Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the Mythbusters do a great job of presenting commonly held myths and testing them in a variety of ways, trying and adjusting and retrying experiments. They even sometimes revisit myths with a new point of view and new questions. It is this that I think is the key to their success. They present science as a series of questions and experiments, revising and retesting, a dynamic process. Starting with what people believe and then presenting the evidence to show the real answer is an important part of the educational process. Derek Muller, who runs the Veritasium Youtube channel, did his PhD dissertation on just this topic, showing that simply providing the information did not increase learning. Unless the misconceptions the audience already held were first acknowledged and dealt with, people thought the material was clear and that they understood it, when in fact they had learned nothing at all.
All of this involves asking lots of questions. But what some teachers view as a downside to this approach (although it absolutely is not) is that invariably you will wind up with lots of questions you can’t answer. Your students will ask questions you have no idea what the answer might be. So what do you do in this case?
Hopefully, you already knew which of these options is the better choice. But where do you go to learn more? Some questions can be rather esoteric or have answers that can’t be easily looked up. Fortunately, hordes of scientists are at your beck and call to save the day. Here are four websites where you can ask real scientists any question you like. None of the scientists on these sites will do people’s homework for them, but are enthusiastic about answering questions.
Ask a Scientist has 30 scientists that will answer questions on biology, chemistry, physics, space, earth and environment, health, technology, and science careers. In addition, they have links to videos for some questions. You can look at answers to past questions and ask your own. Even though it is based in the United Kingdom, with all the scientists being from the U.K., they will answer questions from anyone.
This site is also based in the United Kingdom, but has scientists from all over the world. This site is limited to biology and paleontology, but it has over 100 scientists who can answer questions. Some are doctoral students, some are the tops in their field with decades of experience. All of them are experts in what they do and all of them are there to help. They have answered thousands of questions, all of which can be searched and read. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask your own question. You might even find that you have started a lengthy discussion of your question between several experts, as has happened from time to time.
This Ask A Biologist is a National Science Foundation grantee and is hosted by Arizona State University. Again, it is limited to biology and is run by the biology faculty and graduate students of ASU. So on the one hand, you might think they might be more limited. But ASU has an extensive biology department and this site has much more ancillary material than most of the others. They have activities, stories,coloring pages, tons of images, videos, and links to other information. They have a teacher’s toolbox, providing easy searches for teachers to find exactly what they want, searchable by topic, activity, and grade level. In short, while they have several scientists available to answer questions, that is but one aspect of this educational site.
The Mad Sci Network has a huge amount of information. You can ask a question about anything. The site has experts from world class institutions available to answer questions. They have a searchable archive of over 36,000 questions already answered, so they may have already answered your question. In addition to the search features, they have several categories listed, in which you can pull up all the questions in those categories. They have a “Random Knowledge Generator” if you just want to have fun browsing at random. They also have a series of what they call “Mad Labs”, which are activities and experiments you can do at home or in the classroom. They have links to more information and resources elsewhere, including general science, educational methods and techniques, museums, science fairs, suppliers, and more.
So there you have it. When you are faced with questions you can’t answer, don’t try to bluff your way through. Who ya gonna call? Hundreds of scientists from around the world, that’s who.
“Hopefully, you already knew which of these options is the better choice.”
At the museum I used to volunteer at, we wrote down the questions we didn’t know the answers to & the email addresses of the visitors who asked them so that we could get back to them later.
BTW, what do you think of Channel Awesome’s parody of Mythbusters ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQzXnF7BlnY )? I ask b/c while I haven’t watched the show in a while, said parody represents how I felt last time I did watch it.
That’s a great idea! Sounds like the museum you worked at was a pretty cool place.
I think the parody misses the mark quite a bit. For one, the myths tested by Tori, Kari, and Grant are not second-rate compared to the ones tested by Jamie and Adam. They are not second-class at all (although I can see why someone could get that idea from the initial season with them, they did improve and become much more integral to the show). In fact, I would say that in some ways they overshadowed Adam and Jamie, which is why I was saddened to hear that they will not be returning next season. The show will lose a lot without them. Secondly, while it is easy to cherry-pick less stellar shows after 10 years, I think the parody misses the entire point of the show. Mythbusters is and has always been about not taking things at face value, questioning and testing, finding evidence to support or disprove a statement. One of the things I really like about the show is that they will periodically revisit myths they have tested based on viewer feedback claiming they missed something or tested something badly. They don’t whitewash the results or the methods, what I mean by this is that they show the problems inherent in experimentation and unexpected results, they don’t clean it up to make it look like everything went perfect all the time. They show science as a dynamic process, not static pre-existing knowledge. That is the heart of science and something that is desperately needed in the public view. The testing, modifying ideas, and retesting them is a powerful concept that one rarely sees on TV or in educational outreach in any venue. The show also succeeds by having fun, they make the scientific method interesting, which from what I have seen by far too many teachers, is something we really need more of. My daughter brought home an assignment from her science class that completely missed, well, pretty much everything about hypotheses and the scientific method and the incorrect information was presented in the worst sort of worksheet that sucked all the fun out of the subject. She knew her teacher was wrong in large part because Mythbusters (with my help) reinforced better ways of thinking. We watch the show together and dissect it, discussing what she thought of their conclusions, methods, and if she could think of better ways to test the ideas. I think used that way, Mythbusters is an incredibly valuable educational tool. There are some great teachers that show parts of Mythbusters episodes in class and go through that exact discussion with the class. It works, kids love it and they actually think about the science and the scientific process.
In short, the show is not perfect, they sometimes don’t test things in ways I think are good, but overall, I really like the show and I’ve seen it used to great effect in educational settings, if used properly. It’s easy to find fault with the show, but the good vastly outweighs the negatives.
Many thanks for a very informative response. I guess I haven’t watched enough of the show to see how good it really is (although I do think that the impressions of Jamie & Adam are pretty funny).
Thought you might enjoy this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0pnTm-KK9k&spfreload=10