An open letter to Mythbusters on how to transform science education
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.