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:
- The show is entertainment value will get students to sit up and pay attention
- 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.