STEM | Spotlight

Interdisciplinary Exploration Is Key to the Future of Science Education

In his keynote address at FETC 2013 in Orlando Tuesday, science writer Matt Kaplan proclaimed, "There is no reason to limit science education to the expertise of the teacher in the classroom." With so much information at our fingertips, he said, we should be both willing and able to integrate multiple fields of study to enhance our students' experience of science.

When the Curriculum Fails
"As a young student," Kaplan shared, "I loved dinosaurs. The problem, he said, was that he didn't have any dinosaurs in his education. "I kept asking the teachers, 'Where are the dinosaurs?' and they answered, 'I'm sorry, that's just the curriculum for you. There are no dinosaurs."

It's sad, he said, that something a student is passionate about is not being taught because it's not part of the curriculum or, worse, isn't being taught because it isn't going to find its way onto a test.

"There's no reason why dinosaurs, zombies, or vampires can't be used to teach core science concepts." Sure, he admitted, "it would have been really hard for my teachers. They didn't have that kind of content available." But that's no longer the case. The content is there, the technology to distribute and share that content is available, and it can be leveraged to enhance science education at all levels.

Teaching Science Is Telling a Story
As a theatre student at University of California, Davis, Kaplan came to realize the thread that connected science to many other disciplines was storytelling. "Unless you've got a good story," he said, "you've got nothing." When it comes to science, you begin to tell a story based on the facts in front of you, "but it's the story that makes it real." "The thing that really set me on fire," he said, was the process of telling the story of science.

Kaplan shared several anecdotes highlighting the triumphs of cross disciplinary thinking in science: how studying fat-tailed scorpions helped engineers design better helicopter blades; how analyzing spit from a sand worm helped scientists rethink the development of surgical adhesives; how studying popular mythologies from ancient history all the way to the 1950s helps answer questions about geology, medicine, and chemistry.

"There are so many great examples," he said, "of disparate fields cross pollinating in incredibly important ways. "It's really exciting," he said, and it's important that we help our students find that excitement in science education by sharing these stories.

Referencing his article "From Gollum to Avatar," Kaplan talked about how Hollywood has made the technological leap from the original Yoda puppet to completely immersive virtual realities like those found in Avatar's Pandora. "It is amazing," he said. "Technology is being developed for film that can make us forget it's not real." More amazing for Kaplan is that we are approaching a time where we will be able to leverage that technology to teach our students.

"If we have the technology to send a student back to the Jurassic period," he said, "or to send them to the world of Pandora to explore the environment, think about how much we will be able to keep those flames of interest ignited." We just have to embrace it.

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.