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Science Talk

Ira Flatow and the Teachable Moment

At the Learning in the Digital Age summit at Google's New York City offices, Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talked with Science Friday host Ira Flatow about the "teachable moment in science and culture"

Special magazine report: Learning in the Digital Age

Learning in the Digital Age Summit Videos: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:    This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by audible.com, your source for audio books and more.  Audible.com features more than 100,000 titles including Adam Rutherford’s Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself and Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein Colossal Mistakes by Great scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life in the Universe.  Right now audible.com is offering a free audio book and a one month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details go to audible.com/sciam.

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, posted on September 20, 2013. I’m Steve Mirsky.  On August 7th, Scientific American and Macmillan Science and Education hosted a summit called “Learning in the Digital Age” at Google’s New York City offices. As part of the summit Scientific American Editor in Chief, Mariette DiChristina, sat down with the host of NPR’s immensely popular Science Friday radio program. That’s right, Ira Flatow, to discuss the teachable moment in science and culture.

Mariette DiChristina: Now it is my truly distinct pleasure to ask a friend and also the host of Science Friday to come to the stage, Ira Flatow. I have to say Ira I’ve been a science journalist for 25 years and probably interviewing you is one of the things that I find most daunting so far about my job, this man who professionally interviews everybody.  

Ira Flatow:         You’re still a rookie at it.

Mariette DiChristina: I really am a rookie.

Ira Flatow:         I’ve been doing it for 40 years.  Thanks for inviting me to come down here.

Mariette DiChristina:I am so glad you’re here.

Ira Flatow:         Very happy to be here.

Mariette DiChristina:And Ira, I was thinking about a story you told me about your daughter and how you – well, why don’t you tell the story?

Ira Flatow:         Being a science geek myself I’m always interested in astronomy.  Is that the story you’re talking about?

Mariette DiChristina: That’s the story.

Ira Flatow:         I was out with my backyard telescope.  This was a few years ago.  My daughter was 14.  If you have a 14 year old you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.  And the rings of Saturn were just beautiful that night.  You could see it great and I had my telescope out and I kept begging her to come out and look at this.  She said, “Oh daddy.  Don’t do this.  I don’t want to go see it.  You’re such a nerd.  Blah blah blah.”  I literally grabbed her hand and pulled her out.  “No.  I don’t want to see this.”  I took her head and I shoved it in the eyepiece and she goes “Holy shit!”  She finally got, you lead the horse to water.

Mariette DiChristina:You made her.  You made her drink.

Ira Flatow:         You can make her drink and that’s what we do.  People love science.  I mean all the studies will show you that people love science but they haven’t got the slightest idea what scientists do and as part of our mission of Science Friday is to tell people what scientists do so that they have an appreciation and an understanding of why it’s important in their lives.  I’m listening to all these educators here today.  I didn’t hear one person say why they should teach science.  What course do they tell their students?  Why is science important to them in the classroom?  What kind of careers can they go into?  What kinds of benefits can they do?  And I haven’t heard anybody say “You should teach science because it’s enjoyable because people love to do science who do science.”  And what we try to do besides using the news as a hook to talk about science, we want to show that science is done by people.  It’s done by real people and this is why they enjoy what they do and this is how they do it and when people hear that they really enjoy listening to it and they love it.

Mariette DiChristina: Yeah and you bring out those real people in the conversations that you have.  In fact Ira, you remind me once I was trying to prove to my boss that everybody really cares about science.  They just don’t call it that.  So to prove it to him because we’re very evidence based at Scientific American I pulled out The New York Times every day for a couple of weeks and marked all the stories that were actually science stories but weren’t being called that.  They were being called energy policy.  They were being called cure for diseases but they were all science stories.

Ira Flatow:         Yes.  And there are very few science stories that ever get in the news now.

Mariette DiChristina: As such.

Ira Flatow:         As such.  Science sections are closed down.  There are very few places to find science but people love science when you can give it to them and the entertainment industry has realized this.  Why is The Big Bang Theory the most popular show on CBS?  Because it’s a bunch of nerdy people who are all physicists and engineers talking about science.  People love to talk about it.  Why is science showing up in theater?  Why is it showing up in film and all these other different places?  

The problem we have and the problem I see is getting past the gatekeepers and I think the problem educators have is that they’re not treating science like they treat art.  We’re all teaching science like we want these kids to be scientists but we don’t teach them to appreciate science like we teach them to appreciate art, although the budgets are gone for art appreciation but maybe we could bring back that.  But why not teach kids the joy of learning science, who the scientists were like who the great artists were, what kind of paintings did they do, who the great scientists were, what kinds of great discoveries did they do, why is it important to know and understand these things?  And you might be one of these people someday.  When we bring science to the public and then we try to personalize it, it’s our way of saying you don’t have to be Einstein.  You can be a scientist like this and make a small discovery.

