As I'm sure many of you did, I recorded Phil Plait's (twitter, blog) Bad Universe pilot last week, and it was so good that I watched it twice. And then two more times as I tried to figure out why it was so compelling. Why am so interested in picking apart these particular 44 minutes of TV awesomeness? Because at the end of the day, effective science teaching isn't so different from effective science programming, even down to the timing. In an hour of TV, you get about 44 minutes of programming. Likewise, in an hour-long lecture, you can probably only use about 75% of that time, about 44 minutes, for content, leaving one quarter of your time to questions and dealing with administrative issues. And if you're standing in front of any class with more than about 50 students, your lecture, in many ways becomes a show, and you become an actor.

bad universe collage.jpg

Figure 1: A few stills from the show. Click to (in proper Bad Astronomy style) "massively philplaitenate."

I don't know that much about TV production, but I know a thing or two about what makes for good teaching. So here are, in my opinion, five things that Phil and his Discovery Channel production team got right when designing the pilot of Bad Universe, and how we can take these lessons and incorporate them into our teaching.

1. Killer opening

How do most undergraduate lectures start? They likely begin with something like "today, we're going to talk about social cognition in dogs, and how they might actually be a better model for our own social cognition, than even chimpanzees or bonobos." I don't like this, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. Lots of TV shows do this too, and it seems to me to be a time waster.

If you've watched any of a number of cooking shows you know what I'm talking about. I love watching Everyday Italian, but before Giada cooks anything, they show you what amounts to a cliffs notes version of the same exact recipe, with the same clips, with just slightly less information. "Today, we're going to combine store-bought mayo, with chili sauce, fish sauce, and some garlic to make a spicy mayo, which we're going to pair with rice paper wrapped veggie spring rolls." Then they show you video footage of her chopping up the red and yellow bell peppers, grating the carrots, and wrapping them up in the butter lettuce and rice paper. If you're me, you're sitting there going, okay, now I know how to make the spring rolls and the spicy mayo, what is going to happen for the next 18 minutes? And then the entire thing is repeated, in slow-motion, with very little new information. I get the value of repetition, but it's a little extreme.

Bad Universe does better:

It begins with a flash in the sky. Blinded by the sun, observatories don't pick it up until the last moment. It comes in fast. As it bears down, there is barely time to sound an alert before the stadium-sized asteroid slams into the city of nearly four and a half million people. And when it's done, all that remains of Sydney, Australia, is a burning crater.

This is the right way to grab the attention of an audience. Describe a real problem, use real examples, and appeal to the viewer's emotions. If the viewer is affectively engaged with a program (or a lecture), it becomes much easier to maintain his or her attention. Also, the show doesn't open with footage of Phil. You hear his voice, but what you see are animations of asteroids crashing into Sydney opera house. Humans are extraordinarily sensitive to faces, and if we see a face in our visual field, we pay attention to it. If the show began with Phil's face, we might be paying attention, but some of the emotional investment would be lost because we would miss out on the visual aspects of the scariness of an asteroid falling onto the Earth. He doesn't just tell us how an asteroid impact might occur, he shows us.

It isn't until after we are fully emotionally invested and have a real visual sense of the problem that our attention is allowed to shift to Phil himself. But again, he keeps our emotional engagement, making the issues relevant to the viewer

Now, I have some bad news for you. This scenario is one hundred percent guaranteed rock-solid bet-the-house going to happen. An asteroid *is* going to hit the Earth. Maybe a city. Maybe YOUR city. The questions are: when, how big, where, and can we stop it? These are the kinds of predictions that make scientists lose their hair. But that's what predictions are; they're a big what-if. So I'm gonna take you someplace where we can see what happens when an asteroid hits the Earth.

Imagine how boring Bad Universe could have been, if it began "Today, we're going to talk about how we on Earth might prepare for the eventuality of an asteroid or comet slamming into the earth. It will happen, and could happen anytime, anywhere, and in any place." Other science shows have committed this sort of episode-killing error. How boring!

