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Risk in science education: TEDxUIllinois talk by Theo Gray

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I am starting to incorporate video in my large enrollment course for the fall, Anth 143: Biology and Human Behavior (more on that another time, and yes, I will share at least some of them with you). The video expert on campus that I met with today pointed me to this talk by Theo Gray (Ig Nobel prize winner, founder of Wolfram Research).

The video quality isn’t great, but the topic is, and I encourage you to watch the whole thing. Gray makes a number of interesting and important points about how people understand and assess risk, and how we appreciate science education and research.

At about the twelve minute point, he refers back to an amusing quote about how science is most exciting to the student when he thinks the teacher may die. He says that boys in particular are drawn to science when there are explosions (he was absolutely not saying anything about differences in abilities, or making value statements on men and women in science – this was a benign side comment within an excellent talk).

It got me thinking, and I wanted to interrogate this for two reasons. First, I imagine there are many girls who are also drawn into science with explosions. And second, I wonder for those girls (and boys) who aren’t drawn to science with explosions, what would draw them into science?

My hope is that this series of videos I am starting to make for my 100-level, general education core requirement class will draw the student in with stories, interviews, and ways where I test assumptions that students hold about the nature of being human. I wonder, is this one of the other ways we can draw non-scientists into science?

But what are other ways? Those of us who are faculty and grad students are about to return to the classroom for the fall. What would you have us do this semester to do a better job exciting men and women, people of different ethnicities, class backgrounds and sexualities?

(Also check out a few of the other TEDxUIllinois talks from last year: May Berenbaum, famous entymologist; 90s rockers Rose Marshack & Rick Valentin; Leon Dash, college of media professor, Pulitzer Prize winner and wartime correspondent.)

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. NerdyChristie 5:28 pm 08/12/2011

    Well, I don’t know about other girls (or boys), but I totally got into science for the animals. Being able to see (and touch!) creatures that I would normally never get close to made biology very appealing.

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  2. 2. mcshanahan 5:41 pm 08/12/2011

    That’s a really interesting question. For the danger and gender piece, this is from a totally different age group, but Louise Archer and colleagues did a study of 10/11 year olds’ perceptions of doing science (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.20399/abstract). They describe both boys and girls talking enthusiastically about dangerous activities like explosions. They note that it was brought up more often by boys and that any negative views of these activities tended to come from girls (I don’t think the negative views were common) but that it was still prevalent among both. So at least with younger students it would seem that it’s slightly more common for boys but not something that is exclusive to them.
    For your other question about getting non-science students interested, I worked on a study as a grad student of boys in a high school science course designed for future non-science majors – basically a science for non-scientists course. We looked at what aspects of the course motivated them the most to be interested in science and we found that it wasn’t the awe and wonder stuff but instead things that had either immediate or future instrumentality for them – stuff they could use in their everyday lives right now or that they thought might be useful for their future career aspirations (http://www.springerlink.com/content/g417412ru8250752/).
    Sorry for the super long comment – it’s just because I think you’ve asked a great question!

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  3. 3. kclancy 5:47 pm 08/12/2011

    Thanks, NerdyChristie and mcshanahan! I think animals drive a lot of kids to science — soft, fuzzy animals (marmosets), baby animals (zooborns), scary animals (shark week), extinct animals (dinosaurs). That’s really worth noticing.

    And mcshanahan – thanks so much for passing on this citation, I look forward to reading it. I should have known to ask you or somehow tag you in this post :) .

    Link to this
  4. 4. mcshanahan 5:57 pm 08/12/2011

    Glad to help :) I’d love to hear how things go in your course. I teach a required science course for elementary ed students and spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage them and spark their interest in science. It would be great to hear about what works for you!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Superbug 6:29 pm 08/12/2011

    I don’t remember how I originally got drawn into biology, but my favorite orgo prof drew me into harder sciences by giving our dull materials personality. It was fun predicting what happens when certain molecules “attack” just because their electrons “want” to get away from each another.

    I have no clue why this works for learning. It also works well in microbio. How does chemistry allow my bugs to survive in its environment? Is it by metabolizing an unusual chemical or secreting a virulence factor in a microbial war zone?

    I suppose this reiterates your whole point about violence and learning but I think it gets interesting with biology because a major theme is survival to pass on genetic material. There are SO many layers to the story it becomes more like a history book (albeit constantly changing).

    Link to this
  6. 6. kclancy 8:41 pm 08/12/2011

    mcshanahan — yes, I’ll definitely be talking about this course through the semester. This is the fourth time I’ll be teaching it, and the fourth time I have completely overhauled it. We’ll see if the fourth time is the charm!

    And Superbug — I agree that a lot of it is how you frame the science. Nice point.

    Link to this

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