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An open letter to Mythbusters on how to transform science education

May 24, 2011

Dear Mythbusters:

First of all, you rock. Your television show has probably done more to inspire students (kids and adults alike) to pursue science than any other show since the moon landing (and thanks to you, everyone knows that it wasn’t faked). You teach your viewers that experiment and failure lie a the heart of science—and this is wonderful.

Now you may not know it, but science education in general is in pretty dismal shape these days. Just check out most middle school textbooks, and you’ll find yourself at sea in bolded vocabulary words and matching questions. For many students, middle school science is little more than rote learning of the names of things, procedures without justification, and equations—lots of equations.

Here’s where you come in. You guys show students that scientists don’t have to wear white lab coats, glasses and pocket protectors. You show them that science begins with a sense of wonder, a question, and that the best experiments often fail the first time (and even the second time). Through your show, students see that prototyping and careful measurement are the keys to a breakthrough, and through your wonderful repartee with viewers, and willingness to go back and re-explore old myths that science is never really “finiished.” These are aweomse lessons that no textbook can teach.

Now, here’s my problem. You start every show by saying “don’t try this at home.” I get it, you’ve got lawyers, and the last think you need is some kid building their own steam driven machine gun that backfires. But seriously, this one line undermines much of everything else you’re trying to do. What if you made part of the motto of the show “do try this at home?

Of course, your lawyers will never go for kids building their own steam driven machine guns, but what if you actually tried to give your viewers the resources they needed to do science on their own—minus some of the deadly risk?

Here’s what I’m thinking—I can’t count the number of times when I watch your show when I want a measurement, or a detail that you leave out. Where did you get that awesome spring scale that measures up to 10,000 Newtons, or what is the mass or speed of the ball bearings in the machine gun, the frame rate of the high speed camera you used to capture a particular scene?As a physics teacher, I crave this data, since it lets me take your show one step further and empower my students to do their own analysis of your work. This is also the hallmark of science—sharing your methods and data with the scientific community so we can check your results. If you want to get a taste for the amazing things that can be done when a physicist gets to geeking out about your show, you’ve simply got to go and check out Rhett Allain’s Dot Physics. Seriously, he’s cleaned up so many of your messy physics explanations, and I hear on good authority that he’s open to consulting gigs.

What if you put all this online—in a super easy to use website that would let you download additional videos that didn’t make it into the show (like the dozens of failed experiments), the various parameters for experiments, and where possible, even some of the materials you used to do the experiment. Don’t hire some education consultant to create a bunch of lesson plans to go along with this (most of those suck anyway), just put out the data—it’d be awesome if the data were as close to raw as possible—so as to give my students a glimpse of all the painstaking work that goes into a show like this (and science in general). Give your users a place to comment and follow up on what they find, and you will have just created the best science journal for the under 18 set out there.

School’s almost over, so if you need someone to help you out with this project, just leave a comment on this blog, and I’ll get back to you faster than an Archimedes Death Ray.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 10:03 am

    Tremendous post… a web page with MythBusters data for data and verification would quickly become a staple in my physics classes, and I’m sure a student favorite!

  2. May 24, 2011 10:21 am

    Nice points. I agree there’s an subtle irony to the “anyone can do science” but “don’t do this at home”… thinking of ways that myth busters can encourage (safe) experimentation whether at home or virtually, and not just passively watch the show, should be an explicit agenda they take up.

  3. May 24, 2011 5:40 pm

    Love the idea. It’d be a treasure trove of lessons and the starting point of a ton of independent student inquiry. Even if they simply posted unedited, un-narrated video clips of each iteration of their experiments it would be a great resource.

    It seems like a lot of this information would be pretty easy to pull together. Now we just need to get the Mythbusters on board…

  4. May 25, 2011 3:03 am

    I like Mythbusters (we own several full-season DVD sets), but calling what they do “science” is pushing the definition a bit.

    • May 26, 2011 12:17 am

      I disagree. I think what mythbusters does fits the definition of science way better than many middle school science classrooms out there. Just tonight in the global physics department Sean Carroll cited them as some of the best teachers of science around.

      • May 26, 2011 1:31 am

        I have trouble with their “do it once and call it data” approach. Also more than half their time seems to be spent on blowing things up for no particular reason other than that it looks cool.

        Granted, most middle school classrooms don’t even do experiments once, so you are probably right that they are “way better than many middle school science classrooms out there. “

        • May 26, 2011 10:27 am

          I saw the Mythbusters live once, and they are pretty adamant about not calling themselves scientists for that very reason. But one of the things that I don’t think we talk about enough in pre-college science classes is how scientists go back and look at their results a second time as a part of peer review, and this is something the Mythbusters do pretty well with their viewer specials. I also think over the long arc of the show, they’ve gotten better about doing more trials—which is why I wish they would share more of the data.

  5. May 26, 2011 11:55 am

    The Mythbusters are great “makers”. They build demo equipment quickly and often elegantly. It is good to have such people on a research team, even though what they do is rarely research. They do spectacular television, though, and many of their shows do make good demos (not experiments).

    There is certainly an important role for spectacular demos in science education, and Mythbusters videos could be incorporated into middle-school science classes. But what they do is not “science” in the way scientists use the term. Call them educators, entertainers, or makers, and I’m happy.

  6. Andrew Nichols permalink
    May 9, 2012 10:48 am

    Any reply from the folks at the Discovery Channel? I’m a high school statistics and calculus teacher who is dying to get my hands on the data that goes along with the show. We are so limited by budgets, time, space, and safety that doing these kinds of experiments ourselves is impractical. If I had the data, we could watch a video clip and then do the analysis ourselves.


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