Monday, June 02, 2008

Christopher Rose on Teaching Biology with Movies

James Madison biologist Christopher Rose has written an interesting essay for Evolutionary Biology1 about using movies to teach biology (HTML version, pdf version). He points out that public understanding of biology is poor in part because the public is bombarded with jargon and sensationalized sound bites that are presented with little scientific context.
As with many relationship issues, the root of the problem and its solution lie in communication. Scientists as a group love to fault movies for inaccurately portraying facts, procedures and theories, and misrepresenting the benefits and risks of scientific phenomena to humanity (see references in Crichton, 1999; Kirby, 2003). As a scientist myself, I share their concerns. However, as a moviegoer, I agree with Crichton (1999) that making movies and representing science are often at odds with each other simply because entertainment and education are different things. Fictional movies cannot be bound to a strict code of scientific realism if they are to entertain and make money. Also, movies can only portray external experiences, meaning that the internal experiences of creative and critical thinking inevitably get left out. At the same time, movies can convey intriguing ideas and provocative viewpoints about the roles of science in life and society. As a science teacher, I argue that movies provide opportunities to educate not by finding faults, but by making connections to real science (Rose, 2003). This article is designed to illustrate how science teachers and popular science writers can use movies with genetics and developmental biology themes to clarify and deepen the public understanding of science. As movies cannot replace textbooks, I must start with a brief overview of these areas of biology and the fundamental knowledge required to discuss them.
The article is written with non-scientists in mind and even has a glossary of biological terminology at the end. Some of his suggestions for movies that can be used as teaching tools:
  • The Fly (1958 & 1986): Discussion of the role of genes in animal development and evolution, and formation of chimeric animals
  • The Boys From Brazil (1978): Cloning somatic cell nuclear transplantation
  • Jurassic Park (1993): How DNA "builds" an organism
  • GATTACA (1997): Use of recombinant DNA technology and human genetics
Rose actually teaches a course on "Biology in the Movies" at James Madison, and his course page has a course syllabus and links to questionnaires he uses with some of the movies. In addition to the movies listed above, his syllabus also includes Inherit the Wind, Quest for Fire, Blade Runner and Contact.

1Rose CS. "Biology in the Movies: Using the Double-Edged Sword of Popular Culture to Enhance Public Understanding of Science." Evol Biol 34(1-2):49-54 (2007). doi:10.1007/s11692-007-9001-8

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