Science education should not be designed after Mythbusters

Credit: Courtney Wittekind/News Editor Credit: Courtney Wittekind/News Editor
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President Obama has always supported solar energy, whether in policy he enacts or in the plans for renovation of the White House. Beyond the infamous stimulus package that included provisions for solar energy, he has also announced plans for installing power-generating solar panels and a solar water heater on the White House roof. While this is not new — former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush had solar panels installed on area buildings — the panels installed by Carter were removed when they started leaking and the panels did not power the White House, only a maintenance building and a pool. Obama’s latest appearance to promote solar power will be on the popular Discovery Channel series Mythbusters.

Mythbusters, as most are aware, features special effects wizards James “Jamie” Hyneman and Adam Savage putting various “myths” and urban legends to the test. The show generally features between three and five myths per episode and demonstrates the process by which the team, which actually includes some additional people, determines how they are going to put the myth to the test. Typically, the team designs and performs an experiment that replicates the situation of the myth. Often, replicating the myth requires elaborate construction projects. In addition, if the testing of the myth is not sufficiently theatrical, the team will increase the magnitude of the testing parameters. For example, after confirming that you cannot remove cured concrete from a cement mixer with dynamite, Mythbusters decided instead to detonate the cement mixer with more than 200 pounds of explosives.

During the episode in which President Obama will appear, the Mythbusters will be re-testing the Archimedes Mirror myth. The Archimedes Mirror myth is also known as the Archimedes Heat Ray experiment. Supposedly, during the Siege of Syracuse, Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes constructed a set of mirrors that allowed him to focus sunlight on the ships of the Roman republic, burning the fleet. It is also reasonable to note that the myth is a repeat from an earlier episode in the series. The Archimedes myth has been tested repeatedly by multiple scientific organizations with mixed results. President Obama will use his appearance during the testing of this myth to promote the adoption of solar power.

In combination with the inclusion of the two Mythbusters stars at the “Educate to Innovate” kickoff event, it seems that President Obama wishes for science education to become more like Mythbusters and entertain schoolchildren in classrooms with the same antics that they see on TV. Changing science education to be like Mythbusters would turn education into mere entertainment with only an aftertaste of real science. However, actually expecting science classrooms to act anything like an episode of Mythbusters is unrealistic.

Modeling science education after Mythbusters would be impossible. Though the actual cost of producing Mythbusters is carefully guarded, as are the costs of most television shows, it is nearly certain that it is far more than an average American school district has for its entire year, much less just its science classes. It would be especially difficult to simulate Mythbusters in elementary school classrooms, where each teacher must be capable of teaching multiple subjects, operating obscure equipment, and encouraging activities where safety is often tenuous.

Though President Obama’s supporting clean energy and science education is a wonderful thing, it will be accomplished by developing more effective science curriculum and education techniques, not by turning every classroom into a TV production studio. President Obama’s appearance on Mythbusters will likely not be effective in promoting solar energy or his other science initiatives.