Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teach like It's "Shark Week"

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teach like It's "Shark Week"

Article excerpt

When I first started teaching marine biology seven years ago, I capitalized on my students' interest in sharks. I designated a week as our own "Shark Week," complete with a spiny dogfish dissection, a shark myths web activity, and excerpts from "Shark Week" programming I found on the internet. My students loved it, and as a relatively new teacher I was proud of myself for integrating biology, conservation, and popular culture so seamlessly into this mini-unit.

Then something peculiar--but seemingly unrelated--happened about two years ago. Students started questioning me about the existence of mermaids because of a "documentary" they had seen on the Animal Planet channel on TV. You may remember this particular special and the controversy surrounding its misleading presentation as factual.

Then, that summer, Discovery aired a similar fake documentary on the megalodon as part of its "Shark Week" programming. I discussed with students what the research actually shows about the megalodon during our own "Shark Week," since they believed some of the false claims presented on TV. For example, the documentary suggests that the extinct megalodon might still swim the oceans, though no real evidence is presented. Dramatized (fake) footage is used with few disclaimers. We also analyzed the scientific community's widespread criticism of the special, as it sparked a new debate about the channel's role in presenting scientific information.

At this writing, it's "Shark Week" 2014, and I'm again in disbelief as I read about new Discovery "documentaries" that continue to mislead the public. Allegedly, some filmmakers even tricked scientists in order to obtain sound bites that would later be edited into the fictional story lines. These reports quickly spread through social media, and only time will tell what effect they will have on the future of similar "scientific" programming. What, exactly, has "Shark Week" become?

I must admit that the title of this column is somewhat misleading. In your classroom, themed weeks such as "Shark Week" can generate excitement among students. Developing units that integrate media, current events, multiple content areas, and dynamic instructional strategies are benchmarks of effective science teaching. But what I really mean by "teaching like it's 'Shark Week'" is that as science teachers, we are defenders of science; we must train our students to know what good science is and, more importantly, what it isn't. …

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