Science in the Alternative Media

Would it be possible to teach children science and engineering, and the joys of it all, by letting them watch television? In fact, I am willing to put a wager on the fact that a good number of pupils would rather listen to a stereotypically attired professor on the screen, showing them exactly the same equations and going through the same nomenclature as their teacher, than be an audience for the real thing. Most of the time, at least.

Having stepped into the shoes of a science teacher, I now have even more respect for them than I did as a gawky student; and I realise why teachers are vital – a real person can answer back, stimulate conversation and actually be spontaneous. However, television does bring great opportunities to sneak more science into the “background” of life, and in creative ways. Naturally, such a television viewing experience caused this post. I watched “James May’s Toy Stories” when it first came out, greatly enjoyed it, and was delighted to find a special episode featuring a retrial of the one mission that had failed. (I should explain for the uninitiated amongst you that in each episode, a classic toy (think Lego) was revived, and used on a very large scale (think building a real house).)

On the surface, there are model railway enthusiasts, Brits, Germans, engineering on a 1:87 scale, whisky, beer, healthy competition and ice cream. What more could you want? Though if you think about it, a whole host of scientific or engineering topics had been explored. From the engineering point of view, the viewer was treated to explanations of steam trains and the workings of “coal power”; electric trains and why you should be cautious of how many volts you feed into the vehicle (to not burn the engine out); and the the newly invented contraption – the “track-o-matic”, where we were shown a nearly Goldbergian (cause and effect) process of how the model rail-tracks were laid at the same speed as the machine was pulled forwards. From a scientific point of view, each team were to create a brand new way, with yet another backup, to propel a model train along the railway. Things explained were: hydrogen cells and their storing abilities; alkaline cells and why they are better than regular batteries; how to distil fuel from sauerkraut, etc….

I may still be a gawky student inside who enjoys these things, but surely this could be used as a format in which to being more science to the public?


3 thoughts on “Science in the Alternative Media

  1. It was TV that inspired me to study science not teachers if anything school science only maintained my interest because it was easy to excel at. I think video classes don’t work because it would be so easy to switch off and not listen. It’s also why lectures were never as satisfying as lessons.

    What inspired you? For me SF e.g. Aquila, Demon Headmaster, Stargate; Christmas Lectures on wormholes; Some episodes of Horizon; Another BBC documentary on Space; and a bit of teenage fiction e.g. Jan Mark’s Eclipse of the Century, His Dark Materials, Terry Pratchett.

    1. Hmm… well, The X Files did not wind its way back into my life until University, having first been scared off when I caught an episode aged 10. I guess I happened to have particularly good science teachers across GCSEs and A levels. Might as well admit that it was not until I started considering science communication as my “breadmaker” that I sought out science on the telly.

      Then again, television is a particularly good way of sneaking in background science, so maybe I didn’t really think about it. E.g. as a child I liked Transformers, Biker Mice from Mars, Inspector Gadget… Maybe I was meant to be an engineer?

  2. An interesting no doubt, but I always found that television was more of an informer than an educator. That being said, I’ve never seen a genuine attempt at making a “lesson-on-tape”, so much as popular science documentaries, not that there is anything wrong with those of course, accessibility is the name of the game.
    That being said, I have watched some of the recoded lectures on youtube and found those to be thoroughly engaging. It would be most interesting to see how the young’uns would react to such a thing.

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