gimme an “e” for education

DirectorJen "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten," Rudyard Kipling once observed. The same could be said for science. Biologist Sean B. Carroll (not to be confused with the Spousal Unit) cited the power of storytelling during a daylong Summit on Science, Entertainment and Education last Friday, organized by the Science & Entertainment Exchange with funding provided by the Moore Foundation. This is something we started talking about while I was still director of the Exchange, and I was thrilled to see the day finally happen — a room filled with leaders from all three sectors, brainstorming ideas on how best to combine their efforts to transform US science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, by adding one more letter: an "A", for the Arts, giving us STEAM.

By now the depressing statistics are all too familiar: the US ranks #25th worldwide in math, #21st in science (behind countries like Estonia and Slovenia), #27th in percentage of college graduates in science and technology, and a pathetic #48th in the quality of K-12 math and science education. The only area where American students excelled? Self confidence! US students are #1 in thinking they rock at math and science, which would be fine if this confidence were based in reality. It isn't. "The rest of the world is rising and the US is falling asleep at the wheel," Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, told the assembled crowd. Improving the nation's standing doesn't just require political will, he emphasized, but also inspiration — and that's where Hollywood can help, by partnering with scientists and educators to "help us reconnect what we do with what we dream."

I always say that science in film and TV can inspire, but it's not intended to actually teach rigorous science. That said, it's a terrific way of leveraging the appeal of Hollywood — and the entertainment industry's consummate skill at branding and marketing for mass audiences — to engage and motivate students. Some of us have even written books using, say, the adventures of tiny blonde vampire slayers to illustrate physics concepts. Imagine all the untapped potential for things like DVD bonus features, interactive online gambits like LOST University, and — someday — original online teaching tools tied to film and TV series, and in line with broad curriculum requirements, available as a resource for teachers nation-wide. That's the vision, anyway. From the Summit website:

We know that this is a complex, systemic issue and that there are no magic bullets for solving the problems.  But one way to encourage interest in science is by capitalizing on the pre-existing interest in entertainment.  Film, television, and other forms of popular media have the very real potential to engage students in learning about many aspects of STEM and to generally increase their interests in these disciplines as possible career options. This has been demonstrated by the increase in the number of students studying forensic science after exposure to the popular television series CSI:  Crime Scene Investigation.  This is genuinely informal education:  Learning something about the practice of science and the characteristics of scientists themselves through the lens of entertainment television programming.  Despite some of the inaccuracies in this portrayal, it leaves us wondering how formal education can take greater advantage of the ability for film, television, and video games to engage students using entertainment programming as jumping off points for deeper learning or of wholly new content developed by working closely with content creators in the new media world.

So last week's summit was a jumping off point for exploring ways these three communities might do that. If you drew a Venn diagram for science, entertainment and education, storytelling is where they would all overlap. As Carroll pointed out, today's cognitive psychology tells us that "human thought is structured around stories"; a strong narrative framework presents a structured, coherent argument for whatever information is being presented, and makes it far more likely that people will retain that information. We can even follow Kipling's lead, drawing on the thousands of untold stories in the history of science to inspire the entertainment industry — which in turn can provide fodder for the education community to use to inspire and motivate students in the classroom.

Roy indy For instance, Carroll talked about Roy Chapman Andrews, who headed a Mongolian exploration back in 1922, accompanied by a famous Hollywood cinematographer named James B. Shackelford. This was no guided safari: Andrews was armed at all times (both rifle and pistol), to defend the expedition from local bandits. But the hardships were worth it in the end: He and his team found tons of dinosaur fossils during their trip, along with the first discovery of dinosaur eggs (in nests!). That, and Andrews' colorful swashbuckling tales, landed him on the cover of TIME magazine, and may very well have inspired the 1940s B movie serials that led to the creation of fictional swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones. (Carroll mentioned just one little-known fact: Andrews apparently hated snakes. Coincidence???)

