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Five Ways Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye Can Help Teachers Improve Science Literacy
The president, an astrophysicist, and a scientist take a selfie and post it to Twitter; adults and children across America find the scientists as easy to identify as the president. This might be a dream come true for science teachers. In fact, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and science educator and television host Bill Nye have been in the public eye longer than Barack Obama.
Children certainly know them: My son refers to Tyson as “the guy who killed Pluto,” and Nye as “the bowtie science guy.” Their high profiles in the news and on television and social media make Nye and Tyson excellent spokespeople for the importance of scientific knowledge, especially when they’re connecting with students.
Combating low scientific literacy in the U.S.
Science literacy is essential for basic science education. According to the National Science Board, scientific literacy is “knowing basic facts and concepts about science and having an understanding of how science works.” This information includes foundational knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics as well as how the scientific process works. Unfortunately, surveys cited by the NSB found that both Americans and Europeans do not have a good understanding of the scientific process; few know the definition of a molecule; and many believe in pseudosciences such as astrology and psychic abilities.
Increasing science knowledge through pop culture
The media presence and active engagement of both Nye and Tyson allow the public to see scientific concepts in action. While the PBS show “Bill Nye The Science Guy” has been off the air since the late nineties, he maintains visibility with appearances on television and news shows and recently through public debates on the topics of creationism and global warming.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is in the headlines now in anticipation of hosting “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” an update of the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which explored scientific knowledge in an accessible and entertaining way. Additionally, Tyson’s books and appearances on Jeopardy, The Daily Show, and late night talk shows give him a high profile.
5 ways teachers can engage students with science using Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are popular public figures who engage on matters of science in a variety of formats and are able to make and evaluate scientific arguments in exciting ways. Consider working them into the classroom in one of the following ways.
1. Scientific literacy
Students love a movie day and both Nye and Tyson have television shows teachers can share with students. Bill Nye’s website has a series of episode guides that help identify the wide variety of topics his show covers. Showing clips from these episodes can help students more readily identify with science topics covered in class.
When Neil deGrasse Tyson begins hosting “Cosmos” in March 2014, students will find it easy to explore scientific topics with the aid of Tyson’s excellent storytelling and compelling visuals. They could compare old and new episodes of “Cosmos” to identify new developments in scientific understanding.
2. Science experiments
What’s better than watching science? Doing science! Bill Nye’s site provides a variety of home demos to give students hands-on experience doing science experiments. While the classroom is a great place for experiments, encouraging students to take science wherever they go is an excellent way to get them to see science everywhere. Consider asking for reports on their favorites to engage students in the fun.
3. Scientific analysis
Bill Nye (@theScienceGuy) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (@NeilTyson) are both active Twitter users. By following them, students can see how scientists respond to current events, pop culture and the world around them. When students see scientists engaged in consistent conversation about science in their world, they are more likely to use science literacy in unexpected places.
When @theScienceGuy tweets about the science of swing dancing or @NeilTyson tweets about the moon being backwards and upside down during the Oscar performance of “Moon Song,” students see that science is an intricate part of life. What better way to watch a clip of Oscar-winning movie “Gravity” with students than through the eyes of Tyson’s tweets?
4. Debate about scientific concepts
Scientific literacy requires engagement and understanding of scientific writing, presentations and conversations. Both men have Facebook pages where podcasts, radio shows, and work on other television shows is highlighted. One excellent means of allowing students to enter these conversations is watching short clips from these pages, then witnessing the conversations that unfold in response to the posting.
5. Intellectual curiosity and inquiry
Students who are engaged with science can and should create insightful questions and explore many avenues to get answers – including an inquiry to Nye or Tyson via social media. While students would get a thrill from a response, the process of identifying a topic and creating a coherent question about it is enough to engage their scientific minds.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.
David Evans, Science Literacy and Pseudoscience, National Science Teachers Association
Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding, National Science Board
Dave Davies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson Explains Why The Cosmos Shouldn’t Make You Feel Small, Fresh Air
KT6 for Kids and Teachers, Billnye.com
Miriam Kramer, “Cosmos” Reborn: New Fox TV Show Aims to Bring Science to Everyone, Space.com