Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Survival Guide to Snakes in the Classroom.

John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.

John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.

My wife is very forgiving which is why I can store my frozen rodents in the freezer. No, we are not dining on these rodents, but the menagerie of snakes in my life are.  In my previous post I discussed the benefits of keeping snakes in the classroom. An animal long stigmatized has the ability to instill confidence and curiosity in students.

I have been keeping snakes since I was in my early teens and worked as a reptile behavior researcher before becoming a teacher. The entry of snakes into my classroom was a natural progression for me and it was because of my vast experience with them that my administrator had no problem allowing them into the classroom. I have discovered science teachers get a little more leeway in acting eccentric. So a snake as a classroom pet is within our realm of normalcy.

In this post I hope to give other educators a good foundation for keeping snakes in their classroom. A classroom pet is always a good way to teach responsibility. Administrators love any outside-the-box methods of teaching. Let them know students will be using this animal not just to learn science, but to learn important life skills like responsibility and compassion.

Your administrator may bring up questions about health risks. Salmonella is often associated with pet reptiles. This can be a bit misleading. Most animals, including pets like hamsters and guinea pigs can carry salmonella, but because turtles are wild caught, and often live in terrariums there is a better chance of salmonella living on their shell. In fact the CDC considers turtles, water frogs, chicks, and ducklings to be risky pets. I have seen all of these animals in classrooms. Most snakes are kept in the same cage setup as hamsters and have little risk of ever having salmonella on their skin. I have been handling snakes for 25 years and admittedly have poor hand washing skills and have never had an issue. I do keep multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom and make sure the students properly sanitize after handling and/or cleaning.

I would wager students are more likely to salmonella in the lunch line than they are from snakes in a classroom.

So how do you get the students interested in taking care of snakes?

Most kids have a natural curiosity that will lead them there. A great way to pique this interest is to handle the snake in front of the students so they can see how easy it is. Modeling is always a great method for teaching students. Once one student comes up and holds the snake others will follow. From this point, when you have students asking to hold the snake is where you begin to add in the caretaking responsibilities. Which believe it or not are minimal. A student needs to changes the water bowl every couple of days or whenever it gets dirty (snakes love pooping in water bowls). When the snake does not defecate in the water bowl spot cleaning needs to be done. Simply taking a paper towel and picking up the feces. Other than feeding (we will get to in a minute) this is all that needs to be done.

I have a rule with my students, you cannot continue to hold and interact with the snakes unless you partake in the care taking process. Of course I let them interact with the snakes before they have any cleaning responsibility, you need to get them hooked. Plus you need to make sure they feel confident going in and out of the cage.

Feeding the snakes is what the students want to see. I do not feed live rodents. I learned my lesson when I was breeding mice for snake consumption and a student came up to me asking where Mocha and Cinnamon had gone. I feed my snakes frozen/thawed rodents. Simple, easy to do, and much cheaper.

I will on occasion feed a live rodent to a snake for students because it is an amazing process to watch. For most students it is like have a nature documentary unfold in front of them.

I do let the students personally feed the snakes, they really love this part. It makes them feel very accomplished to be able to say “I fed a rat to a python”. Which they will often brag to their friends about which will in turn bring more students to me asking to be involved.

I have set up a system where I have one student leader, this year she is a senior. The student leader has proven to me over the course of a year she can handle the animals and is trusted to lead younger students in snake keeping. There are about five other students who come twice a week to take care of the snakes with her. To sweeten the deal they earn community service hours, a requirement at our school.  I am there in case anything happens but I try to step back and let the students own the program. The worst case scenario is a student gets bitten by a snake. This is not a frequent occurrence but it does happen. Usually the end result is them taking a picture of a tiny spec of blood. All of them comment on how little it hurt and they were more scared of the surprise than of the bite. Smaller non venomous snakes don’t really pack any sort of a punch. A paper cut hurts worse than a corn snake bite, but the initial surprise is what frightens most people.

Once bitten, the students lose most of their fear and wear it as a badge of honor.

The most important aspect of making a snake work successfully in your classroom is you. The level of enthusiasm and interest you have dictates the level the students have. If you begin to lose interest in the animal so will the students. But really, who could ever lose interest in a snake?

If you are looking for more information on the nuts and bolts of keeping snakes I highly recommend the website. I have been using it for 15 years. It has everything you need from care sheets to breeders to reptile events.

As always, if you have any questions you would like to ask feel free to tweet me @paleoromano. I will be more than happy to answer any questions.





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On overcoming writer’s block

This is a cinder block.

This is a cinder block.

The setting is your office. You’re bathed in the dull glow of your computer screen, staring at a blank page in Word, trying to write a paper.



The cursor is watching you, mocking you, laughing at your inability to get words out.



Your mind locks up as you wonder “what do I have to say?” The more you try to force out words, the harder it becomes, and eventually the frustration leads to you sitting there, at your desk with your head in your hands, wondering how you’ll ever finish.


