Mythbusters and The Scientific Method

Recently, I have been on a bit of a Mythbusters kick. After stumbling over it while channel surfing, I switched to netflix and started a Mythbusters binge session. The show satisfies just about every part of my being: the engineer in me loves to watch them build ridiculous stuff and the 14 year old pyro in me loves to watch them blow it up. One of the coolest things in the show, though, is that they show the whole “mythbusting” process. Jamie and Adam lay out their thought processes for each myth and we get to see all the trials and the many, many errors. To me, this combination of raw entertainment and naked problem solving makes Mythbusters an ideal tool for teaching the scientific method.

Let me acknowledge up front that I am a little late to this party. The show has been popular for a while and the discussion of the science/scientific method is nothing novel (see here, here, and here. not to mention Adam’s various talks on youtube). However, seeing my interest of education/outreach overlap with my fascination with things that go boom is not something I can stop think about, at the moment.

Of course, since the idea has already been floating around the internet, criticisms of the Mythbuster’s scientific method are also floating around. The critics tend to harp on the same issue: lack of repeated data points. The complaint is that on the show, if an experiment works once, they say “confirmed” almost immediately. While my first thought is to agree that repetition is important to science, after watching a season (or two), this complaint is unfounded. The Mythbusters either repeat, or discuss repetition of, experiments all the time. Obviously, with the large engineering projects, this does not happen. Now, I do not think that much of what they do in the show would hold up to statistical scrutiny, but I think this is OK. I doubt that any other classroom technique for teaching the scientific method would hold up to this standard. I even remember writing on many lab reports in high school (and maybe in college) that more repetitions were needed.

Although not as prevalent, I did find a critique that reminded me of a problem in many science demonstrations. Many of the actions on the show are superfluous explosions and uncontrolled “let’s see what happens” types of experiments. There is a lot of entertainment and “wow” factor in these experiments, but no real thought process or specific learning. Unfortunately, I think this is more of a problem in popular chemistry demonstrations (elephant toothpaste, for example) than in Mythbusters. I think the show does a pretty good job of acknowledging when something is done for entertainment’s sake.

Now, I realize that I just acknowledged two flaws in the way Mythbusters demonstrate the scientific method and immediately said “but I forgive them anyway.” I am quick to forgive because I think using Mythbusters, flaws and all, is still an effective way to teach the scientific method. The primary reason being the entertainment value keeps students (or anyone really) actively paying attention to what they are doing. What is the point of teaching anything if no one is going to listen? With the Mythbusters, testing a hypothesis generally involves strapping a few rockets to the top of a car…who doesn’t want analyse THAT data?!

My second reason for forgiving the flaws of Mythbusters is that I think the flaws are a good thing. Yes, the shortcomings of the Mythbusters is a benefit for teaching the scientific method. These flaws generate discussion. I have yet to watch an episode of Mythbusters with another person without my friend commenting “they didn’t do that right.” The Mythbusters even acknowledge the volumes of fan mail they get complaining about one thing or another. To me, being able to critique how someone else does a scientific method is a legitimate part of science. Getting students to discuss problems or different solutions keeps them actively involved in the process, even if they can’t strap rockets to there own car.

At any rate, I am a big fan of the way the Mythbusters demonstrate the scientific method and I would love to be able to design a course to use the show as a way of teaching it. The strengths of the show as a teaching tool, in my opinion, can be boiled down to just two points:

  1. The show is entertainment value will get students to sit up and pay attention
  2. With students paying attention, discussion will flow and keep students engaged.

Maybe in a future post, I will dissect an episode and actually discuss how it matches up with the scientific method, both good and bad.

Let me know if you have any interesting experiences with teaching the scientific method (with or without Mythbusters) or if you have  additional critiques.

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Hello again!

According to my last post, it’s been 2 years since I have posted to the blog. Honestly, I never expected that I would post regularly, but this is getting a little ridiculous. I originally started this blog just so I could throw out random stuff bouncing around my head. Clearly this has not happened.

Well, now I have some stuff bouncing around again and I’m looking for a place to put it. I think I will have another post either later today or over the weekend. 

