Hey science teachers — make it fun – Tyler DeWitt


let me tell you a story it’s my first year as a new high school science teacher and I’m so eager I’m so excited I’m pouring myself into my lesson plans but I’m slowly coming to this horrifying realization that my students just might not be learning anything this happens one day I just assigned my class to read this textbook chapter about my favorite subject in all of biology viruses and how they attack and so I’m so excited to discuss this with him and I comment and I say can somebody please explain the main ideas and why this is so cool there’s silence finally my favorite student she looks me straight in the eye and she says the reading sucked and then she clarified she says you know what I don’t mean that it sucks I mean that I didn’t understand a word of it it’s boring um who cares and it sucks these sympathetic smiles spread all throughout the room though and I realized that all of my other students are in the same boat that maybe they took notes or they memorize definitions from the textbook but not one of them really understood the main ideas not one of them can tell me why this stuff is so cool why it’s so important I’m totally clueless I have no idea what to do next so the only thing I can think of is say listen let me tell you a story the main characters in the story are bacteria and viruses these guys are blown up a couple million times the real bacteria and viruses are so small we can’t see them without a microscope and you guys might know bacteria and viruses because they both make us sick but what a lot of people don’t know is that viruses can also make bacteria sick now the story that I start telling my kids it starts out like a horror story once upon a time there’s this happy little bacterium don’t get too attached to him maybe he’s floating around in your stomach or in some spoiled food somewhere and all of a sudden he starts to not feel so good maybe he ate something bad for lunch and then things get really horrible as his skin rips apart and he sees a virus coming out from his insides and then it gets horrible when he bursts open and the army of viruses floods out from his insides if H is right if you see this and you’re a bacterium this is like your worst nightmare but if you’re a virus and you see this you cross those little legs of yours and you think we rock because it took a lot of crafty work to infect this bacterium here’s what had to happen a virus grabbed onto a bacterium and it slipped its DNA into it the next thing is that virus DNA made stuff that chopped up the bacterial DNA and now that we’ve gotten rid of the bacterial DNA the virus DNA takes control of the cell and it tells it to start making more viruses because you see DNA is like a blueprint that tells living things what to make so this is kind of like going into a car Factory and replacing the blueprints with blueprints for killer robots the workers still come the next day they do their job but they’re following different instructions so replacing the bacterial DNA with virus DNA turns the bacteria into a factory for making viruses that is until it’s so filled with bio viruses that it bursts but that’s not the only way that viruses infect back to area some are much more crafting when a secret-agent virus infects a bacterium they do a little espionage here this cloaked secret-agent virus is slipping his DNA into the bacterial cell but here’s the kicker it doesn’t do anything harmful not at first instead it silently slips into the bacterias own DNA and it just stays there like a terrorist sleeper cell waiting for instructions and what’s interesting about this is now whenever this bacteria has babies the babies also have the virus DNA in them so now we have a whole extended bacterial family filled with virus sleeper cells they’re just happily living together until a signal happens and bam all of the DNA pops out it takes control of these cells turns them into virus making factories and they all burst a huge extended bacterial family all dying with viruses spilling out of their guts the viruses taking over the bacterium so now you understand how viruses can attack cells there are two ways on the left is what we call the lytic way where the viruses go right in take over the cells on the left is the lysogenic way that uses secret agent viruses so this stuff is not that hard right and now all of you understand it but if you’ve graduated from high school I could almost guarantee you seen this information before but I wet I bet it was presented in a way that it didn’t exactly stick in your mind so when my students were first learning this why did they hate it so much well there were a couple reasons first of all I can guarantee you that their textbooks didn’t have secret agent viruses didn’t have horror stories you know in the communication of science there is this obsession with seriousness it kills me I’m not kidding I used to work for an educational publisher and as a writer I was always told never to use stories or fun engaging language because then my work might not be viewed as serious and scientific right I mean because God forbid somebody have fun when they’re learning science so we have this field of science that’s all about slime and color changes check this out and then we have of course as any good scientist has to have explosions but if a textbook seems too much fun it’s somehow unscientific now another problem was that the language in their textbook was truly incomprehensible if we want to summarize that story that I told you earlier we could start by saying something like these viruses make copies in themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium the way this showed up in the textbook it looked like this bacteria phage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral nucleic acid into a bacterium that’s great perfect for thirteen year olds but here’s the thing there are plenty of people in science education who would look at this and say there’s no way that we could ever give that to students because it contains some language that isn’t completely accurate for example I told you that viruses have DNA well a very tiny fraction of them don’t they have something called RNA instead so professional science writer would circle that and say that has to go we have to change it to something much more technical and after a team of professional science editors went over this really simple explanation they’d find fault with almost every word I’ve used and they’d have to change anything that wasn’t serious enough and they’d have to change everything that wasn’t 100% perfect then it would be accurate but it would be completely impossible to understand this is horrifying you know I keep talking about this idea of of telling a story and it’s like science communication has taken on this idea of what I call the tyranny of precision you can’t just tell a story it’s like science has become that horrible storyteller that we all know who gives us all the details nobody cares about we are like oh I met my friend for lunch the other day and she was wearing these ugly jeans I mean they weren’t really jeans they were more kind of like leggings but like I guess they’re actually kind of more like jeggings like but I think you’re just like oh my god what is the point or even worse science education is becoming like that guy who always says actually right you want to be like oh dude we have to get up in the middle of the night and drive a hundred miles in total darkness and that guy’s like actually it was 87 point three miles and you’re like actually shut up I just trying to tell a story because good storytelling is all about emotional connection we have to convince our audience that what we’re talking about matters but just as important is knowing which details we should leave out so that the main point still comes across I’m reminded of what the architect Mies van der Rohe said and I paraphrase when he said that sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth I think the sentiment is particularly relevant to science education now finally I am I’m often so disappointed when people think that I’m advocating a dumbing down of science that’s not true at all I’m currently a PhD student at MIT and I absolutely understand the importance of detailed specific scientific communication between experts but not when we’re trying to teach 13-year olds if a young learner thinks that all viruses have DNA that’s not going to ruin their chances of success in science but if a young learner can’t understand anything in science and learns to hate it because it all sounds like this that will ruin their chances of success this needs to stop and I wish that the change could come from the institutions at the top that are perpetuating these problems and I beg them I beseech them to just stop it but I think that’s unlikely so we are so lucky that we have resources like the Internet where we can circumvent these institutions as from the bottom up there’s a growing number of online resources that are dedicated to just explaining science in simple understandable ways I dream of a Wikipedia like website that would explain any scientific concept you can think of in simple language any middle schooler can understand and I myself spend most of my free time making these science videos that I put on YouTube I explain chemical equilibrium using analogies to awkward middle school dances and I talk about fuel cells with stories about boys and girls at a summer camp the feedback that I get is sometimes misspelled and it’s often written in Lal cats but nonetheless it’s so appreciative so thankful that I know this is the right way we should be communicating science there’s still so much work left to be done though and if you’re involved with science in anyway I urge you to join me pick up a camera start to write a blog whatever but leave out the seriousness leave out the jargon make me laugh make me care leave out those annoying details that nobody cares about and just get to the point how should you start why don’t you say listen let me tell you a story thank you you

