No New Schooling for the Old School Kids

Is there an adult equivalent to the television show The Magic School Bus?

A few years ago I was sitting in an organic chemistry lecture, confused as always, listening to the professor explain crystal lattices.  Suddenly, I remembered an episode of the children’s television show The Magic School Bus.  In this episode, Ms Frizzle’s class reconstructs rock star Molly Cule’s dissolved sugar crystal.  The show was able to convey the ability of a water molecule to interact with a sugar molecule without explaining complex concepts such as molecular polarity and intermolecular bonds. It was then that I realized that the basis of most of my scientific knowledge comes from information I learned watching The Magic School Bus.  This made me wonder why there isn’t an adult show that incorporates a captivating narrative, accurately explains a variety of different scientific concepts and is entertaining?

Currently there are some popular television shows such as CSI and The Big Bang Theory that use science as a backdrop to the narrative.  To me CSI is a montage of whirling technology that is never properly explained. While experts debate the accuracy of CSI’s science, the show misleads the audience about the ease of finding and analyzing evidence.  There is not always DNA evidence and the killer will not always be listed in a database.  Similarly, The Big Bang Theory often uses scientific terms or refers to a scientific theory but the theory itself is never explained.  Therefore, the show is not informative.  If you don’t already know the concept, the words are— as Penny would say—“jiberjaber”.

Is it a coincidence that the two most informative and entertaining popular science shows both have orange haired leads?

In my opinion the show that comes closest is MythBustersMythBusters may lack a beautiful narrative but it is informative, entertaining and scientifically accurate.

It excels at highlighting the scientific process:

  1. It starts with a question: “Could this myth occur?”
  2. From this question a hypothesis is made: “It is possible”
  3. Next an experiment is designed to test the hypothesis. At this time the narrator explains the science (usually physics) behind the experiment.
  4. The experiment is conducted and, like most experiments, it often fails.
  5. Then the narrator explains why the experiment failed and how it is being modified.
  6. The hypothesis is retested using the modified experiment.
  7. Steps 5 + 6 are repeated until the experiment either succeeds or the scientists blow up the experiment in frustration (If only all scientist could explode their failed experiments).

Am I asking too much?  Perhaps, but I for one, would be much more likely to remember helicase’s role in separating DNA strands and unzipping genes if it is explained to me while I watched my favourite television couple unzip their jeans.  I did say the show was aimed at an adult audience.

Let me know if I’m being unrealistic, missing out on an inspiring tv show or just reminiscing on my own.


9 comments on “No New Schooling for the Old School Kids

  1. Great post! I think you’ve made a really valid point; that some shows are able to convey a whole lot more information because the aim is to entertain, rather than simply educate, as a lecture tends to do. I guess it is easier to teach someone something when you don’t have a syllabus to work to, so you can make the message as simple or complex as you like. Having said that, I don’t see why university level science can’t be tailored to be a little more entertaining to get the point across.
    I’m not sure I’d agree that MythBusters is a particularly good example, I’m more fond of Catalyst and Sleek Geeks, as the shows have a little more variety. Having said that, I think my main qualm with MythBusters is not the show, nor the presenters, it’s the way that many people take the results as gospel, despite even the presenters detailing the areas of potential error in the experiments. Do you think there is a way that a popular science show can appeal to a general audience, and not mislead them about the veracity of results, which have been gathered in limiting circumstances?

  2. I agree with what you said “Theory often uses scientific terms or refers to a scientific theory but the theory itself is never explained.”
    Even though Ive never heard of “The Magic School Bus”, I can have different point of view, movies for example. These films “A.I.” “Star Wars” “Bio Hazard” or “PLANET OF THE APES”, are really famous and popular even they include Scientific Method but they never mention the actually theory itself.
    So, why they are popular? There should be many reasons, but one of them I reckon is because they have Scientific Topic which people sometimes think it might going to be happen in the futer. Well, this oviously is not true but from this point, I can tell people like science and they want to image about science.
    However, as you said, once someone start to “Explain Scinece”, people think it is “Difficult” rathar than “Fun”.
    In my opinion, if someone want to make popular science TV show, they have to make sure that the topic has to be fun and easily imaginable as well as clear and understandable. Furthermore, it would be better if they can get the guest who atract audiences; such as famous acotr or actress saying “I like this show because I can learn Science!”.

  3. Nice post indeed. For me it raises the question whether you would want or need an adult version of your favourite childhood program?
    In my view, MythBusters do a wonderful job in addressing science issues with such a great appeal to large range of ages starting with high school kids. I judge this based on the interest of myself, my husband as well as my three kids in the program. And we probably all watch it for different reasons and favourite science topics.
    Any more detail, any bias for a specific science discipline, any wider context provided around the myths presented may improve the program for some, but at the same time it will also narrow its target audience.
    As scientists ourselves we may ask for too much. A better attitude towards science programs in the mass media may be to accept that they will never entirely satisfy our needs. But don’t forget, we have the skills to look for the extra detail that would satisfy us in the end. On the other hand, it may deter others (especially lay people) to learn at least something about science. Now, I think that would be a pity.

