we’re hoping we can suck some more people in.”

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson told an audience at the Fox Theatre in Detroit March 24 that the biggest obstacle to effective science education is not children — who are typically interested in learning more about the world — but rather “scientifically illiterate leaders” and adults.

Tyson said adults vote, use more resources, outnumber children and run for office. As such, he said his goal is to make the American electorate more scientifically literate. A good way to help get both adults and kids more interested is to intermingle pop culture and science, he said.

“I found the lens of pop culture, when combined with the lens of science, is a particularly potent way to spread the love of the universe,” Tyson said.

He said there was an NFL playoff game where the Seattle Seahawks kicked a field goal, which then bounced off the left upright and into the goal for three points. Tyson said he then did some quick calculations, checked the orientation of the stadium, and realized that the Earth’s rotation likely caused the deflection to go in. He then announced that finding on his Twitter feed.

“People lose their minds,” Tyson said. “You know they love football, so you offer them a little bit of physics. You know they’re going to grab it because it enhances what they already care about. I’m celebrating science through the lens of pop culture, but yeah, that means I’ve got to watch football, I’ve got to watch sitcoms or reality shows, because that’s what people care about. Rather than pooh-pooh what people like, you run a mile in their shoes.”

In a lecture at Oakland University March 14, science educator Bill Nye remarked on the importance of the “joy of discovery” for getting people interested. He said that the Mars rovers have included small plaques for any future visitors that wish them a safe journey and to enjoy their discoveries.

“That is the essence of science — the joy of discovery,” Nye said. “Our ancestors who did not feel the joy of discovery are not our ancestors; they got out-competed by the other people who thought it would be cool to see what’s over the next hill, or to see what happens if you eat this plant. … The thrill of exploration is deep within us.”