Educators seek balance between science and entertainment

Ithaca College’s class of 2017 had a bit of a rough start this school year with the newly implemented Integrative Core Curriculum. Now that students have to select a theme from which they will choose their general education courses through their college careers, many are ending up in classes they have little to no interest in. The process is difficult on the professors as well, as some courses were piloted this year and are going through, as biology professor Ian Woods said, “growing pains.”

His class, “Science Fact/Science Fiction,” is one of these new courses, and it’s based on two premises: getting students interested in science again and addressing the issues that science faces in regard to the media.

Getting back in the groove

“Kids are just naturally and inherently scientific,” Woods said, explaining that the school system often drains students’ interest in science. “Part of the class is to try to make it as interesting and accessible as possible and rekindle that fascination.”

While the course is categorized under the biology department, Woods addresses scientific topics from all disciplines to show students how much of a role science plays in everyone’s lives. For one class, Woods invited chemistry professor Mike Haaf not only to help debunk the false dichotomy between “chemical” and “natural” but also to demonstrate chemistry in real life.

The course also includes movie nights every Wednesday, which have included The Day After Tomorrow, 28 Days Later, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Woods hopes to utilize movies and other media such as science fiction pieces, and news articles to illustrate the difficulty of accurately representing facts for the common person while maintaining the entertainment value of the works.

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Science Fact/Science Fiction holds a movie relating to science every Wednesday.

“Think of us as 1-800-FIND-A-SCIENTIST”

To address this problem on a scale larger than the classroom, the National Academy of Sciences started the Science and Entertainment Exchange to help bring science to movies and television in a balance of compelling storytelling and scientific accuracy. Producers and writers meet up with scientists to find that happy medium, and the program celebrated its 800th consult in January. John Quackenbush, professor of biostatistics and computational biology at Harvard, explained that the Exchange has brought scientists together with producers of popular programming such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and TRON: Legacy in order to make “the most plausible leap given the state of science” while maintaining the fiction aspect of the story.

In addition to these sessions, the Exchange also hosts screenings and discussions about science’s portrayal in the media. The Cambridge Science Fest will be held next week throughout the Boston area, and Quackenbush will be teaming up with Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, to host a discussion on how scientists in particular are portrayed in the media, especially the “mad scientist stereotype.”

“I think there’s really a lot of uncapped potential out there in terms of the next generation of scientists,” Quackenbush said. “Everybody’s got to learn more about science and its applications, and I think that showing young people that scientists are regular people can only help.”

The freshmen may still be struggling with the ICC, but Woods, the Exchange, and Quackenbush are working to make science that much more appealing.

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