Recalculating Science: Culture and Competency in America

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Rockets roared, shooting powerful jets of fire toward the ground and lifting astronaut heroes into orbit, propelling them to the Moon. The space race of the 1950s and ’60s led to a boom in science on television and the silver screen and helped mint a new generation of scientists and engineers. In 2013 the glamorous Apollo moonshots are decades behind us. So why is science surging onto our TV and movie screens and into our classrooms once again?

by Danny Akright, JO’10, AS’10

SCIENCE FOR THE MASSES

When Chris Hadfield wrapped up his term as commander of the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this year, the Canadian astronaut sent a special message to his fans. Hadfield covered David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in a zero gravity music video that within a month had more than 16 million views on YouTube.

It was a stellar farewell from an astronaut who brought millions of followers on board the ISS through tweets, photos, and videos. Hadfield used social media to show experiments; share never-before-seen views of the space station, the stars, and Earth; and give those of us on the ground a glimpse into an astronaut’s life.

Mainstream blogs like Slate and Buzzfeed picked up on Hadfield’s content, preparing galleries of Hadfield’s photos and sharing videos like his zero gravity washcloth experiment. What started out as a single Twitter account (@Cmdr_Hadfield) blossomed, reaching vastly larger audiences than the commander’s 1 million followers.

On August 5, 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover made its first tweet—ostensibly from another planet: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL”

In reality, the Mars Science Laboratory tweet came from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to both the Mars Curiosity control room and Veronica McGregor’s team of social media specialists. By giving the rover a first-person perspective and a witty personality, McGregor’s team made the highly scientific mission accessible to a much wider audience. They even had the rover follow Instagram trends, as it tweeted a “selfie” (self-portrait).

Considering the distance between Earth and Mars (somewhere between about 34 million and 249 million miles, depending on where the planets are in their respective orbits), the intimacy with which Curiosity connects to its 1.3 million followers is astounding. Social media has allowed astronauts like Hadfield and communicators like McGregor to reach new audiences, especially young people who’ve been primed for science.

SCIENCE IS COOL

Bill Nye’s name carries a hefty cachet with the millennial generation. For many twentysomethings, Nye’s Emmy Award-winning television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993–1998), was their first introduction to the concept of science as fun, science as cool.

A frequent visitor to elementary classrooms via TV and video, Nye infused a high level of energy and wonderment into the subjects he brought to life. Exploring concepts such as the physics of flight, how food is digested, and why our socks can create static electricity, Nye and his team of 40 produced enthralling episodes inside a Seattle warehouse. The show, Nye said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times, always had a mission.

“This was a conscious decision: I’m going to influence kids, influence young people, get them excited about science so in the future we’ll have scientists,” says Nye. “As near as I can tell, people were influenced.”

Today Nye has changed his tactics, shifting from engaging children to challenging TV pundits. Making guest appearances on cable news channels, Nye confronts hosts who deny the scientific evidence behind climate change and evolutionary theories.

“If I can get myself onto news shows where they would not normally have a person of my belief and bent—get on the inside—that to me is the best,” says Nye. “That reinforces the message the strongest.”

While Nye takes on those people he considers major obstacles to scientific literacy, others have picked up the “science is cool” banner. The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, a show in which hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman investigate urban legends, has less hard science than Science Guy—but many more explosions.

GOING MAINSTREAM

Deep beneath the Franco-Swiss border, highly energized particles race around a 17-mile tunnel. This is the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest, most expensive, and most important scientific installations on Earth. If you’re already familiar with it, you probably watch The Big Bang Theory.

The Large Hadron Collider became a central plot element during the hit CBS comedy’s third season. One of the main characters, Leonard, faces a dilemma when he wins a trip to visit the collider. His choice: take his girlfriend, Penny, for a Valentine’s Day trip or take one of his roommates, all highly educated scientists. It’s classic sitcom conflict, but the scientific details of the episode are unique to The Big Bang Theory.

Launched in fall 2007 and featuring three physicists (experimental, theoretical, and particle) and an aerospace engineer, the show marks the first time that main characters with such extraordinary and visible scientific careers have succeeded on screen. It’s brought high ad revenue to CBS and higher visibility to science.

“Just look at what The Big Bang Theory has done for physics and physicists,” says Kyle Hill, a trained engineer and blogger for the popular and respected science magazine Scientific American. “Pop culture goes a long way in showing how science isn’t merely cold and calculated but an adventure on the grandest scale.”

Hill’s blog focuses on science in pop culture, examining when pop gets it right, when it goes wrong, and how the phenomenon influences the general population.

“When shows or books really want to get the science right, it can be a huge boon for the science involved,” says Hill. “Heck, watching Mythbusters drove me into engineering. When done right, the science can really shine.”

As The Big Bang Theory brings science to the mainstream, some popular performers are adopting science as a new passion. GZA, a member of the popular rap group Wu-Tang Clan (“I’m causin’ more family feuds than Richard Dawson”), recently partnered with physicists to create a cosmos-focused album. A New York Times article last fall profiled GZA’s partnership with a Columbia University professor to bring rap into New York City public school science classrooms, helping reach underserved African American students.

Science’s growing presence in pop culture isn’t an accident. It’s a goal.

SCIENCE SELLS

Doron Weber has spent the better part of two decades opening doors for science. Weber, a former Rhodes and Fulbright scholar educated at Brown University, the Sorbonne, and Oxford, is vice president for programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York City charity whose name you might recognize from its National Public Radio sponsorships.

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The Sloan Foundation’s Public Understanding of Science and Technology program has been Weber’s baby and an engine for supporting science-based works of literature, theater, film, and television (along with the occasional opera).