Of course, in addition to scientific storytelling, we also need to convince students that science is relevant — we need to answer the age-old "When am I ever going to use this?" question — and creative by making it less monotonous and boring. So says Tony DeRose of Pixar, who started out as a computer scientist, then taught for several years before ending up in the entertainment industry doing award-winning animation on such hits as The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and the Toy Story franchise — "So this summit is really all about me!" (Jen-Luc Piquant loved the fact that DeRose was sporting a colorful Ratatouille print shirt.) "People don't realize how much math is in Pixar movies," he said, citing coordinate geomtry, trigonometry, matrix algebra, even math incorporating the fourth dimension. In fact, he insists it's possible to use examples of animation technology and math to augment the standard curriculum through college sophomore year.

There's also been plenty of new mathematics developed by and for the entertainment industry, which is why DeRose also emphasizes the importance of bringing creativity back into the classroom: "We need to train students for tomorrow — for technologies that don't yet exist." Those students will be the ones inventing and using those future technologies. Encouraging creative innovation is the objective behind the Young Makers program, culminating in the annual MakerFaire in the Bay Area, which drew 600 exhibitors and over 80,000 attendees in 2010. (For those who aren't fortunate enough to have a Pixar compuer scientist as a father, the program now has a mentorship component built in.)

DeRose engages in these sorts of activities all the time with his two sons: one year, they built a giant potato-shooting "Gatling gun"; another year, they built an eight-foot-tall pneumatic fire-breathing dragon named Saphira, a project that required the boys to learn about welding, metalwork and how to read schematic diagrams, not to mention developing a safety plan and building in an emergency kill switch. And that's another pet peeve for DeRose: our educational system actually discourages risk-taking in students: "We teach kids how to avoid risk, when we should be teaching them how to manage risk." He has teenaged boys, and "They sometimes want to do dangerous things." Rather than tell them no, he teaches them to take those risks into account when designing, say, a giant fire-breathing dragon.

DeRose's remarks on risk actually came up during a brief breakout session to allow attendees to chat with the morning's speakers. And that's when this happened:


Yes, that's the Spousal Unit, Sean M. Carroll, finally meeting his doppelganger, Sean B. Carroll, and making an odd sort of in-joke history in the process. Somehow the space-time continuum survived.

"Most people never discover what they're good at," according to Sir Ken Robinson, and those that do usually have to "recover" from their formal education first. For Robinson, true learning is about combining imagination, creativity and innovation — and our current emphasis on STEM as being somehow separate from the humanties/creative arts isn't a good approach either. There are more synergies to be explored at the science/art (and entertainment) interface than walls between them. He told an entertaining story of serving on an interdisciplinary educational commission with members from both science and the arts. One was a British comedian named Lenny Henry ("a British Chris Rock") who heard that Nobel laureate Harold Kroto was also a member and panicked, convinced he had no business being in such august company. What the comedian didn't know was that Kroto, upon hearing that the comedian would be on the commission, had the same reaction: he was intimidated by the others' fame and talent in the arts.

His point? "People are intimidated by others' disciplines, but we share the same anxieties, and the same approach to creativity," Robinson argued.The status quo in education is "leaching the life blood of the respective disciplines. We need a culture of education," and to do that, we must "make common course with other fields."  My favorite Robinson quote came after he commented that the power of human imagination is ultimately what separates us from other animals: "A dog might get depressed, but it doesn't listen to Coldplay and get drunk." I also liked his emphasis on how creativity is about taking action and doing something — or, as artist Chuck Close observed in a recent interview, "Inspiration is for amateurs." Nor is it about total freedom: discipline and constraint are absolutely essential to coming up with truly original ideas.

English Okay, so all day we'd been hearing about education from the perspective of the policy folks, the scientists, and the entertainers (not to mention knights of the realm with plummy British accents) — what about the voices of those in the trenches? Among the afternoon's featured speakers was award-winning high school science teacher Janet English, best known for taking a team of her students aboard NASA's vomit comet to conduct science experiments in zero gravity. (While English found her experience exhilarating, the day's emcee had the opposite reaction: "If you have motion sickness [in microgravity], you find out what it's like to throw up in front of Buzz Aldrin. You will not get me back in that metal canister of hell!")

