Some colleagues and I have been conducting an informal survey examining student perceptions of their biology learning experiences. One of the questions we asked was about the types of biological issues they found the most interesting and I am sure you won’t be surprised to learn that preferences take a note from pop culture, the top three being: DNA forensics, stem cell research, and vaccine use. However, one surprise was that biotechnology ethics was at the bottom, an issue that our society is going to have to start making decisions about in the very near future - in fact it is already starting to make its own debut appearances on TV, and perhaps that is what it takes.
Last week’s Private Practice episode had the dutiful Naomi in the middle of a heated debate over embryo selection to help a dwarf couple who wanted to select to have a dwarf child. Naomi ultimately won the battle in this episode, but not until after she was accused of impeding scientific progress. I was impressed to see this issue start to emerge in so public a forum. Scientific issues get a great surge of interest when they are presented in TV’s storytelling format, and it is no surprise that this is what the latest enthusiasm is geared toward in our considerations of how to communicate science, in the classroom or otherwise.
In my opinion, the greatest attribute of the forensic TV shows is that the viewer becomes a part of the mystery that needs to be solved and is challenged to see if they can pick up the clues before the lead characters do. The best shows defy predictability and leave us guessing until the very end. But the key is that we aren’t just guessing - we are looking at the evidence and thinking longer and harder about what the data that has been presented to us actually means. Isn’t this what science itself is all about?! These shows manage to engage people in the process of gaining insight into “how we know what we know.” Our challenge is to transfer that engagement to the real world, as this is the type of understanding we hope for as we express concern about “public understanding of science” - not the recitation of facts but a public at large who is able to look at a societal questions, consider the data that has been presented by scientific research, consider the possible outcomes, and make informed judgments about how to act.
The Understanding Science Web site, from the University of California, Museum of Paleontology, is a tremendous accomplishment in helping the scientific community and teachers communicate how science works and why it matters, but it is merely our first leap in the right direction. We have a society to re-educate … not to indoctrinate, but to invite to participate in the joy of understanding that, yes, science is a body of information, but each bit of information in that body is the result of an amazing story … of a person or group of people who asked questions, investigated a mystery, failed, triumphed, laughed, cried, and that same piece of information is the beginning of another story that will change, challenge, or help grow the stories that came before it. We can only imagine - if we become successful in this endeavor, students in our survey will select the issues where fact has more compelling stories than fiction, and they themselves will recognize that they are participants in determining the outcomes to issues they express little interest in today - like alternative energy and habitat fragmentation.