Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Smoke and Mirrors

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Smoke and Mirrors

Article excerpt

Every one of us knew it was coming. As a junior in my high school, you were required to write a 30-page English term paper. Cleaning the Aegean stables seemed simple by comparison (and similar in fundamental material). But of course, it simply had to be done.

Despite our considerable collective groaning, our enthusiastic English teacher managed to help us get organized and on our way. The hardest part, it seemed, was the first: coming up with a topic. After mulling about it longer than I should have, I stumbled on an ideal fit for my quirky reading preferences. I would research the genre of science fiction as the modern embodiment of classical mythology.

I suppose one could say I got a bit too involved. I produced a term page of prodigious proportions: over 70 hand-typed, double-spaced pages. I think the yellowed stack of papers still exists in my files somewhere as a trophy to personal diligence. Interestingly, though, what has truly stuck with me from this exercise isn't the memory of hard work or the pride of accomplishment. It is the understanding I developed, before my education as a scientist truly began, that the world's perception of science is damnably mercurial.

One of the best probes of the general image of science is its reflection in contemporary literature. But, of course, the nature of what we term literature can morph. Consider television. In my own long-ago formative years, what transpired in the shows on our three black-and-white channels constituted the bases of much community discussion. It was a shared experience. Television, more than books, was the popular literature of my youth. And there was no lack of images of science and scientists in this medium.

In those years, society's general view of science seemed to be poised at an inflection point. On one hand, many shows painted our future in shades of benevolent magic. We were all going to spend the year 2000 lounging in plush-lined, computer-navigated autos (jetpacks de rigueur for shorter jaunts) and quaffing Tang while savoring our gourmet meal-pills (which had been precisely designed to maintain our health AND our figures for all those silver bodysuits). On the other hand, though, we were haunted by imminent annihilation. A multitude of cold-war inspired spy shows gave us the reasons for those clumsy duck-and-cover nuclear disaster drills in middle school.

My take is that science has mostly retreated further from general positive regard in the intervening years. It seems that every year, I see more examples in television, movies, and even books of dislike, distrust, and disdain of the field. In "real" life, I teach increasing numbers of students outspoken in their assertions that what I teach has no meaning for them or for their future professions whatsoever. We science teachers are (I think) increasingly viewed as either hapless fools or as ogres under the bridge; evil forces that must be somehow tricked if the student is to achieve his or her life's goal. …

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