There is tangible evidence of the growing importance of visual media in science education. This year saw the awarding of an ISI impact factor to Jove, the Journal of Visualised Experiments. February 2015 was the 10th birthday of video sharing service YouTube. Whilst large amounts of material on the site would not be considered educational (in a positive sense), nevertheless there are many hours of quality scientific information available. These can be called upon for both formal and informal learning. We have also witnessed the rise of the “TED talk”, short presentations by engaging speakers which often tackle cutting edge developments in bioscience. I want to suggest in this article that there is an additional resource which we are not yet exploiting to its proper potential, which is broadcast media.
When I’ve discussed my enthusiasm for using TV footage in university bioscience teaching, some colleagues can barely conceal their view that I have suggested forming a pact with the devil. At a recent conference one of the delegates (who I suspect might well be a member of the Biochemical Society) said what I’m sure some of the others were thinking – television science is “dumbed down” science.
Now of course to some extent he is absolutely right; a large percentage of science of television is watered down or plain wrong. However a sizeable amount of TV science content is accurate and, as I hope to illustrate in a moment, even the science that is wrong can be valuable for teaching.
I’ve come to realise that one of the reasons for scepticism about the merits of using broadcast media in teaching is a belief that the only motivation for doing so would be to convey factual content to students. This is a caricature of Open University broadcasts circa 1975 in which the prime motivation was to replace lectures for students whose life commitments meant they were unable to attend a full-time, campus-based course.
Although content can be important, as we will see below, I would argue instead that the primary motivation for showing TV clips is to promote engagement. Limitations in the application of broadcast material to biochemistry teaching may therefore stem from a lack of creativity, coupled with uncertainty about what might be available (and how to get it). Let’s deal with these issues in turn.
Creativity: To begin with, consider the importance of creativity. If the suggestion had been made that we should be routinely replacing our lectures with hours of students sitting passively watching a screen, then I would share scepticism regarding the value of this approach. However use of a carefully chosen clip can introduce a new dynamic to a lecture or tutorial. Short extracts can be employed in a variety of ways.
As hinted above, the most obvious use of a clip would be to illustrate some factual point. Rather than describe the processes involved in preimplantation genetic diagnosis, for example, I can include a two minute clip from Robert Winston’s series A Child Against All Odds which shows the procedure. Similarly, a short section on the role of cilia in determining the layout of body organs, from Countdown To Life: the extraordinary making of you might help enrich a lecture on the diverse roles of microtubules.
Alternatively, a clip might be used as a scene-setter at the beginning of a session. I have used a couple of short sections from the James Bond film Die Another Day, in which the proprietor of a secretive Cuban clinic explains that gene therapy involves “introduction of new DNA from healthy donors; orphans, runaways, people that won’t be missed”. In this way he is able to transform North Korean Colonel Tan-Sun Moon into British aristocrat Sir Gustav Graves.
Of course this is abject nonsense – gene therapy is nothing of the sort. But that is exactly the point. This ridiculous storyline serves as a humorous introduction to a lecture when we look in more detail at what gene therapy actual involves and the difficulties that have hampered introduction of far less ambitious changes to the human genome.
Making use of news footage, the rather more tragic case of Eloise Parry, might be used to bring human interest to a lecture on mitochondrial uncoupling. This young woman bought “DNP” (2,4-dinitrophenol) online as an aid to slimming. She took several pills in quick succession which triggered a fatal metabolic response. Alternatively a lecture on muscle biochemistry might benefit from inclusion of news reports about an improved technique for determining the concentration of troponin in the blood of a patient with a suspected heart attack. Or maybe a lecture on antibiotic mode of action would be enhanced by reflection on the O’Neill report on antimicrobial stewardship and development.
Thirdly, a clip might be used as a discussion starter. For several years I have run a workshop on experimental design for first year undergraduates, in which I have used a section from the populist science series Brainiac: Science Abuse. In the clip, presenter Richard Hammond supervises an experiment which he concludes “proves” that you can smell fear. Of course the method shown does nothing of the sort (even if we put to one side philosophical debates about the notion of proof).
Once again, however, the poor quality of the science is exactly the point. Students are asked to watch the clip and keep an eye out for aspects of the experiment that are good, and those features that are less good. These observations are then collated, before the students are set the task of working with their neighbours to design a better study posing the same question.
This would have been a valuable exercise in its own right. I was, however, fortunate that at around the same time I found this clip, there was also a well-designed study published in PLoS One which reported that the smell of anxiety could trigger empathy in others (Prehn-Kristensen, 2009). Details of this teaching activity are available elsewhere (Willmott, 2011).