    Am I being bias because I am a red-haired scientist myself?

  4. Thank you so much for reminding me about The Magic School Bus! I had completely forgotten about that show and how much I enjoyed and learnt from it. In fact I fist learnt about the digestive system from that show and I can still vividly remember the narrative and images behind it. This being said I struggle to remember a science show from the last ten years that I enjoyed as much and watched as religiously! However, there are many medical shows that I really enjoy and have learnt something from. What do these medical shows have that science programs are lacking?

  5. Your post made me think back to the utter enjoyment I got out of ‘educational television’ when I was a kid – The Magic School Bus and Lift Off to name just two that come to mind. On the other hand, I was sitting with my 9 year old cousin the other day, and she told me to change the channel when something that seemed vaguely educational (I can’t recall what) came on.

    It made me sad to realise that the shows I used to race home from school to watch are disappearing.

    Have the narrative and fun elements disappeared somewhat from modern versions of the shows I loved so much? Or have the designers of those shows ‘grown up’ and moved onto creating other things – like the Mythbusters and Sleek Geek’s of the world?

  6. Hi, I really enjoyed your post! It also clarified why I love the show MythBuster best.
    I definitely agree your opinion.

    As you have mentioned, the show tells me not only scientific facts or consents, but crucial elements fo science, process. That fits my favourite definition, “science is not a collection of facts, but it is a process of questioning”. As you listed up, the show follows very orthodox process of science.

    I must confess that I’m biassed, since I was raised by my father, who’s engineer. I was building a home-made excavator when I was ten, series of power tools were always my favourite toy (and they are still my favourite), and a junkyard was a treasure island for me!

    For the audience like me, whose interests are more oriented for hands-on learning, more oriented for practical experiments, the MythBusters is an excellent program for notify the link between scientific principles and practical utilisation. Those practical tips can be explained in more simple, theoretical way, and it can be tested by our own hands. this “bottom-up” learing experience is really effective, I think.

    MythBusters may not favourable for every audience, but it has great appeal for the audience like me, who learn by “building and testing”.
    I also want to state that personal experience is one of the most appealing story. In term of narrative, “what they did” is more attractive than “what they know” or “what they speak”.

  7. Maybe I’m the minority report here in the comments, but I don’t actually like Sleek Geek’s that much. It always comes across as a very contrived kind of science show to me. Instead of, as mentioned in the article, incorporating science education into a narrative, it rather represents a refinement, though substantial, upon the ‘lecturing’ method.

    Big Bang Theory is, I think, an interesting show to discuss with respect to this dilemma, because whilst BBT incorporates accurate scientific concepts into the narrative without glossing them over (Thus representing an improvement over, say, CSI), it still isn’t a very good science educator in the direct sense because it never explains its concepts, the necessary knowledge is taken to be either present or absent.
    However this same issue makes it a powerful tool for *awareness* of concepts, since the audience knows when they’ve missed a joke and may go and look up what was said.

    Are there any other shows like this? Finding some common threads amongst the series that do specific aspects of scientific communication better than their contemporaries could be a line of thought to follow.

  8. Making connections with a easy to follow visual concept is a great way to underpin scientific concepts. There have been many good attempts to help the public understand and appreciate science. I was a great fan of the Beyond 2000 series, however, my appreciation of science grow with such likes as MacGyver or even The A team. These examples displayed some aspects of science as entertainment. Although the programs may appeared to be a bit optimistic, at least MacGyver made some attempt to explain his course of action.

    The current popular television show such as The Big Bang Theory is confusing, since I concentrate on the banter and the lack of social skills between the characters. In the course of the show I generally miss the science content, there again, how much can be said about String Theory. In most cases, I liken it to reading a Stephen Hawkin’s book best left for a long journey or bedtime reading. This cannot be said for all popular shows which do make connections. The MythBusters is a great show which I have used in the classroom to explain concepts, its visual and down to earth approach helps to put things into context. I generally found once I had shown a MythBusters episode, it made referring to concepts easier. Students could visual and discuss with confidence the concept and for me that was a major step forward.

    I certainly agree with your train of thought. I would prefer to watch children’s programs or entertaining documentaries such as Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections to enlighten my science knowledge.

  9. First of all, thank you. I’d never heard of Sleek Geeks before, but after checking it out it looks interesting. It kinda reminds me of Bill Nye the Science Guy (that and Popular Mechanics for Kids pretty much sums up the rest of my childhood science education).

    It’s interesting, we are only a few people and we have a wide variety of tastes and expectations in science shows. I can’t imagine being a writer and having to satisfy all the scientists, as well as all the arts and English folk as well. I think Anke has a point when she says as scientist we may expect too much detail and accuracy from entertaining science shows. I know I expect a lot. It makes me wonder if the historians have the same issues with the historical dramas like The Tudors?

    I guess it all goes back to Madeline’s blog post: to what extent should truth and scientific accuracy be sacrificed for a good story. Personally I think there should be a way to simplify a concept without making it inaccurate. However, like most things in life, this is probably much easier said than done.

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