Informal Experiences Can Go a Long Way in Teaching Science

By Sean Cavanagh — January 27, 2009 7 min read
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Young people today are exposed to science in ways that were hardly imagined a generation ago.

From their home computers, students can simulate journeys through the human bloodstream and combat diseases that threaten to cover on-screen graphics with “rashes” and interrupt their electronic messages with “sneezes.”

On TV, students see detailed breakdowns of forensics and ballistics on shows like “CSI” and numerous spinoffs, which portray police work as both scientifically sophisticated and cool.

Those resources are just two examples of the array of informal science media that have become increasingly accessible in recent years. A new study finds solid evidence that some of those tools, particularly educational television, can boost students’ scientific knowledge. Even popular entertainment can stoke their passion for the subject and help them envision themselves as scientists—a serious leap for some students.

Many teachers are attempting to use “informal science” from wider culture as a way of introducing or reinforcing lessons in biology, physics, and other subjects.

Physics Lessons

Their reasoning is obvious, said Steve Carbone, a physics teacher at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Va. Today’s students work and communicate across media, with e-mail, text messages, cellphones, video, and other means. Movies, television, and Web-based games offer a way to inspire those tech-savvy students, said Mr. Carbone, who uses clips from TV and films in his physics classes.

Mr. Carbone looks for catchy segments to craft physics problems for his students—in some cases, challenging them to show him where programs and films get the science wrong.

Immune Attack introduces basic concepts of human immunology to high school and entry-level college students.

“I tell them at the beginning of the year that I’m going to ruin movies for them,” he said. “They’ll be sitting there in the theater and they’ll say, ‘That’s not possible.’?”

During one recent class, the Virginia teacher used a segment from the TV medical series “House.” The episode focused on a drag race, and the lead doctor’s task to examine an individual who experienced strange medical symptoms during the high-speed event. In this case, the science presented was largely on the money, Mr. Carbone said. He asked the students to use the information given on the show to calculate the car’s rate of acceleration and other factors.

The study of informal science education, released this month by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, found that despite the use of popular TV shows and films in classrooms, limited research is available on their overall effectiveness in improving science learning.

The ‘CSI’ Effect

Even so, those shows have considerable power to influence, and in some cases distort the public’s understanding of science, the study notes.

On the one hand, the authors point out that “Crime Scene Investigation,” as “CSI” is officially known, is believed to have resulted in increasing calls from jurors in court cases for physical evidence and advanced technology. Yet there are also examples of cases being dismissed because jurors cited the lack of DNA and other physical evidence that appears on such shows, according to the report.

Despite occasional misconceptions, the authors say, “CSI” has “led to positive outcomes in terms of viewers’ awareness and interest” in forensics.

The National Research Council study found the strongest evidence that educational TV, through such shows as “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “3-2-1 Contact,” can positively influence children’s knowledge of science. In one study cited in the report, children who watched Mr. Nye’s show were able to provide more complete and complex explanations of scientific concepts and could better generate scientific ideas.

Substantially less evidence exists on the effect of other media, including digital media, gaming, and radio, on science learning, partly because some of those are new or have not been adequately studied, the authors found.

The clearest benefit of those media, in terms of promoting science knowledge, comes in their ability to motivate students and boost their interest in science, said Bruce V. Lewenstein, who co-chaired the NRC committee that produced the report. Generating that spark of interest should not be underestimated, because it is essential to moving on to acquire scientific knowledge, said Mr. Lewenstein, a professor of science communication at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

‘Tapestry’ of Knowledge

Motivation is “a necessary step for learning to take place,” Mr. Lewenstein explained. If students “are curious about the world, they can go out and learn about it.”

One challenge in studying informal science education is determining which experiences, exactly, have improved students’ learning and engagement, Mr. Lewenstein said. As an example, the Cornell professor cited the experience of his college-age son, in an anecdote included in the NRC study.

When his son was young, he was fascinated with elephants. He collected them as stuffed animals. His father took him to zoos and other science centers to see them. When the boy was a bit older, he attended a college lecture on elephants.

Over time, that interest faded. But when his son grew into a teenager, Mr. Lewenstein, on a lark, bought him a calendar with pictures of elephants. His son began reading about elephants again, online. He volunteered in the lab run by the college researcher he once heard speak. Mr. Lewenstein says his son had generally been more keen on politics and the arts than biology. But as the young man neared college age, he looked for schools where he could study not only international relations, but also conservation issues.

Which of those informal science encounters influenced his son’s decision?

“We’ll never know,” Mr. Lewenstein said. And that’s the point: Informal science experiences are generally a “tapestry or fabric” of experiences, he said, which, when woven together, increase students’ curiosity and understanding of the natural world.

Many students today are cultivating that inquisitiveness through online and video games. Americans spent $10.5 billion on game software and accessories in 2005, the NRC study reports. Some of the most popular games create “virtual” worlds, or three-dimensional environments that change as the participant moves through them, and ask the player to make choices and respond to situations.

Online and interactive games that are closely linked to instruction are sometimes referred to as “serious games.” One game cited in the study is Immune Attack, developed by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan Washington organization focused on science and technology issues.

On-Screen Hypotheses

The game asks players to navigate the bloodstream of a girl born without an immune system. Players look for bacterial infections and “activate” immune cells to go to work. Immune Attack is intended primarily for high school biology students, as a supplementary teaching tool.

After learning of the game through a Google search, Netia Elam used it in her Advanced Placement biology classes at Forest Park High School. Even with teenagers who are accustomed to games with impressive visual displays and features, Immune Attack won them over, partly because they felt challenged by it, said Ms. Elam, now the instructional technology resource teacher at Bull Run Middle School, in the same school system as Forest Park, the 73,000-student Prince William County, Va., district.

Ms. Elam sprinkled the game into lessons on immunology. She found it appealing for a number of reasons: It motivated students to learn more about the topic, and there was no cost to using the game, which can be viewed at the Federation of American Scientists’ Web site.

“There are great resources, and there are amazing labs out there,” Ms. Elam said, “but it’s difficult to find things that are available for free.”

Considerable research exists to support the idea that games motivate students in science and other subjects, said Henry Jenkins, the co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has written extensively on the use and influence of games.

While the most science-effective games may be “fun,” what’s more important is that they are “engaging,” meaning they require hard work, concentration, and persistence, at the same time they’re enjoyable, Mr. Jenkins said.

“They can be frustrating,” Mr. Jenkins said, “but you’re not quitting.”

Many of the best games, in fact, ask users to follow a process that could be described as scientific, he added. Complex games often begin by telling students “here’s a world—it’s unknown,” Mr. Jenkins said. Then they call for students to test hypotheses and follow processes for overcoming challenges in that world. That sort of ongoing problem-solving is more difficult to present to viewers of science-based TV programs, he argued.

“Games are very effective as a way of teaching you how to solve a problem,” Mr. Jenkins said. “It’s a habit of mind that games are good at communicating, rather than simply relaying information.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Informal Experiences Can Go a Long Way in Teaching Science

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