You then Google “how to overcome writers block” and end up on this post.

The official name for this is the "? block"

The official name for this is the “? block”

Writer’s block is a tough thing to deal with, but one we’ll all have to tackle at some point – either at the start of our training while we’re writing outlines and proposals, at the end when we’re writing up manuscripts and theses, or afterwards, as we’re working on papers and other documents. As science communicators, the toughest part is often figuring out exactly how to begin, and how to frame the core message that we want to get across – a process that can be incredibly frustrating. So the question becomes, how do you deal with it?

Now, I’m going to state the obvious here, but it’s a necessary point: The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Once you start though, it becomes infinitely easier to get content out onto the page. To help you kick start your writing process, I’m going to give you a few tips, and as always, I’d love to hear what you do to overcome writers block when it hits in the comments.

1) Isolate yourself. Remove all distractions – phone, coworkers, cats, get rid of it all. You want to be able to focus exclusively on writing. The fact is that if you have an easy out, you’re more likely to take it, i.e. “I’m stuck, I wonder if anything has changed on Facebook in the past 3 minutes? And this Buzzfeed article seems great, and look at what this cat is doing…” It’s tough to start writing, and removing distractions means you’ll struggle through those tough parts rather than put it off and do something else. You need to power through this part.

2) Talk it out. This one sounds strange, but is one of my favourites and has been hugely effective for me. Occasionally, I’ll close my office door, stand up, and pretend I’m giving a talk about whatever it is I’m writing about. Now only does this get you thinking about the topic at hand, but without the intimidation of the cursor and blank word document staring at you, it is easier to just get your ideas out. Be organic: stand up, pace back and forth, talk like you normally would, and don’t focus on the minutia of your project. Talk about the broad strokes and the flow of your arguments, and see if they helps you over the initial hurdle.

Alternative: Grab a coworker, go for coffee, and outline your paper/idea to them. Tell them their job is not to have a conversation with you – their job is to ask questions and prod you when you get stuck, and help you jump start your writing. Obviously, you owe them coffee/donut(s) for listening to you :)


Tupac Shakur released a song called “My Block” (click to listen)

3) Write an outline. For those who don’t like talking things out, this is an effective alternative. Sketch down the key points you want to make in each paragraph, and write as much information about each paragraph as you can without losing momentum. Even if you do talk it out, this is a good way to conceptualize your work. By the end, you should have something like this:

Paragraph 1: Open with a scene about writers block
Paragraph 2: Describe writers block, transition into list
Paragraph 3: Start outlining key points

This is an engine block.

This is an engine block.

4) Start writing. Don’t think about grammar, phrasing, punctuation or language rules. Just get words out. Ignore word choices, ignore making things sound “professional.” Just get those ideas out and onto the page. At this point you want to have something out there to look at and critique, and hopefully, if you followed steps 1 through 3, you’ve got a few ideas up your sleeve now. Remember: the ideas don’t have to flow. You can write two distinct paragraphs, making two very different points, and that’s fine. You can go back later and fine tune things. Again, all you’re trying to do here is get something out onto the page that you can work with.

5) Do something else. Up until this point, I’ve talked about isolating yourself and focusing on writing. Here, I’m going to suggest leaving it, but with one caveat. Go and do something else that gets you moving, but not something that engages you entirely – something like cooking, cleaning, going for a run, lifting weights etc. Something that allows you to get yourself up, but without taking your full attention. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower, and turns out it’s because of the combination of 1) the release of dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted enough that your subconscious can engage and work on a problem, results in you being more creative (science here)


Dikembe Mutumbo was famous for his ability to block

Before you know it, you’ve got an outline, some body text and a fleshed out idea of what you want to say, and that’s half the battle right there. After you’ve got a skeleton to work with, it becomes a lot easier to start writing, and begin building your arguments.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

This post originally appeared on

Category: Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Snakes in a Classroom

snakes in a classroom


“Mr. Romano, I finished my work can I go get a snake?”

This often asked question by my students is the reason I became a teacher. More so, I have discovered that snakes can be an unbelievable teaching tool in the classroom. Lessons from Mendelian genetics to evolutionary adaptations reside in the cylindrical body of one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.  I have been keeping snakes in my classroom for well over a decade. I keep a variety of species from my first boa I got at the age of 16 to an Eastern Indigo, a fascinating and protected species of snake.

The biggest reason I keep snakes in the classroom is not just for my enjoyment. I keep many at home as well. The reason is that snakes have the ability to instill confidence. Snakes, like bugs, come with a stigma. A fear that is so deeply rooted in some it is believed to be innate. I have had many students complain about the snakes in my classroom when they first enter my class. The complaints are generally about the inability to focus because they are nervous, but my favorite snake complaint so far in my teaching career was when a student raised his hand and said “Mr. Romano, that snakes keeps looking at me.”

