Science as Entertainment

This past weekend I was at a Girl Scouts “Mad Science” program, not as an instructor but as a parent.  There was a lot of interesting things presented, and the girls all seemed to have a good time, but I constantly felt that there was little real science being done.  I’ve had that feeling with some “science” shows on television, and this was another example of what I think of as “Science as Entertainment”: lots of cool-wow eye candy, but little content.  Now, I recognize there are some real constraints in doing programs like this, and I don’t want to be negative, so I’ve been thinking of ways to improve a program like this.  Some of the constraints are:

  1. you don’t often have scientists running the individual activities, even if you might have a scientist organize it
  2. the people running the activities are either older girl scouts or parents who are scout leaders – thus, there needs to be a bit of a script to follow
  3. you need to have the eye-candy to keep some interest
  4. you have limited time

Given these constraints, I’d offer this major suggestion:  the activities should start with a small cool-wow demo, followed by a question like “I wonder how this works?” or “I wonder what this is sensitive to?”.  Then do a followup activity (or more) where one addresses these questions, always focussing on the “how do we know what we know?” overarching theme.  That’s what science is really about!

Let me give some specific examples, taken from the activities actually done.

Static Electricity Demo

In this activity, the scouts did a number of observations of static, including rubbing balloons in the hair and picking up pepper, attracting ping-pong balls, and sticking the balloon to the wall.  Although all cool, it would be good to start with one, and ask “what’s going on here?”  The example which was missing here is the repulsion from the charge, giving the impression that static is always attractive.  All it would take is to put two balloons together (or try!) and see that they don’t like each other…this leads to the two-charge model.  One could even add/replace one of the activities with the scotch-tape version of the experiment, and then ask if the charge on the balloon is the same/different than the scotch tape.

Making Bubbles

So, the scouts made a bubble mixture from household ingredients (i.e. dish soap, corn syrup, etc…), took them outside and played with bubbles for a while.  A good question would be “which ingredient gives which property?”  With all the scouts there, throughout the morning, one could do a lot of trial and error, even make it a contest for the biggest bubble, the longest lasting bubble, etc…  Does dish soap work alone?  Does corn syrup work alone?  Why do both work?  One could tie this to a TV show like America’s Test Kitchen, where they do tests like this all the time.

Balance

Here, there was a series of gravity-type experiments with free-fall, but then at the end they did an activity about balance: leaning against a wall with your right shoulder and head, and trying to lift your left leg.  Again, the sorts of questions that one could follow with is “why is it hard to lift your leg?”, “under what conditions would this be true?”, “could you come up with another pose that does something similar?”, etc…  Personally, this would be a awesome place to do the energy bracelet demo!

Conclusions

In each case, the point is to do a demo, ask some leading questions related to “how do we know what we know”, and structure the activities to answer the questions.  I would also add that the person overseeing the activities should be encouraged to say “I don’t know”, and to know that it is a perfectly fine answer.  It should be followed up by a, “I wonder how we could figure out” statement.

The danger in presenting science and anything that looks/sounds sciency without any content is is primes kids to accept the latest pseudoscience, just because it sounds technical.  It also makes kids start thinking that science is just about the technicalities, and not about the general questions relating to knowledge and belief.

Another danger is that several times I heard an “explanation” of what was going on in the activity that did not really match what was actually observed.  I know this is from following a script, but it is very damaging. It gives kids the impression that one should believe in science authorities, even in the face of contrary evidence.  It also increases confusion about what is actually happening.  Cases like this should bring up the idea of repeatability, variability, and careful measurements.  A response like this would be more appropriate: “hmmm…that’s odd, I don’t know why it isn’t working like I think it should…how can we figure this out?” Even if there is no time, or equipment, to do the proper job it is still useful to outline how one could do it.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Science as Entertainment

  1. Tim says:

    A good scientist never tells anyone — especially a child — to accept anything purely on the authority of others. At every opportunity, he should encourage people to call even his own authority into question.

    Unfortunately, a lot of science is taught as if it were a religion, and the textbooks are the bibles. Students are informed of facts and tested to see if they remember them. As you point out, not only is does this not teach science, it teaches a reliance on authority that sets people up for disaster later.

  2. brianblais says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, the people running these events, or at least the ones running the particular activities are not, in general, scientists. I think the “script” they follow should highlight the benefits of admitting when they don’t know, asking the question “how would we know”, and suggesting a number of ways of testing it.

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