Author Kristi Charish Guest Post

Edutainment: Science Literacy Hail Mary or Slippery Slope of No Return?
by Kristi Charish

How do we learn?

It’s one of those questions constantly floated around academic educational circles in an attempt to determine how best to teach students and it’s a particularly charged topic around the subject of science literacy.

Science literacy is loosely defined as the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes. More specifically, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines scientific literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.”
This requires a scientifically literate person to:
• Explain phenomena scientifically – recognize, offer and evaluate explanations for a range of natural and technological phenomena
• Evaluate and design scientific inquiry – describe and appraise scientific investigations and propose ways of addressing questions scientifically.
• Interpret data and evidence scientifically – analyze and evaluate data, claims and arguments in a variety of representations and draw appropriate scientific conclusions.

So how do we match up against these criteria? Available statistics vary – remember we’re dealing with a qualitative assessment of skill which is trickier to do that determine if someone can read or perform math but in general they suggest North Americans are doing about as well as everyone else. In other words, not great (For more detail on the data start with Science Daily News via John Miller at Michigan State University back in 2007 and in an 2010 article on Science News). One finding from 2007 that stuck out was that although Americans scored marginally better than their European counterparts, 70% of American were still unable to read and understand the science section of the New York Times. On many levels that could pose a serious societal problem on our horizon. Does it matter how many scientific wonders and advances you achieve if 70% of the population in unable to comprehend how we got there and what we’ve actually done?

How did our science literacy end up here? At what point does a society whose very existence depends on the scientific advances of the past 150 years and which is in the throws of unprecedented technological advances get to the point where a majority of the population is no longer literate enough to understand a report in a newspaper?

Theories range from the acceleration of scientific discoveries making it impossible for the general public to keep up to the deterioration of public science education, and the failure of scientists and news to properly communicate and decimate accurate information. Take your pick. I’m not certain it really matters what the cause is at this point, the outcome is the same. We’ve got more wonders of science around us then at any other point in history and some of our reactions mimic those of dark-age townspeople on a witch-hunt (Vaccinations and genetically modified organisms anyone?). Any solutions to the above problems posed would require a major shift in societal behavior- something we as humans aren’t particularly good at.

There is a possible Hail Mary for science literacy that doesn’t necessitate the engineering of massive social change, an area of educational research that has gained some attention in academic education and science literacy circles, and not always for positive reasons. Learning through narrative.

Learning through story narrative (whether it’s novels, TV, or videogames) isn’t anything new; it’s a process that’s been going on for millennia. Ever since we started painting hunting scenes on caves depicting how, where, and when to hunt, we’ve been telling stories through narrative. Humans like stories. We remember things told in a narrative better than something told as a singular fact. Stories give ideals and detail context, and the more entertaining the better. Good stories engage us by resonating on an emotional level, and that in turn brings details to life.

Don’t believe me? Do a quick Google search for academic articles on learning through storytelling and a bevy of academic educational articles from peer-reviewed journals show up, along with links to various news reports. What educational researchers now know is that we’re more likely to remember details delivered through storytelling. You might be strapped to remember a lesson from a high school chemistry class but think about you’re favorite TV show or videogame. Chances are you can remember more relevant and context dependent details.

When we’re entertained we have a vested interest in focusing and retaining information- and in a lot of ways that’s the detail currently playing havoc with the academic educational world and science literacy circles.

Education Versus Edutainment
When your general population no longer understands the purpose of a vaccination or – one of my all time favorites- forgets within two generations why fortified milk became an essential component of a healthy diet in the 1930’s (it was an amazing feat of social engineering that cured a vitamin D deficiency disease known as rickets in less than a decade)- we have a problem. A big one.

But if our current methods of science literacy education are only reaching a small portion of the population, how do we proceed? And that’s where the academics argue. In one corner is traditional pedagogy, where the goal is to develop and understand the ideal conditions under which people learn. The problem with this is that this the goal- best learning practices and ideal conditions- ore often then not involves a change in habits. Fantastic if you have willing subjects, not so much if you don’t.

Edutainment takes a slightly different approach. Instead of creating an ideal learning tool, its goal is to harness the power of entertainment media by sliding in educational components – and here’s the catch- without altering or damaging the entertainment value. And that’s where it garners its greatest criticism- sacrificing best education practices in an attempt to maintain and attract the target audience.

Personally, I think they’re both right – for different audiences.

Best education practices developed by the education community are most likely to maximize learning potential if a student is interested, willing, and dedicated. But does that address the problem of science literacy? It assumes everyone is willing to exchange engrained habits to learn. In my opinion, edutainment fills this spot better than best practices ever could, by adapting the material for the population, not the other way around.

The Funkfood of Science Education?
Humans don’t like changing habits. It’s hard. Just think of all the new years resolutions that spend a month in the gym or on a new health kick. A fraction of people will stick with it, but only a fraction. Most have bid the gym good-bye by the end of February. It’s always seems to be the underachievers, the ones who alter their routines only slightly (takes the dog out for an extra five/ten minutes every night), who have the best results and the same theory can be applied to science literacy. There are optimal ways to get in shape- but only if you are able to maintain an often drastic change to daily routines…

But if it’s the junkfood killing people, wouldn’t it be more effective to make the junkfood healthier than to get everyone to stop eating it? Some may call that a fatalistic approach whereas others just outright call it practical. Isn’t any sustained step in the right direction a positive step for science literacy?

There is one well-known and major drawback to the better junkfood approach of edutainment: maintaining accuracy. Sometimes accurate (even remote accuracy) just doesn’t feel entertaining enough. Take the Star Wars X-wing fighters. X-wings won’t bank in space, airplanes bank because of air resistance. There is no air in space, hence, no banking X-wings, (or the sound that banking X-wings would make since there is no air to carry sound but that’s another discussion). Or take the last viral/zombie/outbreak movie/videogame you saw. Chances are the scientific probability of whichever zombie imbuing disease was on display wasn’t at the top of the priority list. Though there are many examples of where fantastic science is slid in under the radar, a lot of times scientific accuracy (or let’s face it, plausibility) is sacrificed for storylines. As a potential educational bridging tool for the future, that’s a problem, though I think as people become more aware of the power of entertainment media for constructive passive learning, this will eventually solve itself. In some cases, companies are ahead of the curve, bringing in science advisors most notably in the field of sci-fi video games (Mass Effect Series, Crysis, Portal to name only a few) where accuracy can tie into game mechanics and is something fans have come to expect. I could digress at length about the incredible potential of videogames as a science literacy tool (for reference and a good read see The World of Warcraft studies by Constance Steinkuehler) but that’s another article on it’s own.

The point of science literacy isn’t to recall facts. It’s to give people the ability to interact logically with the increasingly technological world around us. When most of us are hard pressed to explain how a grade school potato battery works I doubt a massive overhaul of the education system or a drastic cultural and behavioral shift towards active learning is a practical solution. Instead, let’s harness the tools of modern storytelling mediums to work for us. In a lot of ways they already hold us captive, why not use it?


About the Author:
Kristi is the author of a forthcoming urban fantasy series OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016.

Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.
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