“We’ve been pioneers in bringing the two cultures—science and the humanities—closer together,” says Weber. “It’s not as strange now to talk about science and film, science and theater, as it was when we started.”

The Sloan Foundation’s 2011 annual report lists more than $12 million in grants distributed to support its projects. Among many notable successes is Robot & Frank, a film starring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon but giving technology a lead role. It received nationwide distribution following success at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Hits like Robot & Frank have not always been easy.

“When we started, it was not natural at all,” says Weber of the then unfamiliar formula blending entertainment with science. “When I went out to Hollywood and brought up the word ‘science,’ none of these things existed yet. Now we’re much more accepted and much more mainstream than we used to be. Part of that is cultural development—we’re riding this wave into a more scientific and technological society. The zeitgeist is with us.”

A NEW THEORY ON SCIENCE EDUCATION

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captures a 1,250-mile-wide hurricane at Saturn’s north pole. Wake Forest University scientists innovate a process of 3-d-printing viable human organs in North Carolina. Google engineers run self-driving cars on the streets of California. A study released in May by Universitas 21 ranks the United States higher education system the best on Earth.

So how could the United States be in the midst of a science education crisis?

An assessment called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), created by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in Amsterdam, provides the best data for comparing science students internationally. Every four years since 1995, students all around the world are tested for core science and mathematics competencies. The resulting data not only show how those students fared but also translate their scores into four benchmarks: Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low.

“While scores tell us something, they don’t tell the full story as well as international benchmarks,” says Stephen Provasnik, TIMSS national research coordinator at the National Center for Education Statistics. “The [IEA] has pulled together a bunch of experts that have been able to identify what skills are associated with certain scores. You know if a student reaches a score, they can do a set of skills.”

In 2011, the last time TIMSS data were collected, 40 percent of American 8th graders achieved at least the “High” benchmark, up 10 percent from the initial assessment in 1995. Singapore, the top-scoring nation in both 1995 and 2011, saw a 13 percent gain, with “High” or better achievement rising from 56 percent to 69 percent.

“The U.S. has seen improvement; scores are going up in both math and science,” says Provasnik. “The reality is that the other countries are showing improvement, too, and some are showing more improvement than we are. We aren’t performing as well—and not showing as much improvement—as the countries that are doing the best.”

The statistics under the top benchmark reveal a more troubling American picture. In 2011, 10 percent of American 8th graders achieved the “Advanced” level. Four times as many Singaporean 8th graders claimed that title. Even the third-place performer, South Korea, has double the U.S. percentage.

Of the 10 countries that ranked higher than the United States in the 2011 TIMSS assessment, the top four are Asian nations (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, South Korea, and Japan), followed by Russia, England, Finland, Slovenia, Israel, and Australia.

America lags further behind as the gap continues to grow, but experts say there’s hope.

DESIGNING THE EXPERIMENT

In April of this year, a group of four national organizations released the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the first revision of national science standards since the 1990s. The new standards are poised to create a seismic shift in how science is taught and assessed in the United States.

Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan education organization, spearheaded the process of creating NGSS. It began with the Framework for k-12 Science Education—a report released in July 2011 by the National Research Council (NRC) to present the most current knowledge on science and cognitive development.

“The Framework was a critical first step because it is grounded in the most current research on science and science learning and identifies the science all k-12 students should know,” says Achieve Senior Science Advisor Jennifer Childress about the foundational work that shaped NGSS. “The committee [developing NGSS] included practicing scientists, including two Nobel laureates, cognitive scientists, science education researchers, and science education standards and policy experts.”

By focusing on three key areas—practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—the NGSS aims to ensure that students will learn the type of inquiry and problem-solving skills that practicing scientists and engineers thrive on.

“A lot of STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] education is memorizing the definitions of concepts, and while that might help on a test, it’s not science,” says Adam Gamoran, chair of the NRC’s Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for k-12 STEM Education. “We need our young people to understand what scientists do, and I think the NGSS continues the track of doing science and not just reading science concepts.”

UNKNOWN VARIABLES

Achieve solicited state participation, eventually selecting representatives of 26 states to develop the set of rigorous, coherent standards. With the goal of nationwide adoption competing with the diversity of each state’s education systems and political environment, the NGSS creators had to structure the standards carefully.

“Every part of the NGSS was shaped by these considerations,” says Childress. “For example, the document was constructed in a way that purposely didn’t require all states to define a ‘standard’ the exact same way because many states have their own definition of a standard by law.”

Even with a concerted effort to make the standards widely acceptable, they came under fire shortly after their release. Some conservative groups say the standards are a federal imposition of educational standards on state and local governments, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, issued a “C” grade for the standards.

Despite the backlash, many education experts see the NGSS as a key tool to improve American science education.

“Not implementing the standards would be failing to catch up to other parts of the world and to promote a science-ready workforce more broadly—and even to promote scientific literacy,” says Gamoran. “It takes a combination of professional expertise and political will. Those are both there, but they need to coalesce together.”

Each week more than 9 million Americans sit down with The Big Bang Theory, the top-rated show in the country. Viewers are used to watching characters like Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler strut their scientific stuff on TV, but the intricacies of their fields are as foreign to most of their audience as the surface of Mars. Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Fowler, would feel at home in a laboratory—she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. Her fans may only know molecular biology and electrophysiology in primetime.

Science has arrived in mainstream culture, pervading our daily lives. Our education system is trying to catch up. Part of the challenge is moving students from watching science to doing science. Will new standards and renewed commitment allow our kids to blossom into science champions and push our nation back to the top? Stay tuned.

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