Anyway, English brought along 15 of her students, who spoke of their abiding love for the Mythbusters, for teachers who don't just throw facts at them, but encourage them to explore and do experiments (say, by building their own trebuchet!), and of their love storytelling.

English's experiences in zero gravity provided ample examples of her approach to teaching. It's one thing to memorize the laws of gravity and the Newtonian concept of inertia. (Snore.) It's quite another to experience it firsthand in a microgravity environment: suddenly, just the tiniest upward force will send you shooting toward the ceiling, and you won't stop or slow down until you hit that ceiling. English uses this to get her students thinking about what we take for granted back on Earth, and how even common activities might change in microgravity.

For instance, can you hula-hoop in microgravity? English posed this question to her students, and did the experiment during her stint on the vomit comet. (The answer is no, although you do get a very nice temporary facelift.) Can a spider spin a web in microgravity? That experiment has also been done, and the answer is a qualified yes — the spider adapts to the new environment within a few days. (Before then, no, the spider is hopelessly at sea.) Okay, so what about the famous light saber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Yes, nerdgassers, we know that REAL light sabers wouldn't work like that, but English provided a re-enactment using two toy light sabers, wielded by one of her students playing Vader and TRON: Legacy producer Jeff Silver as a bearded Skywalker. ("Jeff, I am your father.") The toy sabers make a satisfying smack! on earth, but in microgravity, the minute the sabers touched, "Skywalker" and "Vader" would spin in opposite directions — in accordance with Newton's "equal and opposite reaction."

The process of learning incorporates both play and storytelling, according to Will Wright, a game developer best known (thus far) for Spore. He insists that "Play is the natural way we interact with the world," and videogames exploint that kind of learning process. Gamers "observe a result, form a hypothesis, test, and discard or accept that model, thereby intuiting the underlying rules of the system." Not only are players driving the experience, but they are allowed to fail. To illustrate the importance of the freedom to fail, Wright — or maybe it was DeRose during the morning breaout session — told of a study in a pottery class, where half the students were graded according to the quality of their finished pots, and the other half were graded according to quantity: the number of pots they made. In the end, the latter group had more failures… but they also had more high-quality pots than the group that was discouraged from experimenting and taking risks.

I learned this critical lesson through the process of earning a black belt in jujitsu: I started out clumsy and unskilled, failed repeatedly — which in martial arts usually involves getting knocked on your ass over and over again — but kept trying until I got something right. Real learning has more to do with discipline, hard work and perseverance than with innate ability. Gamers also learn through failure — they keep trying until they master one level, before advancing to the next — but it's failure that takes place in a virtual space, a kind of "safe haven" that encourages them to experiment, to take risks, to try new things that might not work, but hey, now they know it doesn't work and can move on to try different strategies In short, it's an "apprenticeship model" that teaches them to think like scientists. (That said, you can restart a game: "You can't restart the universe." But oh, wouldn't that be awesome!!!)

Liz Vogel, director of education for Walt Disney Studios, also emphasized learning through play. She started out as a scientist, then taught for a bit, then found herself at Disney — yes, just like DeRose. Her scientific colleagues' reaction wasn't always positive: "Oh, you're going to sell out," she heard more than once. (Le sigh.) But she also encountered outmoded attitudes at Disney, where folks had the notion that "fun" and "learning were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Vogel ultimately convinced her Disney colleagues to establish programs with four critical elements: (1) it must be child-focused, (2) it must be interdisciplinary, (3) is must me collaborative and involve mentorship in some form, and (4) it must be interactive, fun and engaging for the students. Oh, and it's imperative to bring in educators from the beginning, rather than at the very end to rubber stamp one's efforts. Of course, all this costs money. Ultimately, said Vogel, "You need a spectacular plan that shows some return on investment." This needn't be profits, per se; promoting the "brand" in the eyes of the public is a currency all its own.