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Comments

  1. I had a few teachers who did that. granted, it was a summer camp, so we were already interested, but it was great. they wrote a book called Number Theory: A Lively Introduction with Proofs, Applications, and Stories, which I suspect is equally awesome (everyone in the class got a manuscript and it was hilarious)

  2. I love this idea. However, I find something lacks when we get to college. I have this great professor who was super excited the first day of class, had clearly studied how people learn best, and I thought "wow, it's so awesome when profs are super into their topic." My classmates all felt like we were being treated like middle schoolers 🙁

  3. Those plushes that he's using for demonstration, you can buy them yourself. Look up "Giant Microbes". Highly recommended.

  4. If only all my teachers loved their jobs this much. I wish i would actually learn rather than just try to get a grade.

  5. Tyler you are an excellent teacher. Kids are lucky to have you. I am a 33 yr old returning college student and you helped me get an A in physics. Your videos are VERY helpful. Thank you for doing what you do.

  6. one of the most amazings teachers EVER!

    Imagine how awesome will be the world if everyone could have classes with Tyler DeWitt and Neil deGrasse

  7. Hey..
    M a huge fan of science… nd u.:p
    I love ur videos….bt can u plz recommend me sum 1 like u whose videos can help me in my math lessons…specially in trigonometry…plz lemmi kno….

  8. I started watching this on ted.com but it would get to 5 minutes then cut out. I am so glad he has a youtube channel. I have subscribed and will now continue watching the video about making science fun.

  9. Dude we think alike, for every educational content it should be like this !
    i have been fighting for the same for past 15 years…Who cares…
    All dumbos are there at the top !

  10. I wish I could have a teacher like him 🙁 He's so inspirational!
    @Dan Thanh 東方神起 check this video out. I think we could pass all the subjects and study with all our hearts if we had him as our mentor. He makes us want to learn more and more through his interesting stories.

  11. i'm so upset i never had a teacher like u. I mean i was rly considering becoming an archeologyst when I watched Indiana Jhones. I read the half of textbook before my first history lesson but when i came to my teacher and told her i want to become an archeologyst, she told me (of course she did) that archeology has nothing to do with movies, and it would be ok, if she stopped right there, but no, she continued to explain what is archeology about, and the main point of her speach was (not kidding) archeology is a boring stuff, you will never have any adventures, but reading all the time. I mean not only she ruined my plans on whole life, she was sooo obsessed with this seriosness, that she lied to me. Actualy i met some archeologysts in my life. It's obvious they had nothing common with Harrison Ford, but when they told me about the work, well it was soo cool and sooo interesting…. ah well, all i was saying, you are doing great job Tyler, keep it up.

  12. He's so passionate about what he's doing, Which is a good thing. I'm looking forward to watching his future videos.

  13. His videos are great – my EIGHT year old loves them and they've helped him grasp several chemistry concepts that he wouldn't normally have learned until he got to secondary school. Go Tyler!

  14. Kudos to you Sir Dewitt. Thanks to you I was able to understand all of my chemistry lessons. I am a real fan of you. THANK YOU

  15. He is my favorite Chemistry Teacher. He has a Youtube channel(Tyler DeWitt) but I don't know why he stopped making videos.

  16. Kids nowadays don't have the required inteligence to read a text book so you have to come up with cute stories and analogies.

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