Mariette DiChristina: And one of the things I like that you all do at Science Friday is not only are you talking to the scientists and making that real for your audience but you have an education channel on your Web site and people can come and see some interesting things there.

Ira Flatow:         Yes.  We have hundreds of videos that we’ve made over the years and we make teaching material out of them.  We’re actually hiring a new education person who will be full time doing our educational outreach.  We actually – we are actually the only radio show on NPR that ever had an educational outreach and to match that to show you how popular science is now with people who love science, the general public, we have the highest social community of any public radio show all things considered.  We have 300 – as of yesterday 380,000 Twitter members.  We’ve got all kinds of – higher than any show in public radio.  We’ve got – we’re approaching 100,000 Facebook members, growing 1,000 a week and people look at me and they say “What are you doing right?”  I say “The only thing I’m doing is bringing science to the people.  They’re getting it and they love it and we have to find more ways of doing it.”

Mariette DiChristina: I’d say you’re doing – it sounds like you’re doing that right.  So I think it’s an interesting dichotomy and maybe we can explore this for just a minute.  On the one hand we’re talking about Big Bang Theory and the growing popularity of things that Science Friday is doing and other areas where science is really popular and on the other side we’re talking about news stories where we don’t call them science stories but they happen to be about it.  What’s going on there and are there any lessons we might take about bridging that disconnect?

Ira Flatow:         Well I’ve always found that you have to find – we used to them in the media – I did a lot of television.  You have to find the rabbi who will support you.  You have to find the gatekeeper.  I did science on CBS for a couple of years and the only reason why I was able to do it was because the producer enjoyed science and he didn’t mind having a science reporter come on and talk about science ‘cause he knew if you presented it in the right way that you could make it interesting and people would lap it up and they really liked the segment.  You have to find people who believe that science is important and one of the ways of doing that is making it a topic of conversation.  You force it from the grass roots up.  You give people, give the public stuff they can talk about around the dinner table.  They want more of it.  They want to talk more about it.  How come this isn’t funded?  Well maybe we can get more funding to get this kind of science done so that’s my solution is to get more people involved.

Mariette DiChristina:I think that it sounds like it’s a great one and it’s working very well.  Again I don’t like to have all the fun although you can see we can have a lot of fun here.  Does anybody have a question for Ira about making these connections with the public with science?

Deb Pierce:        Hi.  I’m Deb Pierce from UCLA and I can say that I struggle with students that are in my science class and they’re there because they enjoy the topic already but there are times where I struggle in topic selection.  So how do you – is it just something that you find interesting to yourself?

Ira Flatow:         Yes.  Well we have a glut.  There’s a – it’s triage that goes on.  I’m sure Mariette knows what I’m talking about.  There’s so much going on every week, hundreds and hundreds of papers, topics to choose from.  We only have a two hour show and it’s all really interesting stuff.

Deb Pierce:        So how do you pick?

Ira Flatow:         Well it’s a good question.  I have a choice, usually have a choice.  One I can find the really interesting paper that no one is going to cover ‘cause I can tell it’s never going to make it on the media and I can give some fresh air to that topic or let people talk about it or I can find a story that everybody’s going to cover and say “but we’re going to do it a lot better and in a different way” so I have to choose between those two and usually I go for the smaller one because there are a lot of interesting little stories that are going on.  We’re going to talk this week – there’s a story about the glue that spiders make and stuff that’s the most strongest glue in the world but no one’s heard about it so it’s an interesting a-ha moment.  We’re trying to create the a-ha moment, then to bring on a scientist who does it to see that they’re a real person and try to ask them some off topic questions to see how they think and see how they act as a real person.  If we do that we’re successful.

Bob Ubell:          I’m Bob Ubell from NYU Poly.  You may have followed my brother Earl on CBS.

Ira Flatow:         Earl Ubell.  Absolutely.  He was the science reporter on channel 2.  I knew Earl for many years.

Bob Ubell:          Ok so the question that I have is with all of your success and your numbers rising from low numbers to hundreds of thousands these days on media and on social media especially, how can you account for the low numbers of students who are entering science and technology?

Ira Flatow:         All kids start out loving science.  All kids start out -- they want to take that Pop Tart.  They used to want to put it in the VCR.  Now they want to put it in the CD slot.  They are natural experimenters.  They want to find out how the world works.  Somewhere along the line we lose them and if you ask people who are interested in science and who stay in science they usually say “I had a school teacher.  I had a mentor.  I had a mother.”  I asked Neil deGrasse Tyson what role model he had growing up.  He said “What black guy in the Bronx is going to be a scientist?  There’s no role model over there.”  You ask him a little more and his mother was very instrumental in taking him to the Museum of Natural History and the planetarium all the time and that’s what we need to find, good teachers, role models, mentors, parents who will stay interested and keep them interested so they can go through this, through high school.  But I also believe we should not be finding.  We should not be forcing science on all these kids who don’t like or they’re not good at it.  We should teach them how to appreciate it and why they should support it so while other kids can go on to become scientists, these people go on to become voters who vote budgets and understand the meaning behind all the science that they’re doing so they’re all participants in it and some participate in different ways.