That said, pure "edutainment" isn't the answer either, which all too often demonstrates a "failure to engage with the wonder of ideas," according to Columbia University string theorist Brian Greene. "It's not just about explosions and confetti and over-saturated colors."

But you do want to create something that students will be talking about. Producer Jerry ("Don't call me Shirley!") Zucker — mastermind behind the Airplane! movies, Ghost, and Kentucky Fried Movie, as well as a co-founder of the Exchange –  asked whether educators should start being more concerned with "selling" STEM education to their students, because as it stands, "The kids aren't buying it." Furthermore, "Hollywood feels no sense of obligation; it is not in the business of altruism." But Zucker thinks the two goals need not be mutually exclusive: to his mind, it's eminently possible for Hollywood to work with scientists and educators to create effective teaching tools using storytelling, and turn a profit in the process. "I think there's an enormous business opportunity there."

It wasn't all talks by invited speakers and breakout sessions. There was a special performance by a cappella singing sensation The BackBeats (doing a killer medley of Lady Gaga numbers, among other bits), and impassioned "spoken word" performances by a pair of actor/poets, Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews. Sekou performed a powerful solo piece riffing on the concept of Venn diagrams as applied to education that brought the house to its feet in a standing ovation. I found a video of an earlier performance of the same piece online:

Connell performed earlier that morning, in a spoken word piece that riffed on his childhood love of superheroes and the day his mother told him that superheroes weren't real — at least not the ones in the comic books. Instead, he learned that "Superman is a single mom waitressing at Denny's" to make sure she can feed her kids, and countless other everyday folks who press on against the odds. Best line: "It's not heroic to take a bullet when you know you can't be killed."

And you know, teachers are superheroes too, struggling against the current to reach kids who don't yet know what it's like to be fully engaged with learning. And since each student is different, an approach that works for one might not work for another: "Good teaching doesn't scale," lamented Zucker.  And as high school teacher Tyler Johnstone pointed out, there's a lot of money invested in keeping things the way they are. But he believes it's still possible to create "pockets of innovation" to supplement formal education/curriculum.

So, after all that shared wisdom and insight and talking about the problem and discussing potential solutions, it's fair to ask: what next? What are we going to do about it? In that regard, last Friday's summit was just the beginning, a means of getting the conversations started, of planting seeds that, it is hoped, will give rise to successful collaborations between science, entertainment and education. (There's an online forum to ensure the participants stay in touch.) The first step: The Moore Foundation is offering a $225,000 grant to "establish collaborative partnerships among scientists, entertainment industry professionals, and educators to develop educational products or services that effectively leverage the resources of the entertainment community (including film, television, and video games) to improve educational outcomes in science classrooms." The deadline for proposals is May 16th, and for those who are interested, forget just compiling a bunch of existing clips loosely organized around broad topics in science:

We are seeking ideas that go beyond taking existing entertainment media (e.g., clips from a film or television series; segments from a video game) and developing curriculum-based lesson plans around them. Rather, we are looking for true partnerships among the three stakeholder groups to develop ideas that are fully integrated among the science, entertainment, and education communities. Winning ideas will benefit the entertainment community by helping to raise awareness of a film, television show, or video game and will benefit the science and education communities by offering fresh approaches to engaging students in STEM-based topics.

Check out the link for more specifics about how to apply. I expect there will be naysayers and the usual skepticism from the "meh" contingent, but since money is always a limiting factor in such discussions, let's at least give props to the Moore Foundation for putting their money where their mouth is. And as Sir Ken Robinson said, creativity is more about doing, and that, in turn, leads to innovation — even though there is also a high risk of failure. Remember the story of the pottery students; you have to ruin a few pots before you can achieve greatness. So why not take a risk with the goal of possibly making a meaningful difference? The stakes for our schools, and for future generations, could not be higher.

1 thought on “gimme an “e” for education”

  1. Brings the short lived series “Numbers” to mind. I have growing nieces and nephews, and I’ve tried… it’s harder than it looks, but well worth doing!

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