The Roger Ebert of Science Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — October 21, 2009 2 min read
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It’s not unusual for teachers of science and other subjects to use popular films, or clips from movies, to introduce or reinforce a topic or present it in an engaging way. But judging the academic merits of Hollywood creations is not easy.

One of the better resources I’ve seen that tries to help teachers answer those questions is “Blick on Flicks,” a Web site run by the National Science Teachers Association that offers movie reviews for science teachers. The critic is Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, an assistant professor of physics and the assistant director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Blickenstaff judges movies not only on their scientific accuracy, but also on whether they present science in an engaging way and how they depict the work that scientists do. Many films obviously present a lot of misconceptions about science, but they can still present phenomena that are useful, which teachers couldn’t possibly demonstrate in the classroom, Blickenstaff explained in an e-mail. His reviews include suggestions on how teachers can integrate what’s occurring on screen into their lessons.

The professor’s work for NSTA began when he heard the organization was looking for a reviewer. He contacted the teachers’ group, submitted a sample column, which was favorably received, and a film critic was born.

His recent reviews of films (which are also podcast) include the latest Batman installment The Dark Knight, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, and the animated film Up. The recent, critically acclaimed District 9 is also written up.The headlines offer a taste of his opinions: “Jumping to Conclusions” (about the sci-fi fantasy Jumper) and “Physics and Batman: A Troubled Relationship.”

In his review of The Happening, Blickenstaff is pleased to see that the protagonist in the film, played by Mark Wahlberg, is a science teacher. He takes issue, however, with the character telling students in his class that many of the concepts that end up in science texts amount to “just a theory.” Writes Blickenstaff: “This dreadful sentence works to reinforce one of the most problematic misunderstandings between scientists and the general public: a theory in science is not an unsubstantiated guess, it is an explanation of a process or phenomenon that has a great deal of evidence backing it up.” The teacher later redeems himself, Blickenstaff says, by reviewing the process for answering scientific questions.

Some of the movies on his site, at first glance, would seem of little use to science teachers. He reviews The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, a popular film starring Meryl Streep about the pretensions of the fashion industry. Yet Blickenstaff sees science on-screen. A physics teacher could use the film to discuss the pressure, or force per unit area, created by high-heeled shoes. Biology and life-science teachers, he says, can draw from its depiction of the pressure women face to stay slender to discuss body image and nutrition.

“In contrast to some of the other people who write about movies and science, I try to balance the negative and positive,” Blickenstaff told me. “I try to have a balance of life and physical sciences, and also to go beyond the sci-fi and action genres to show that science is truly ubiquitous.”

Note: Blickenstaff is the assistant director of the math and science center at his university, not the director, as I originally wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.