The students may enter the year uncomfortable with the room, but daily exposure to snakes  in a controlled environment soon turns that fear into comfort, and comfort soon becomes curiosity.  Watching the body language of a student change as they hold a snake for the first time is what teaching is all about. Timid, stiff, and shaky when its first put into their hand. Then as the snake calmly moves around and they realize they are actually holding a snake they fight an urge to smile, stand a little taller, and in today’s current age of technology say “Can you take a picture with my phone”.

This is the real essence of teaching science, to develop curiosity and confidence in the student.  This combination provides the foundation for education, especially science education. The drive for inquiry is only as strong as the person’s ability to deal with setbacks. Students are going to face obstacles in both their education and their life. I know my students will face adversity in their pursuit of science in higher education. I may not be able to bring  equality to the world, but I can bring out the confidence in a teenager so they can overcome the inequalities and succeed.

Enter the serpent.

I have been keeping a variety of snakes in my classroom for over a decade. Each student is exposed to the snakes within their own comfort level. Minimally they see the snakes in the cages in the room, and at the other end of the spectrum they will participate in holding and feeding the snakes.  Regardless of where they start, all the students end up shifting forward on the spectrum. Those that were only comfortable viewing them from across the room eventually view them from in front of the cage. Those who were comfortable watching someone hold them eventually end up holding one themselves.

The ultimate reward for me came when one of my students decided to start a reptile club for other students. Saniyyah is a senior and has worked with me for a few years. This year she has gained enough knowledge to work with the snakes unsupervised.

Saniyyah attended Science Online Teen and was in a session about Women in Science being moderated by Hilda Bastian. Hilda asked the students to write something positive someone has said to you on a notecard. I was not in this session, but through the power of twitter I was able to see her response.


There is grandeur in this style of teaching, that from so simple a form as a snake, endless lessons most inspiring and wonderful have been, and are being learned.

Oh, a snake’s ability to instill confidence is not limited to just students, it works on Phd possessing PLoS Sci-Ed bloggers as well.

Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.

Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.

Next week I will lay out the simple task of acquiring and caring for one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.


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Kids ask, scientists answer!

When I was a child I suffered with this puzzling question: if my dreams feel so real, how do I know that life itself is real?

I was not a unique child – many others have the same question. It was only much later, when I was already in college that I came across some of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophical concepts of defining reality. Curious child Evie, however, already got her answer to this same question at 5 years of age:

“Often wdoes my goldfish know who I ame have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

 Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.”

That’s how invited guest Derren Brown answered to a kid’s question on the book Does my Goldfish Knows who I am? Big Questions and Instant Answers. Editor Gemma Elwin Harris compiled several kid questions and sought scientists, writers, philosophers and many others to answer them. Other questions include: why do we cry; how does our brain store so much information; whether the universe has an edge; or – my favorite –if animals have accents:

“Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.”   

Answers like those are not just lovely, but a great way to enchant audiences – I’d even risk say they work for any age, not only for children. Going through the answers might help us – science educators and communicators – with our goal of communicating with clarity and ease.

Finally, I should thank wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Samanta Floor, who first pointed me to the book.  Along with the link, she sent me the comment:  “it reminds me of you answering science questions”.  You just made my day, Samanta, you just made my day.

Samanta Floor scientist and dog

Artist Samanta Floor also illustrates scientists and their dogs.

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Backyard Science: Promoting Curiosity and Enthusiasm for the Natural World

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Amanda Tracey to the blog to discuss how to promote the natural world to children. For more about Amanda, see the end of this post.

I know for a fact I was a self-proclaimed evolutionist before I turned 5. It seems like it gets harder and harder to find kids, teenagers, or even post-secondary students who are genuinely interested in and intrigued by science. It’s especially hard for me to process this because as a kid, I always loved science. My Dad studied geology in University and I’ll admit, that probably influenced my love of science. I was fortunate to grow up with a scientist parent, but many kids lack science mentors and therefore need to be shown how cool science is. The best way to do that (and the way that I was shown as a youngster) was in my very own backyard.

Most kids and young people probably love science – they just don’t know it yet. It’s not a secret that kids today, on average, get little exposure to nature and as a result, have little appreciation for nature as well. For many, science is just a subject that is taught in school and for the most part it is not made accessible to them. The connections between science and both the real world and their own lives are missing. If we could find a way to bridge this gap early on, by simply getting kids thinking about science, what they see and how it fits into their lives, it could really have an impact (albeit they won’t all be baby Darwins)!

So how does one fulfill this goal? I have a few of my own childhood experiences to share or activities I have tried with groups of kids while both teaching and volunteering over the years that might help us do just that.

