Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education

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Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, does a Q&A session with members of the audience.“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” Rudyard Kipling once observed. The same could be said for science. Biologist Sean B. Carroll from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute cited the power of storytelling during a daylong Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education last Friday, organized by The Science & Entertainment Exchange with funding provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The room at The Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles was filled with leaders from all three sectors, brainstorming ideas on how best to combine their efforts to transform U.S. science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

By now the depressing statistics are all too familiar: the United States ranks 25th worldwide in math, 21st in science (behind countries like Estonia and Slovenia), 27th in percentage of college graduates in science and technology, and a pathetic 48th in the quality of K-12 math and science education. However, U.S. students are first in their confidence in their ability at math and science. “The rest of the world is rising and the United States is falling asleep at the wheel,” Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, told the assembled crowd. Improving the nation’s standing does not just require political will, he emphasized, but also inspiration—and that’s where Hollywood can help, by partnering with scientists and educators to “help us reconnect what we do with what we dream.”

If you drew a Venn diagram for science, entertainment, and education, storytelling is where they would all overlap. As Carroll pointed out, “human thought is structured around stories”; a strong narrative framework presents a structured, coherent argument for whatever information is being presented, and makes it far more likely that people will retain that information. There are thousands of untold stories in the history of science to inspire the entertainment industry, which in turn provide fodder for the education community to use to inspire and motivate students in the classroom.

From left to right: Brian Greene, Jerry Zucker, Tyler Johnstone, and Miles O'Brien share their thoughts in "A Conversation Among Friends."For instance, Roy Chapman Andrews headed a Mongolian exploration back in 1922, accompanied by a famous Hollywood cinematographer named James B. Shackleford. This was no guided safari: Andrews carried both a rifle and a pistol to defend the expedition from local bandits. But he and his team found many dinosaur fossils during their trip, along with the first discovery of dinosaur eggs. That, and Andrews’ colorful swashbuckling tales, landed him on the cover of Time magazine, and may very well have inspired the 1940s B movie serials that led to the creation of fictional swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones. (Andrews apparently hated snakes.)

We also need to convince students that science is both relevant—the age-old “When am I ever going to use this?” question—and creative. So says Tony DeRose of Pixar Animation Studios, who started out as a computer scientist, then taught for several years before ending up in the entertainment industry doing award-winning animation on such hits as The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and the Toy Story franchise: “So this summit is really all about me!”

DeRose emphasized the importance of bringing creativity back into the classroom: “We need to train students for tomorrow—for technologies that don’t yet exist.” Encouraging creative innovation is the objective behind the Young Makers program, culminating in the annual Maker Faire, which drew 600 exhibitors and more than 80,000 attendees to the Bay Area in 2010. One year DeRose’s sons built an eight-foot-tall pneumatic fire-breathing dragon named Saphira, a project that required the boys to learn about welding, metalwork, and how to read schematic diagrams, not to mention developing a safety plan and building in an emergency kill switch. That’s another pet peeve for DeRose: our education system discourages risk-taking in students: “We teach kids how to avoid risk, when we should be teaching them how to manage risk.”

The mind map from the "Technically Speaking" session.“Most people never discover what they’re good at,” according to Sir Ken Robinson, and those that do usually have to “recover” from their formal education first. For Robinson, true learning is about combining imagination, creativity, and innovation, and this can best be accomplished by exploring the synergies among disciplines, rather than erecting more walls to keep them separate. “We share the same anxieties, and the same approach to creativity,” Robinson argued. “We need a culture of education,” and to do that, we must “make common course with other fields.”

Award-winning high school science teacher Janet English had the opportunity to bring a team of her students aboard NASA’s vomit comet to conduct science experiments in zero gravity.  It’s one thing to memorize the laws of gravity and the Newtonian concept of inertia. It’s quite another to experience it firsthand in a microgravity environment: suddenly, just the tiniest upward force will send you shooting toward the ceiling and you won’t stop or slow down until you hit that ceiling.

English uses this experience to get her students thinking about what we take for granted back on Earth, and how even common activities might change in microgravity. For instance, can you hula-hoop in microgravity? She posed this question to her students, and did the experiment during her stint on the vomit comet. The answer is no, although you do get a very nice temporary facelift. Can a spider spin a web in microgravity? That experiment has also been done, and the answer is a qualified yes—the spider adapts to the new environment within a few days.

So what about the famous light saber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise? English supplied a re-enactment with two toy light sabers, wielded by one of her students playing Vader and TRON: Legacy producer Jeff Silver as a bearded Skywalker. (“Jeff, I am your father.”) The toy sabers make a satisfying smack! on Earth, but in microgravity the minute the sabers touched, “Skywalker” and “Vader” spin in opposite directions in accordance with Newton’s laws.

The process of learning incorporates both play and storytelling, according to Will Wright, a game developer best known for Spore. He insists, “Play is the natural way we interact with the world,” and video games exploit that kind of learning process. Gamers “observe a result, form a hypothesis, test, and discard or accept that model, thereby intuiting the underlying rules of the system.” Not only are the players driving the experience, those players are allowed to fail. They must master one level before advancing to the next. The gaming experience encourages them to experiment, take risks, and try new things.

In short, it’s an “apprenticeship model” that teaches them to think like scientists. To illustrate the importance of the freedom to fail, Wright told of an experiment with a pottery class, where half the students were graded according to the quality of their finished pots, and the other half were graded according to the number of pots they made. In the end, the latter group had more failures, but they also had more high-quality pots than the group that was discouraged from experimenting and taking risks.

Liz Fogel, director of education for Walt Disney Studios, also emphasized learning through play. When designing educational programs for Disney, Fogel focus on four critical elements: (1) it must be child-focused, (2) it must be interdisciplinary, (3) it must be collaborative and involve mentorship in some form, and (4) it must be interactive, fun, and engaging for the students. It’s also imperative to bring in educators from the beginning, rather than at the very end to rubber stamp one’s efforts.

That said, pure “edutainment” is not the answer either, which all too often demonstrates a “failure to engage with the wonder of ideas,” according to Columbia University string theorist Brian Greene. “It’s not just about explosions and confetti and over-saturated colors.”

But you do want to create something that students will be talking about. Producer Jerry Zucker asked whether educators should start being more concerned with “selling” STEM education to their students, because as it stands, “The kids aren’t buying it.”

Students from El Toro High School, along with their teacher Janet English, catch up with Neil deGrasse Tyson.In the end, the entertainment industry is a business. “You need a spectacular plan that shows some return on investment,” said Vogel. This need not be in the form of profits; promoting the “brand” is a currency all its own. Zucker agreed that “Hollywood feels no sense of obligation; it is not in the business of altruism.” But he thinks it’s eminently possible for Hollywood to work with scientists and educators to create effective teaching tools using storytelling, and turn a profit in the process.

It wasn’t all talks by invited speakers and breakout session conversations. There was a special performance by an a cappella singing sensation The BackBeats and impassioned “spoken word” performances by a pair of actor/poets, Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews.

The summit is just the beginning, a means of getting the conversations started, of planting seeds that will give rise to successful collaborations among science, entertainment, and education. As a first step, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is offering a $225,000 grant to “establish collaborative partnerships among scientists, entertainment industry professionals, and educators to develop educational products or services that effectively leverage the resources of the entertainment community (including film, television, and video games) to improve educational outcomes in science classrooms.”

Not every proposal submitted will pan out. But as Robinson said, creativity is about doing, and that, in turn, leads to innovation—even though there is also a high risk of failure. Remember the story of the pottery students. So why not take a few risks? One of those efforts could end up making a very real difference. The stakes for our schools, and for future generations, could not be higher.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.