Female:              Hi.  I’m from the Simons Foundation.  If you had an online – if you were an online content provider and it was your goal to just improve the milieu of science in the U.S. which is a really broad statement I know but would you be writing content for the people that are just out of reach or rather a lower level more basic type of content.  If you – what do you think would be the most effective?

Ira Flatow:         You’re asking who my audience is basically.  Is that the question?

Female:              No.  I’m not asking who your audience is.

Ira Flatow:         Who I’d like it to be?

Female:              Yeah.  I’m saying if there was a Web site that wanted to raise a level of education and discourse and appreciation even in the United States or the world, would you provide content at a rather lower level, a relatively lower level that was more simple and easy or would you just take, grab people that are just outside the fold?

Ira Flatow:         We already do in our videos.  We have hundreds of videos that are about three minutes long and they’re the most basic science that you can get and people say how do we – I say if I can explain it to my mother I understand it enough to explain it to you and so we’re looking for ways of taking those videos and making new ones to keep it on a basic level.  We can’t teach you everything about the topic but we can teach you the joy and see the a-ha moments in the topic and that crosses all boundaries.  We make it lower, understandable enough and I would –

The kind of Web site I’d like to build would be more socially interactive.  I’d like to crowd source questions.  Let’s use all these people out there, all these students.  Let’s have them help us solve questions about science and let’s help them solve questions about biology or global warming or come up with ideas.  They talk to each other.  They have a community.  I can’t remember who said it.  “Science is done in a social community.”  That’s right and if you want to do science and spread science you spread it through a social community.  People are part of a unified field so to speak and they feel like they’re in this together and that’s one of the advantages that we have is that we have people sitting around a campfire, people listening to the same guy, people are talking about it and in our social communities we want people to feel like they’re part of a group outside of school because the studies are showing that informal science education is where people are learning their stuff.  They’re only spending five percent of their lives in school.  They’re getting their education outside of school.  We want to be part of that place that’s outside of school.  You can be a lifelong learner at our spot also so we have all kinds of ways we could do this.

Mariette DiChristina: I think maybe that’s a call for all of us to help make those connections outside of school.  One last really quick one.

Female 2:           So just in terms of that, sort of the crowd sourcing and thinking of citizen scientists.  What do you think would be some of the best topic areas to engage people in a Citizen Science type of way?

Ira Flatow:         Well you can do simple – let’s say you’re talking about global warming, right?  Let’s do temperature checks of your local communities around – this turns out this week that 2012 was the hottest year on record for United States.  How hot was it where you live?  How dry is it?  How dry is it in Texas?  Let’s keep track of the weather.  Let’s see if it changes.  Does it actually mean it’s global warming or do you have to see a bigger picture?  You can get all these kids involved in collecting all this data.

I used to work with the TERP people years and years ago.  We used to – when acid rain was a topic of discussion the crowd sourcing – they didn’t call it crowd sourcing but they crowd sourced an idea of how acidic is the rain in your neighborhood and people took samples of the rain water or what’s living in your lake?  How drinkable is your water?  Is your water polluted?  What’s coming out of your fountain or your community pool?  We did a story a few weeks ago on what’s living in your community pool, your swimming pool.  Let’s send kids out to the community swimming pool and get the water analyzed and that’s something that hits them right where they live so to speak and then move to the oceans and see what’s living in the oceans.  Those kinds of topics where kids really can get excited but they’re also part of a bigger picture.  I think kids love that.  

There’s a cool factor that we don’t take enough advantage of.  One of the best comments we ever had on Science Friday was we were talking to a physicist about dark energy and I said “I’m going to give you the question I know everybody’s going to ask you and they always ask what practical value is there from studying dark energy?”  And there was a little pause and he said “Absolutely nothing.”  And I said, “But it’s really cool.”  And that’s what kids like to hear.  They’re probably never going to hear about dark energy because it’s not something that’s brought up in school.  We’re too busy studying the periodic table and not understanding why that guy thinks dark energy is cool.

Mariette DiChristina: Ira, I have to say it was really cool to talk to you.

Ira Flatow:         Thank you.

Mariette DiChristina: Thanks a million.  Thank you very much.

Steve Mirsky:    We’ll be right back after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.

Kerri Smith:       On the Nature podcast this week we ask the big questions about sea level rise, discover what lessons we can learn from climate change from the exploration of America’s Great Plains and feel sea sick as we explore the rough waters of Drake Passage at the foot of South America.  Listen at nature.com/nature/podcast.

Steve Mirsky:    That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our Web site www.scientificamerican.com where you can watch videos of the entire summit, “Learning in the Digital Age,” and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site.  Our Twitter name is @sciam.  For Scientific American Science Talk I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

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