1) Field guide books are a kid’s best friend. I remember learning what “pineapple weed” was as a child, a common weed that actually smells like pineapple. I think I showed that plant to every friend I ever had and I still show my friends today.These books not only help you appreciate the natural diversity of the earth, but also function like a game. You have a specimen in your hand, let’s say a plant perhaps. You have the book in front of you, and you know the specimen’s identity is in that book, you just have to deduce what it is. Using sight, touch and even sometimes smell, kids are able to assess the plants appearance critically, with strict attention to detail and classify it under certain categories. The keys in most basic field guides are easy to use, and forgiving if you take a wrong turn. These guides aren’t just for plants either. There are great field guides for fungi, birds, mammals, insects, rocks and lots of other things!

2) The way to a kid’s heart is through their stomach! Take them foraging- it’s a no-cost activity and it’s one of the neatest experiences for children and adults alike. Most libraries have copies of various books about foraging wild plants, take one out and go to town. I would personally recommend The Weeder’s Digest and Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada.  Dig up some wild carrots and onions to cook a hearty stew. Rip off some dandelion and chicory leaves for a nice salad. Venture to the forest edge and pick some luscious wild blackberries and raspberries. Foraging teaches kids about plants, helps them understand why they are useful and appreciate their diversity.

3) Go lie on your lawn. This is something I did a lot as a kid. The neighbours might look at you funny, but it is well worth it. Just lie on your stomach, look closely and be patient. Within a few minutes you’ll see movement. Ants and other insects will start moving and working around you. Fungi and moss litter the soil below the grass. It’s a whole different world down there, one most kids don’t know about. Doing this gets kids thinking about life from the perspective of other organisms. The world doesn’t look the same to everyone!

4) Get a pair of binoculars. This is something I didn’t do until recently and can only imagine how it would have changed my life if I did it earlier. Birds are amazing. The diversity of birds in this world is unlike anything else. Watch and listen to them. Identify them, observe their behaviours, and watch them interact with other birds. Once a kid gets an appreciation for how incredible a bird really is it will get them thinking about how they fly, where they go in the winter, etc. I recently took a field trip and showed a 6-year old girl a duck flying through my binoculars. It landed pretty close to us and we looked at it for a while. Then she started asking about why there were “balls of water” on its feathers and whether or not it gets cold at night. Just simply showing her the bird got her thinking critically about the duck, being curious and asking questions she wouldn’t normally ask.

5) Plant a wildflower garden. At most nurseries you can get wildflower mixes. It’s always rewarding for kids to watch something grow from seed and to nourish it themselves along the way. This also gets kids familiar with the lifecycle of plants, how they grow and what the requirements for growth are. Once the plants are mature, use a trusty field guide to ID the species! I have done this project with a few groups of young kids and they all really loved and appreciated it. In fact, we ended up harvesting the seeds and creating our own wildflower packets for their friends!

The activities above promote curiosity and enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. It gets kids outside and moving in the fresh air. It shows them the importance of appreciating and respecting the earth. After all, there’s a lot more to it than they may have thought!

About Amanda

Follow @am_tracey on Twitter for more information!

Follow @am_tracey on Twitter for more information!

Amanda Tracey is a second year PhD student in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. She is broadly interested in ecology, with specific interests in plant community ecology and evolutionary biology. Her current research addresses the implications of plant species body size for abundance, reproduction and recruitment. Amanda can be contacted at and on Twitter @am_tracey

Category: Guest Posts, Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Open science, Public understanding of science, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A medical drama in the classroom

Charlie Metcalf arrives at the emergency room suffering symptoms of cirrhosis. His prognosis quickly deteriorates and in less than one hour, Metcalf faces a procedure with very low chance of success. His best prospects, if surviving the procedure, would be to hope for a liver transplant. His doctor, however, warns: it is very unlikely for an alcoholic patient to receive a liver transplant.

The patient above is fictional, and is the focus of episode “Time of Death” of the medical drama ER. The story is emotional and powerful, and casts a strong impression on viewers. This is one of the reasons why Dr. Cynthia Wichelman, professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, shows this particular episode to the 1st year med students on her Emergency Medicine class.

ER episode "Time of Death" stars Ray Liotta as Charlie Metcalf. NBC Universal / USA Today.

ER episode “Time of Death” stars Ray Liotta as Charlie Metcalf. NBC Universal / USA Today.

Dr. Cynthia Wichelman has been teaching medicine for 17 years. Recently, she took on a new approach supported by multimedia components such as TV and online short films. I asked her on the phone what motivated her to pursue that approach: are students different now? “I do see a difference, I really do”, she says, “and it’s because back in the early 2000’s, students were not on the internet. Now, I would say that we compete for their time.” Unsurprisingly, taped lectures and powerpoint presentations won’t do it anymore. To capture the attention of a demographic with dwindling attention span, Dr. Wichelman uses storytelling, case presentation and drama.