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On Leonardo Da Vinci and Notebooks

This past weekend I went down to Philly (visiting the fiancee) and ended up at the Franklin Institute.  Since I grew up near Philadelphia, the Franklin is somewhere I have visited since a kid, and as a science nerd, is it a place I have always enjoyed.  Although many of the exhibits have changed, there are still some of the classic displays that I hope will never go away.  Some of my favorites include the lever demonstration that lets you lift ~500 lb of bricks, the giant pendulum and the machine that has the golf balls falling down a series of obstacles (I actually have no idea what this is called, or really how to describe it…but I like to just sit and watch the golf balls cycle through. And now that I have typed this, I found out it is called Newton’s Dream)

One of the great things about the Franklin is the traveling exhibits that they host.  This time, it was the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit.  Leonardo da Vinci is a name that everyone recognizes and I am sure most people know more about him than I do…in fact there were many small children at the exhibit who knew a lot more than I did.   Since I am not really an expert, and this blog is not really about trivia, I will not go into all the crazy things that he did or even the amazing things he was able to think about.  Something that did strike me (and leads me to writing this) is the way in which we know about the many things that went on inside his mind.

I am talking about his notebooks.  In those notebooks, da Vinci wrote down his great thoughts on nature and science and included sketches of his ideas.  According to wikipedia, he had 13,000 pages of journals with drawings and notes.  These pages are on displays in museums and their contents are studied to try and get a glimpse into the mind of this great thinker.  At the Franklin exhibit, some of the sketches had even been built into models that were on display.

Seeing his notebooks on display (I have also been lucky enough to see the Codex Leicester when it was on display in Ireland) and then looking at the notebooks of my fellow grad students brings me to my question…what the hell happened?  Some of the notebooks I have read cannot be used 3 weeks after writing, let alone the 300 years that da Vinci’s notebooks have lasted.  There seems to be something missing in science education when it comes to keeping a notebook.  Even the students who are good enough to write down all the details about what they did, they seem to fail at explaining why they did it.  Why did you stop adding ethanol to the reaction between this experiment and that one?  Where did you get that idea to mix the reagents in that ratio?  (This last one actually came up in a friends PhD defense…since this was a ratio that had been passed down through grad student generations, he didn’t have an answer)

I know that I do not keep great notebooks, and this is something that I have been working to change.  I have put a special effort into training the undergrads that I supervise to keep good notebooks, and I think they are developing some good habits.  After seeing first hand the amount of knowledge that a good notebook can carry in it, I will try and push myself that much harder to keep better notebooks.

-T

…as kind of a PS, although da Vinci is the inspiration for this post, he is hardly the perfect example.  He had a habit of writing backwards in his notebooks…this is not something I would suggest you do in your notebook.  Please write in your notebook legibly, or you are defeating the purpose!

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Thermodynamics and Awkward Human Analogies

When teaching someone a new subject, being able to use an example or an analogy to make the topic more clear is great.  Drawing from other experiences sometimes brings everything together into that “Oooh…now I get it!” moment.  Unfortunately, for as many great teaching analogies there are just as many (more?) terrible analogies.

An anology can go wrong in a variety of ways.  In the best case scenario, it just doesnt help. You are not making forward progress, but at least you’re not moving backwards.  Moving backwards, or making the discussion a little more confusing is probably more common, but definitely not the worst thing.  The worst thing an analogy can do is completely derail the conversation.  If this happens in a college class, the students sitting in the lecture hall are not only confused about the subject, but have completely lost focus and are currently wondering where what that out-of-left-field comment was all about.

Today, I have come to the conclusion that thermodynamics professors are some of the worst offenders.  I sort of understand why this could be; thermodynamics can be a rather abstract topic and most student’s are not used to thinking in that way.  In an effort to make these strange concepts more accessible, the professor uses analogies to relate their subject to something more familiar.  The problem is, for some reason, the professor always wants to use people in these analogies…this can get awkward very fast.

Any time you use people in an analogy and try to expand it past the concept of “these two people don’t like each other” and that is why they don’t mix…you get into dangerous territory.  The professor starts to equate the individual personalities with individual molecules or materials and it makes it tough to move on to a more complicated example.   Sometimes it doesnt even get that far because the professor makes some awkward analogy about marriage, and that just makes people wonder what’s going on at home.  In a worst case, the professor crosses over into sexist or racist territory.

Please, stick to things like oil and water …everyone understands and it doesn’t leave students wondering “what the hell….?”

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