Media and the Making of Scientists

Published on September 27th, 2010 by Moira OKeeffe. Filed under Film & Movies, Science in Media

This image is reproduced from Rudolph Zallinger's massive 110-foot mural, The Age of Reptiles, completed in 1947 at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. A paleontologist, who had encountered images of the mural in a children's book, described visiting the original site for the first time as an undergraduate: "These were the images that I’d grown up with in the children’s book and that I’d known for ten years. I almost wept. They were so beautiful. I'd had no idea that they existed in any other form, other than the book."

On August 11, I defended my Ph.D. Dissertation, “Media and the Making of Scientists.” This dissertation explored how scientists and science students respond, as viewers, to fictional, visual media about science. Drawing on interview data, I considered how scientists think about fictional images of science in relation to their own career paths from childhood onwards. I was especially interested in the possibility that entertainment media can inspire young people to learn more about science.

Such inspiration is badly needed, as schools are failing to provide it. Science education in the United States is in a state of crisis. Many educators worry about the performance of U.S. students compared to students from other countries, and studies repeatedly find low levels of science literacy in the U.S. The shortage of qualified science and math teachers exacerbates the problem. This bleak situation exists during a boom in the popularity of science-oriented television shows and science fiction movies. How might entertainment media play a role in helping young people engage with science, or in promoting broader science literacy in civil society? To grapple with these questions, I interviewed a total of fifty scientists and students interested in science careers, representing a variety of scientific fields and demographic backgrounds, and with varying levels of interest in science fiction.

Most respondents described becoming attracted to the sciences at a young age, and many were able to identify specific sources for this interest, such as a parent who was a scientist or doctor, a particular book, a media image, or a trip to the planetarium. The fact that interest in the sciences begins early in life demonstrates a potentially important role for fictional media in the process of inspiration, perhaps especially for children without access to real-life scientists in their homes and communities. One key aspect to the appeal of fiction about science is how scientists are portrayed as characters. Scientists from groups traditionally under-represented in the sciences often sought out fictional characters with whom they could identify, and viewers from all backgrounds preferred realistic, well-rounded characters to the extreme stereotypes of mad scientists or dorky geniuses.

Genre is another aspect of appeal. Some respondents identified a specific role for science fiction: conveying a sense of wonder. Visual media, in particular, introduce viewers to the beauty of science. Special effects provide viewers with the opportunity to see how extinct animals might have moved or how humans might live in space. Advocates of informal science learning initiatives suggest that fictional media can be used as a tool for teaching science content. The potential of entertainment media to provide a sense of wonder is a powerful aspect of its potential to inspire the next generation of scientists.

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