Engage and Capture Attention

TV shows such as ER, Grey’s Anatomy, or House are clearly-labeled fictional shows created to entertain. Still, they have the power to influence many. One study found that over 80% of med and nursing students watch (and are influenced by) medical dramas; other study inferred that most patients are educated about CPR via medical shows; while another believed ER helped the public become more informed about teen obesity.

The TV shows, although relevant, are far from being a precise depiction of medicine. The storylines carry inaccuracies (for example, most patients treated with CPR are young and suffered an acute trauma, as opposed to elderly patients with chronic cardiac conditions), exaggeration (in fiction, 75% of those patients survive, in contrast to 40% in the medical literature), and even absurdities (such as lungs in a box –oh wait, that one was real).

So, shows are inaccurate and both the public and early med students are buying it. Should we be concerned?

Not really, says anesthesiologist and former professor Dr. Silvana Russo (disclaimer: sister of the author). Older students, she tells, are able to pinpoint inaccuracies once they have completed a certain amount of clinical hours. Dr. Russo believes that the TV shows are invaluable tools to reach younger, inexperienced (and perhaps more easily distracted) medical students.

When she taught 1st year medical students, Dr. Russo showed movie clips where characters suffered heart attack (and later were revived by CPR). She then paused the film mid-action, while asking the class to evaluate: what’s wrong with this scene? “Find the error” was the hook used to get students engaged with the material.

Depict memorable scenarios

Back to the Emergency Medicine class, Dr. Wichelman’s aim went beyond capturing the student’s attention. She believes using a patient story (real or fictional) is a memorable way to start a lecture. In that particular ER episode, Ray Liotta’s character Charlie Metcalf explains how he resorted to “pruno”, or prison wine (a concoction that involves fruit peels, a sock, and toilet water). By watching Metcalf’s drama unfold, the young medical students learn about addict’s desperate behaviors, which is an important part of treating such patients.

The point of showing TV clips is to capitalize on the drama. For Professor Deana Midmer, “many commercial videos have highly dramatic and graphic content and are often very powerful in their depiction of the behaviors and thought processes of the movie’s characters.”

Also, Dr. Wichelman’s goal was to expose students to the pacing of an emergency room, difficult patients, emotional complications, and ethical scenarios. It helps set the stage for the clinical realities the med students are about to face.

Finally, it exposes the students to other life circumstances that they never (and perhaps never will) face. For Kevin Goodman, “[medical] dramas allow medical students to engage at an intellectual and emotional level with other people’s experiences of socially significant health issues such as poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, and chronic and critical illness, to name a few. They mine social attitudes regarding race, class, sex, gender and ethnicity, as rich sources of dramatic conflict, and in doing so broaden the definition of health and illness to include its many social determinants.”

Tony soprano sees a psychiatrist. HBO / ABC news

Bringing clips to your med class

Start by choosing your clips. The literature is packed with examples. In one psychiatry class, instructors used clips from ER that portray patients symptomatic of histrionic, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders. They also used ER clips to illustrate how to break bad news to patients (in this case the instructors used portrayals of a terminal geriatric patients, young patients with cancer, or HIV-positive young adult male). Prof. Timothy Hall (pdf), in his mental health law seminar, uses clips from TV shows such as The Sopranos (where mob boss Tony Soprano seeks psychiatry treatment for panic attacks) and a long list of films. Prof. Midmer has another list of films, as well as a few guidelines: make that clip short, and follow up with a group discussion. In the non-fiction realm, Dr. Wichelman also uses procedure videos and patient testimonials that she finds on Youtube or other sources (one example of a source is Medtube).

Above all, the use of film and TV clips in class creates a memorable, lasting impression on the future of doctors. “It is a classic teaching method in medicine”, Dr. Russo says, “the student doesn’t forget a case they see actually portrayed, as opposed to just reading about the case in a textbook.”


  • Matthew J. Czarny, Ruth R. Faden, Marie T. Nolan, Edwin Bodensiek, and Jeremy Sugarman. Medical and Nursing Students’ Television Viewing Habits: Potential Implications for Bioethics. Am J Bioeth. 2008 December; 8(12): 1–8. doi:  10.1080/15265160802559153
  • Diem SJ, Lantos JD, Tulsky JA. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television. Miracles and misinformation. N Engl J Med.1996;334:1578-1582.

  • Goodman, Kevin. Imagining doctors: medical students and the TV medical drama. Virtual Mentor – American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. March 2007, Volume 9, Number 3:182-187.

  • McNeilly DP, Wengel SP. The “ER” seminar: teaching psychotherapeutic techniques to medical students. Acad Psychiatry. 2001;25:193-200.