2. "Holy Haleakala!"

Phil said that phrase five times in 44 minutes, or roughly once every eight minutes. And he had one "holy cow" and one "holy macaroni" thrown in to keep things interesting. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I think that associating a catchphrase with an individual is hugely effective. When I was in high school, my Burmese AP Physics teacher could not say the word "shift" without resulting in a chorus of snickers from the class. He would spell out the word, every time he needed to use it. And while teaching us to use our graphing calculators to solve physics problems, he needed to use the word shift a lot. How long do you think before the students started spelling out the word shift as well?

I might be betraying my age a little bit, but when I was a kid watching Loveline, Adam Carolla said "good times," every three seconds. Or at least, it seemed that he did. Adam hasn't been on Loveline for years, and he's been off the radio for a couple years already, and I still use the phrase "good times." Daily.

As always when listening to Loveline, discretion is advised.

If you have a dumb little catchphrase, it endears you to the viewers or to the students.

3. Accessible analogies.

"The explosive equivalent of three thousand pounds of TNT."

"That's thirty times faster than a rifle bullet."

"You'd be basically turned into cottage cheese, encased in your own skin."

"An object the size of a beach ball could have made this crater."

"There would be no Sydney, Australia, after that."

'nuff said. Appeal to the experience and knowledge of the viewer.

4. Hands-on Demonstrations

Most of the demonstrations on a TV show like this, and Bad Universe is no exception, feature the kinds of experiments and demos that you can't reasonably do at home. Huge explosions, giant cannons, massive telescopes, huge numbers of research participants. And in classes, we probably spend a lot of time talking about that kind of research, showing videos or data or whatnot. But Bad Universe also included hands-on demonstrations that Phil did himself, without requiring fancy equipment, expensive computers, or shielded bunkers.

Most of us have never created impact craters in the New Mexico desert. But in the second act of the show, Phil did what could easily have been a classroom demonstration, by himself, without relying on other scientists or guests, using just ping pong balls and liquid nitrogen to model the motion of a comet. Or using water, household cleaners, corn syrup, dirt, charcoal, and dry ice to build a model comet. It doesn't matter if these are exactly the components that go into a comet - it is close enough to drive the point home, and more importantly, it appeals to the experience of the viewers. We can imagine what would happen if we took a bunch of dirt, water, some basic kitchen and household supplies, and froze them together. We could even try it ourselves; its trivial to purchase a small quantity of dry ice. Instead of using a flashy movie-style animation to explain what happens when a comet flies to close to the sun, he used a fresnel lens and a grapefruit.

Lots of explosions are cool, too.

5. Humanizing the Scientists

As scientists, sometimes we like to convey to students a sense of our own importance. And its true, we do important work, and many of us are trained in techniques that very few people on the planet know how to do. Sometimes our research - eventually - will have the potential of saving lives, and this is not to be minimized.

But we're also human, and if we can allow our students to identify with us, then we will be more successful educators.

Each one of the scientists in Bad Universe is portrayed as very accessible and very human. There were no white lab coats, and very little arrogance. Many of them were wearing jeans and sweaters. Scientists were not interviewed in the classic front-of-the-bookcase style. But they were universally excited, passionate, and thought that the work they were doing was really cool. (And it was! Too bad I have no reason to explode anything in my research!)

The Take-Home Message

The take-home message that I learned from carefully watching Bad Universe was that appealing to the experience of the viewer (or student) as well as engaging them on an emotional level, are two important components to effective teaching.

This is not to say, of course, that those things can substitute for lack of personality or lack of expertise - two things that Phil Plait has in abundance. But personality and expertise usually isn't enough, and as students become more and more used to receiving information in ways other than simply speech and text, it will be more and more important to incorporate aspects of television and film production into our teaching, if we want to remain engaging and effective instructors.