LOS ANGELES, CA — “After a winter like this, how can you believe in global warming?” … “Climate change? Earth’s climate has always changed. Temperatures go up, temperatures go down.” … “Doesn’t the sun have something to do with it getting hotter?”

You’ve heard it all before. The disconnect between climate science and what many Americans choose to believe is huge. With public understanding of science alarmingly low nationwide, what’s the answer?

Help may come from new collaborations among teachers, scientists and Hollywood filmmakers. On February 4, a group called the Science & Entertainment Exchange (see a previous story on the Exchange) hosted a “Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education” in Beverly Hills — just down the road from the iconic hilltop Hollywood sign.

On hand were middle and high school teachers, screenwriters, movie directors and producers, astrophysicists, biologists, and executives from the National Academies.

Their goal, in short, was to brainstorm new ways to invigorate science classrooms and motivate the youngest generation of Americans to embrace scientific thinking.

A few threads dominated the discussions at the Paley Center for Media, where the summit was held. Among them:

  • Storytelling is a valuable tool by which people can learn about the world around them.
  • Youths learn best about science when they think it’s relevant to their lives, when it’s fun and engaging, and when learning requires them to think in creative ways.
  • Gaming can be tailored as an incredible learning tool, motivating students to customize challenges, hone their understanding of the scientific method, and take risks.
  • Entertainment and the arts can be used as a bridge between the language of science and everyday experiences.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a partnership between the National Academy of Sciences and directors, producers, screenwriters, and other professionals in the movie business in Hollywood, was formed about two years ago.

Appreciating Science through Storytelling

The group has connected numerous scientists and filmmakers on projects, and sponsored symposia to promote formal and informal relationships between the two fields. But the Exchange also has focused on science education, and how Hollywood can play a new role in helping to educate kids in the classroom.

Sean Carroll, a biologist who studies evolutionary development and is also Vice President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told attendees at the meeting that people young and old build a better appreciation for science when it’s part of a story.

“What do we all have in common, those of us trying to explain science, those of us trying to teach, those of us trying to entertain?” Carroll said. “It’s storytelling.”

“I’m convinced that Rudyard Kipling got it right — that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. I’m absolutely certain that the same is true of science. Whether we’re teaching our kids, or talking to each other, or talking to the public, it’s all about storytelling.”

Carroll said the history of science is full of compelling stories that Hollywood can tell. Among them is the story of Roy Chapman Andrews — a figure straight from central casting to play Indiana Jones. Taking a cinematographer with him, Andrews explored the Gobi Desert in the 1920s searching for fossils of ancient humans. He instead discovered a huge find of dinosaur bones (one of which came from a creature he called “Velociraptor”, which of course would show up again in the film Jurassic Park) and the first discovered dinosaur eggs.

Another historical figure was Mary Nicol, an archaeologist who had an affair with Louis Leakey and would become his wife and scientific partner. She discovered a huge Stone Age tool factory, and the first hominid identified in East Africa — Zinjanthropus boisei (also known as Australopithecus boisei), dating back 1.75 million years. Mary Leakey was a figure that would rival Meryl Streep’s character in “Out of Africa,” Carroll said.

“I think there is an enormous number of stories out there that can be told, that need to be told,” he said.

While Hollywood films can help make science entertaining, Carroll said they can help also in the classroom. He announced at the meeting a five-year, $60 million project launched by HHMI to produce high-quality documentaries on science.

Meanwhile, the Exchange announced a $225,000 grant, sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, to fund pilot projects that grow from ideas discussed at the meeting.

‘Blurring Boundaries’ between Art, Science, Technology, Engineering

Compelling documentaries and films can help engage young people, but they also have to “get their hands dirty,” said Tom DeRose, senior scientist and lead of the Research Group at Pixar Animation Studios.

He told attendees about an organization called “Maker Faire,” in which kids belonging to Maker Faire clubs work on engineering projects and display them at an annual regional fair. Maker Faire is active in the U.S. in the San Francisco Bay area, Detroit, and New York.

Some youths in the San Francisco Bay area have been lucky enough to work with mentors from Pixar, designing and constructing, among other things, an eight-foot tall robotic dragon that breathes fire.

“We’re trying to blur the boundaries between art and science and technology and engineering … with these projects,” DeRose said. “We’re really encouraging kids to have a vision that combines them all somehow. And that’s what entertainment is all about. We’re all about creativity and blending technology and storytelling together.”

Students and Physics … ‘You Have to Grab Them’

Janet English, a high school teacher at El Toro High School in Mission Viejo in Southern California, said she found a new way to teach her students a physics lesson about gravity. English, an associate member of the National Teacher Advisory Council of the NAS, filmed herself on a flight aboard a 727 with the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery program.

As she bounced off the interior walls of the aircraft, failed at playing with a hula hoop, and tried other experiments, she remembered thinking: “Oh my gosh, Isaac Newton was right!”

And, English added, by watching her film her students received a physics lesson on gravity that was as compelling as anything in their textbook.

“You have to grab them somehow, with movies, video games, challenging perspectives — all of these things are huge,” English said.

Another interesting talk came from Will Wright, who developed the computer game, SimCity, which challenges players to build their own virtual urban worlds.

The advanced technology used in modern gaming challenges players to exercise the scientific method as they make hypotheses and test their ideas. Games provide an environment where students can take risks, fail, and try again.

Wright called the best games “scaffolding for the imagination” where players can customize their experiences. “Games get you out of ordered problem-solving and get you to think in very different ways,” Wright said.

Games, meanwhile, are highly motivating. “The problem is really not the access to educational material. The problem is motivation,” Wright said. “If you could motivate a kid to be interested in this stuff, through technology, through entertainment, through whatever, then you just have to get out of their way.”

One can imagine sophisticated educational games that use the science behind climate modeling and challenge players to create various future scenarios of rising carbon emissions.

The challenge is to motivate kids, then ‘get out of their way.’

Will today’s schoolchildren elevate scientific thinking to a higher level than it enjoys today? A lot depends on whether the gulf existing now between scientists and the rest of the world can be bridged, said Brian Greene, a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University well regarded for his research in superstring theory, his books, and his contributions to the public television program, NOVA.

“For a long time, science has been framed in a language that many of us don’t speak, which is mathematics. It goes back to Newton,” Greene said. “So if you’re not able to follow the language, it’s very hard to immerse yourself in the subject, which makes it hard to get excited. What we need to do is build bridges from the language of science to the more ordinary language of everyday concerns.”

Hollywood, if this self-described “summit” is any indication, may end up building some of them.

For more coverage of the Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education, see here, here and here.

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Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...