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Strategies for Hearing Impaired Students, Educators, and Colleagues and The Bigger Picture

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education, and this is her third post on the topic (for the first post, click here, and her second post is available here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

One of the biggest frustrations facing students with disability (or those with disability in general), I think, concerns our lack of familiarity within society as a whole with respect to the needs of individuals with disability. This isn’t taught in schools and some of us just simply are never exposed to the experiences that require us to educate ourselves about disabilities. Even worse, the general sentiment often seems that we may be afraid to even approach such individuals for fear of not knowing how to conduct ourselves or for fear of offending someone. The recommendations and suggestions below for communicating with hearing impaired individuals are by no means comprehensive, but they are a good place to start. Although they are written specifically with the educational system in mind, they are by no means circumscribed to a single context (I also encourage you to read Parts I and II before moving on).

Advice to Other Students and Colleagues
Remember that hearing impaired individuals need to see your lips. Always face them when you are speaking and ensure your lips are visible. Do not shout. Do not over enunciate. Be prepared to have to repeat yourself here and there. Remember that saying “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not important” can be considered rude or offensive; if it was important enough to say the first time, then it’s important enough to repeat. Not doing so may unintentionally make the individual feel left out or excluded. When possible, get the individual’s attention first; it’s the polite thing to do. In public, choose a place with adequate lighting and minimal background noise. In large groups, ask the individual where they would prefer to sit; I usually like to sit in the middle of a large table where possible so that I can see everyone. Please don’t ask us to turn up our hearing aids or suggest that we turn up the volume (reading Part I will help you understand why this may appear offensive). When going to the movies, be flexible to theatres and movies for which personalized closed captioning (e.g., CaptiView) is available (Atif Note: This information is often listed on their website). Most importantly, be curious and don’t hesitate to seek feedback on how you’re doing!


This is an example of CaptiView, which plugs into your cup holder, and provides subtitles (click link to learn more)

Advice to Hearing-Impaired Students
Accommodations are useful, but individual needs will vary. Some of these accommodations will be self-driven, such as sitting in the front of the classroom, or familiarization with the material beforehand where possible in order to facilitate comprehension. However, other accommodations require registration with campus disability services, and I do strongly recommend that individuals register as soon as possible to ensure that services can be supplied as soon as they are needed). Such accommodations might include note-takers, assistive listening devices (such as an FM system- the professor wears a microphone that transmits the sound directly to the student’s hearing aid, or transcriptions. I also recommend that students introduce themselves to the professors during the first week of class so that they know who you are, and be specific in telling them exactly what you need from them. It might help to write this down in a list or by email to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases. If you are shy, this medium can be helpful too, but remember that it is the responsibility of Disability Services to ensure that your needs are met.

The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid

The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid | Click link to go to Phonak website

One strategy I have used in the clinic is to mention my hearing impairment to clients as soon as I meet them. I let them know that I need to see their lips when they speak and that I may ask them to repeat themselves, and that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. I will then give them the opportunity to have questions, if needed. This is a good educational opportunity for others, and it also gets any confusion out of the way. Excerpts from this also lend themselves easily to other professional (and even colloquial) introductions.

Advice to Professors or Teaching Assistants of Hearing Impaired Students
Ensure that you are facing the student wherever possible. If you write on the board, minimize the amount of information that you speak while your back is to the class. Avoid walking around the room where the student cannot see you. Repeat questions spoken by other individuals in the class, especially in large classrooms. Ensure that you provide subtitles or transcriptions for all videos shown in the classroom (even if they are non-essential!). The student may ask you to wear an FM system, so you may need to wear a microphone or a small device around your neck. Online lectures or Skype calls will require additional support, likely through real-time transcription.

If you are a conference organizer, please consider providing an audiovisual projection of the speaker onto a large screen if you are using a big room. This is helpful to everyone, especially when you have various accents in the room!

Advice to Educators and Clinical supervisors
You will need to discuss with the student what kind of accommodations they need. However, you need to be aware that the student may not necessarily know what they need, or in my case, how much help they actually do need. Use a recorder to verify a client’s responses on an assessment. Importantly, remember that this may be a touchy issue for your student. He or she will appreciate sensitivity and compassion in your approach (as I certainly did).

The Burden of Advocacy, and the Bigger Picture
Everyone has different ways of dealing with their disability. But the good news is that people are generally receptive to feedback and input. In one example, my Master’s defense involved all four faculty members on my committee being as spread out in the large boardroom as could be, and I knew that this wasn’t going to work for me when I was faced with a similar situation for my oral comprehensive examination. This time, I asked all the faculty members and evaluators to sit closer so that I could read their lips, which was a seemingly terrifying thing to do since they were all there to evaluate me. Not only did this relieve a lot of the added intellectual challenges (and eye strain from trying to lip-read at a distance), in their feedback the evaluators actually expressed that they were impressed about my self-awareness. I still struggle with self-advocacy, however, such as when I ask the clinical department to keep the lights on during a PowerPoint presentation so I can see the speaker’s lips, but I’m getting better at it.

