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Jad Abumrad, Radiolab, and some hope for science education

September 23, 2011
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Wednesday was a huge day for science journalism. Jad Abumrad, the creative genius who is half of the Radiolab duo, won a McArthur Genius Grant. What? You still haven’t listened to Radiolab? Stop for one moment, and read this article:

Radiolab: An Appreciation by Ira Glass.

Ira Glass is another one of my heros. He’s a master storyteller, and he is also willing to pull back the curtain and explain in detail to his audience exactly how one reaches his level of accomplishment through hard work. His four part video series on youtube is one of the most compelling explanations of expertise I’ve ever found.

In the article above, Ira writes a brilliance homage to Radiolab, but he goes so beyond simple praise. Ira uses his expertise as a storyteller to break down Radiolab’s genius it’s essential ingredients, many of which can go unnoticed by the novice ear. Along the way, I think he also puts forth some very relevant ideas for science teaching.

Here are some of the main points raised by Ira about Radiolab’s greatness, along with some commentary by me about how I think that it pertains to science education.

  • Competition. From the very beginning, I love how Jay Allison describes how artists compete, “not head to head like athletes, but in their souls. Within the appreciation of our fellow artists is the tiny wince of ‘I wish I’d done that.'” This is exactly the spirit of competition I’d like to foster in my classroom. I’d like to cultivate a deep enough appreciation for intellectual and creative accomplishments so that my students can feel a bit of “wishing they’d done that” rather than the pure envy of just wanting the grade or trophy.
  • Storytelling. I love how Glass describes the opening of Radiolab episodes as engaging stories, and that often, it isn’t until you’ve hear 2 or 3 episodes that you realize you’re listening to a science show. Glass makes a good comparison to NOVA, a show I also happen to love, and how often it’s the big official voice of “Science” that turns off much of its audience. Glass explains that you’ll catch far greater audience just pulling listeners into the middle of an interesting story. I fundamentally believe science has stories every bit as engaging as fiction; to me, they’re even more engaging because they are true. So why can’t we throw students into the story of science more often, rather than spending so much of class speaking with the big official voice of science?
  • Banter. Glass perfectly describes the wonderful banter between Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, and how much this banter adds to the engagement of the audience, the joy they take in discovery and their understanding of the subject. I also think it reinforces how important dialogue is learning science, and it’s a large part of the reason I use modeling and put such emphasis on our class discussions and improving them. It makes me want to co-teach a class sometime so that for those times when I do fall off into lecture mode, I’d have another adult in the room to pull me into a playful banter.
  • Music and details. Glass describes at length the incredible efforts Jad Abumrad is willing to go to to get the music right for the show and polish every detail. Abumrad often writes music and customizes others’ music so that it fits the piece perfectly, and serves the totally “chatty, happy, loose, and spontaneous sounding conversation[s]” in the piece. “Looseness on top of perfectly-ordered audio architecture,” Glass calls it. This sounds like a pretty awesome way to plan a class as well. I know the 20 hours I spent editing and re-editing a video introducing computational modeling has paid off some pretty big dividends in terms of students enjoying the work we’re doing with computational modeling, and when I’m at my best, I do feel like I’m working out all the details in order to let class appear totally spontaneous and loose.
  • Editorial sensibility. Glass describes the incredible subjects that Radiolab takes on, such as the person who infected himself with hookwork in order to cure his allergies, or the experiment the show did to measure the walking speeds in cities and relate them to the populations of the cities. It seems to me they choose stories because they’re interesting, not because they’re easy, or required, or going to be assessed on some public radio listening test.
  • Flow. Glass describes how Radiolab stories have flow, and how Abumrad and Krulwich do a “beautiful job of figuring out the mix of ideas that move us from one idea to another.” The ideas they choose take the listener “exotic and surprising places” that later seem to flow beautifully together. How incredible would it be to say that each of my classes had this same sense of flow?
  • Respct. At the end of the story, Glass points out that WNYC, Raidolab’s home station, doesn’t treat Abumrad and Krulwich like resident geniuses. It did find them, and supported them long before they had a significant audience. But it hasn’t made them a big part of the station identity, even though they are revolutionizing the radio industry. I find this fascinating, and it makes me think a bit about what the role of an organization should be in supporting innovators. Does the fact that WNYC doesn’t anoint Abumrad and Krulwich geniuses keep them hungry and give them the flexibility then need to keep experimenting and growing? Does the fact that much of the rest of public radio can come off as staid and bit old-fashioned give Radiolab something to contrast and play off of? I think so.

So if you haven’t taken a chance to listen to Radiolab, I strongly enocurage you to check it out. Not only is one of the best things for your ears, really digging into the bones of how Abumrad and Kruchwich assemble this wonder might also help improve science teaching.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 4:46 pm

    No real comments, but just wanted to pop in and say that I LOVE Radiolab. Best podcast on the virtual airwaves.

    • September 26, 2011 7:09 am

      without a doubt. One of the highlights of my life is getting to see Jad and Robert live in DC. I still remember Robert discussing how the Krebs cycle is what kills students’ interest in science.

  2. September 25, 2011 2:36 pm

    Hello Mr. Burk,

    I have to say this was probably the most enthusiastic blog post I have ever read. I was directed to your blog by Dr. John Strange, instructor of the EDM310 course at the University of South Alabama. I am a student in one of his classes. Sad to say, I really dislike science, because it is not interesting to me. However, I am really ready to check out this radio show, sounds exciting. By the way, I am a secondary education major for social sciences. Measuring walking speeds of different cities and how the relate to population is right up my alley, very surprising that there would be a radio show that takes an interest in those types of things. I am going to check out the radio show, and in a day or two, I will give you my official opinion of it….. I’ll be back!

    Thanks, Jason Jackson

    • September 26, 2011 7:10 am

      Jason,
      Radiolab was mean for people with just your experience of science. Let me know what you think.

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