Nevertheless, advocacy is a social and moral issue. The unfortunate reality is that post-secondary education is generally not kind to individuals with disabilities. Such individuals often have to work harder than their peers to compensate for their added difficulties and achieve the same level of performance. As I have discussed, the process of obtaining accommodations may not be seamless, and challenges can act as both physical and psychological barriers to education. I hope that my experiences resonate and I hope that they will contribute to making post-secondary education more accessible to all.

But let’s be clear here: the problem is bigger than this; the challenges don’t stop once students leave the post-secondary institution and enter the workforce. I’ve been transparent in discussing the ways that my personal beliefs about my disability may have perpetuated my social and educational exclusion. However, I’ve begun to think more critically about the ways in which society shapes and reinforces implicit beliefs and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities. In turn, these promote an unspoken culture of shame and personal narratives of exclusion. Thus, the issue isn’t necessarily what is said about disabilities, but rather, what remains unsaid.

Generally speaking, individuals with disabilities have to speak up on their own behalf for accommodations and resources for integration. Consequently, this places the onus squarely on the shoulders of those who are most vulnerable. Social pressures and the desire for conformity often take precedence over individual needs, especially when individuals may have difficulty articulating them in the first place owing to shyness or fear of discrimination.

As educators and students, and as members of society in general, we will feel a diffused sense of responsibility. However, each of us needs to contribute our share to help fill in these gaps of silence. We must open ourselves to these difficult conversations about disability. We must negotiate an equitable place for disabled individuals within our society, and by extension, within the educational system.

Often, the amount of concern we have for an issue is directly proportional to the degree to which it affects us personally. However, I implore you to consider impact of the growing prevalence of age-related hearing loss in a society in which we are living longer than ever. Take a look at your parents or your grandparents, and you will see that this is an issue from which no one is immune.

I don’t know what the solution is, but every instance that we don’t speak up perpetuates the silence. Until disability awareness is taught in schools, until it becomes part of a wider discussion, then we must step up, one student, one individual at a time. For if we don’t, then who will?

About Rachel
Rachel Wayne is a PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]

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The Biggest Sci-Ed Stories of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, it’s a time for reflection and thought about the last year, and look towards to the future. 2013 was quite the year in science, with impressive discoveries and wide reaching events. I’ve selected my five favourite science stories below, but I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts on the top science stories of 2013.

GoldieBlox and Diversity in Science
This isn’t a new issue by any stretch, but it is one of the most important issues facing science (and higher education in general). Diversity in science is essential for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us different perspectives on problems, and thus, new and novel solutions. Within the scientific establishment, there have been many stories about discrimination and inappropriate conduct (see SciCurious’ excellent series of posts on the matter, including posts by friends of the blog @RimRK and @AmasianV), and, unfortunately there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest diversity-related story this year was GoldieBlox. While initially this started as a media darling (who didn’t love the video?), further examination revealed deep-set problems in how they chose to approach the issue of gender representation in STEM disciplines.

There is a lot of change required to reach equality in science careers and to ensure that people are judged and given opportunities based on their work, not their privilege. Lets hope that in 2014 we can start the ball rolling on that change.

Fracking and Energy
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a way by which natural gas is extracted from shale or coal beds deep in the ground. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically-treated water into the ground, which breaks up the rocks and allows the gas to escape and be collected at the surface. There are large deposits of gas stored in this manner throughout the Northeastern United States and Easten/Atlantic Canada, and, as you can imagine, the economic incentives to extract this gas are huge. In fact, the Hon. Craig Leonard, Minister of Energy and Mines in New Brunswick said:

Based on U.S. Department of Energy statistics, 15 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to heat every home in New Brunswick for the next 630 years.

Or if used to generate electricity, it could supply all of New Brunswick’s residential, commercial and industrial needs for over 100 years.

In other words, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage to our province.

These economic benefits, however, have to be considered along with potential risks that come along with pumping gallons of water into the ground. The most apparent is how fracking requires an excessive amount of water, which could negatively impact other industries. In addition, this treated water could potentially open cracks into underground water supplies, contaminating our drinking water supply. Finally, what do we do with this water once it’s been used – how do we dispose of it safely and efficiently? These are all concerns that need to be addressed, along with other environmental issues that may arise. There’s no doubt that we need to plan for energy independence, and a way to revitalize your economy is a benefit no politician (or citizen) would like to pass up. However, we have to think long term and plan for the future.

Typhoon Haiyan and Global Warming
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, killing an estimated 6,111 people in the Philippines alone and doing over USD$1.5 billion in damage. Currently, over 4.4 million are homeless – which is almost the population of the Phoenix metro area (4.3 million from their 2010 Census), or the entire population of New Zealand (4.2 million from their 2013 Census). While the immediate threat has passed, there are now other problems arising. Many of the victims remain unburied, and sanitation remains an important concern to prevent outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases.

Typhoon Haiyan highlights what we can expect with global warming. While the general understanding is that global warming will simply lead to warmer temperatures, that is not entirely true. A “side effect” suggests that we are more likely to see extreme weather events, which include typhoons and tropical storms.

Politics impacting Science and the US Sequester
The US sequester had long reaching implications for federal scientists. For those who rely on seasonal fieldwork, this could have eliminated a full year of research, while those who were reliant on grants being submitted for this season had to reschedule research priorities. However, the effects aren’t limited to this calendar year. From this article in The Atlantic:

It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

It remains to be seen how the effects of the sequester play out. How long the effects last, and whether the US research industry simply stumbles or falls down, are still up in the air.

Commander Chris Hadfield and Science Communication
It’s no secret that I think Chris Hadfield is an amazing science communicator. His videos in space, the way he engaged with youth, and his approach to science in a “this is awesome” sense captured the imagination of the world while he was up in the International Space Station. His personality and enthusiasm for science continued once he landed back on Earth, and he recently released his first book. When it comes to issues around communicating science, one that I feel quite strongly about is that we need more science communicators. We have a few – Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and such. But we need others, and Chris Hadfield helps show the breadth of scientific discovery, and his personality and enthusiasm for science make him a great ambassador for science to young and old alike.


Finally, us at PLOS Sci-Ed are now celebrating our first birthday. Since we launched last year, we’ve had over 180,000 visits and hope to continue growing in the future. A sincere thank you to the PLOS blogs community manager Victoria Costello for her constant support, and finally, a heart felt thank you to all our readers. We hope you continue to comment and share our work with your networks.

So these are my choices for the biggest science stories of 2013. What are yours?

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, consider reading The Biggest Public Health Stories of 2013, over on PLOS Public Health Perspectives!

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

X-Mas Men: When Science Teachers Host A Holiday Assembly

Many schools have holiday assemblies that involve singing, historical portrayals, plays, which are usually run by the drama department. But what happens when the science department takes over? Or specifically when two high school science teachers run the show?

X-Mas Men!

Our school is a private boarding school that grants scholarships to students from a limited means background. We have a Lower School (1st – 6th) and an Upper School (7th-12th). The assembly began a few years ago when we were trying to to make sure our students would have a good holiday. Because of the nature of our school’s admissions policy, we have  a lot of families that cannot provide financially for their children.

Our assistant academic dean suggested a Make A Wish idea.The students decorate an ornament with their wish on it and hang it on a tree. The wishes are then collected and the faculty comes together to make them happen. Granting 150-180 wishes with only about 20 educators is no easy task. In fact, our Make A Wish assembly gained recognition by various news groups when a student wished to hug the people of Newtown.

Organizing and granting the wishes are tedious tasks. Our assistant academic dean approached me and another science teacher about running the show. We are both young, enthusiastic, and childless – perfect for the long hours needed to pull this off. As most of you know, science teachers never do anything the easy way. Many became science teachers for the simple reason that we get to blow up, dissect, and infect students with our irrepressible love of science (often times doubling ingredients to reactions to get a bigger result). So how about infusing that spirit into our Holiday assembly?

It took my colleague and I .004 seconds before deciding to don our alter egos and bring some science fiction to a holiday that is severely lacking it. Some fiction is there though, and overlaps with sci-fi: an individual that can bend space-time, defies the laws of physics, and brings gifts to all deserving girls and boys. Seems like Christmas Beast and Wolverine Claus could potentially be plausible hosts for our Holiday Assembly.

Science teachers Scott Sowers (L) and John Romano don their alter egos for the X-Mas Men Assembly.

Science teachers Scott Sowers (L) and John Romano don their alter egos for the X-Mas Men Assembly.


The Holiday Assembly was the perfect time to highlight these teachers for the heros they are. I assembled the faculty and laid out the plan: we would film a video introduction called X-Mas Men. I would shoot and edit the video, play it at the beginning of the ceremony, and set the tone of a Holiday assembly straight out of the pages of a Marvel comic. With furried and clawed hands my colleague and I passed out baseball gloves, sketchbooks, breakfast sandwiches, candy, shoes, and a bicycle. 160 gifts in all were delivered to the students by two holiday mutants, backed up by a room full of everyday superheroes.

Teachers aim to bring a better educational experience to their students. They know that they cannot bring  their bad day, personal problems, exhaustion, sickness or anger into the classroom.  Storm may have been talking about teachers when she said “There’s more to it than simply possessing super powers. To be an X-Man means possessing a strength of will – of self identity – that nothing can subvert. For better or worse, being an X-Man means not merely being born a mutant….but a hero.”

Science teachers do not have an off button, we don’t just love our content, we live it. This passion is infectious. The students see grown men and women dressing as their favorite science fiction characters and living out childhood fantasies with genuine enthusiasm. These experiences are important to the development of the student scientist. They discover that science is not something to fear, but something to enjoy.


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