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  • Let me tell you a story.

  • It's my first year as a new high school science teacher,

  • and I'm so eager.

  • I'm so excited, I'm pouring myself into my lesson plans.

  • But I'm slowly coming to this horrifying realization

  • that my students just might not be learning anything.

  • This happens one day:

  • I'd just assigned my class to read this textbook chapter

  • about my favorite subject in all of biology:

  • viruses and how they attack.

  • And so I'm so excited to discuss this with them,

  • and I come in and I say, "Can somebody please explain

  • the main ideas and why this is so cool?"

  • There's silence.

  • Finally, my favorite student, she looks me straight in the eye,

  • and she says, "The reading sucked."

  • And then she clarified. She said, "You know what,

  • I don't mean that it sucks. It means that I didn't understand a word of it.

  • It's boring. Um, who cares, and it sucks."

  • These sympathetic smiles

  • spread all throughout the room now,

  • and I realize that all of my other students are in the same boat,

  • that maybe they took notes or they memorized definitions from the textbook,

  • but not one of them really understood the main ideas.

  • Not one of them can tell me why this stuff is so cool,

  • why it's so important.

  • I'm totally clueless.

  • I have no idea what to do next.

  • So the only thing I can think of is say,

  • "Listen. Let me tell you a story.

  • The main characters in the story are bacteria and viruses.

  • These guys are blown up a couple million times.

  • The real bacteria and viruses are so small

  • we can't see them without a microscope,

  • and you guys might know bacteria and viruses

  • because they both make us sick.

  • But what a lot of people don't know is that viruses

  • can also make bacteria sick."

  • Now, the story that I start telling my kids,

  • it starts out like a horror story.

  • Once upon a time there's this happy little bacterium.

  • Don't get too attached to him.

  • Maybe he's floating around in your stomach

  • or in some spoiled food somewhere,

  • and all of a sudden he starts to not feel so good.

  • Maybe he ate something bad for lunch,

  • and then things get really horrible,

  • as his skin rips apart, and he sees a virus

  • coming out from his insides.

  • And then it gets horrible

  • when he bursts open and an army of viruses

  • floods out from his insides.

  • If -- Ouch is right! --

  • If you see this, and you're a bacterium,

  • this is like your worst nightmare.

  • But if you're a virus and you see this,

  • you cross those little legs of yours and you think,

  • "We rock."

  • Because it took a lot of crafty work to infect this bacterium.

  • Here's what had to happen.

  • A virus grabbed onto a bacterium

  • and it slipped its DNA into it.

  • The next thing is, that virus DNA made stuff

  • that chopped up the bacteria DNA.

  • And now that we've gotten rid of the bacteria DNA,

  • the virus DNA takes control of the cell

  • and it tells it to start making more viruses.

  • Because, you see, DNA is like a blueprint

  • that tells living things what to make.

  • So this is kind of like going into a car factory

  • and replacing the blueprints with blueprints for killer robots.

  • The workers still come the next day, they do their job,

  • but they're following different instructions.

  • So replacing the bacteria DNA with virus DNA

  • turns the bacteria into a factory for making viruses --

  • that is, until it's so filled with viruses that it bursts.

  • But that's not the only way that viruses infect bacteria.

  • Some are much more crafty.

  • When a secret agent virus infects a bacterium,

  • they do a little espionage.

  • Here, this cloaked, secret agent virus is slipping his DNA into the bacterial cell,

  • but here's the kicker: It doesn't do anything harmful -- not at first.

  • Instead, it silently slips into the bacteria's own DNA,

  • and it just stays there like a terrorist sleeper cell,

  • waiting for instructions.

  • And what's interesting about this is now whenever this bacteria has babies,

  • the babies also have the virus DNA in them.

  • So now we have a whole extended bacteria family,

  • filled with virus sleeper cells.

  • They're just happily living together until a signal happens

  • and -- BAM! -- all of the DNA pops out.

  • It takes control of these cells, turns them into virus-making factories,

  • and they all burst,

  • a huge, extended bacteria family,

  • all dying with viruses spilling out of their guts,

  • the viruses taking over the bacterium.

  • So now you understand how viruses can attack cells.

  • There are two ways: On the left is what we call the lytic way,

  • where the viruses go right in and take over the cells.

  • On the [right] is the lysogenic way

  • that uses secret agent viruses.

  • So this stuff is not that hard, right?

  • And now all of you understand it.

  • But if you've graduated from high school,

  • I can almost guarantee you've seen this information before.

  • But I bet it was presented in a way

  • that it didn't exactly stick in your mind.

  • So when my students were first learning this,

  • why did they hate it so much?

  • Well, there were a couple of reasons.

  • First of all, I can guarantee you that their textbooks

  • didn't have secret agent viruses, and they didn't have horror stories.

  • You know, in the communication of science

  • there is this obsession with seriousness.

  • It kills me. I'm not kidding.

  • I used to work for an educational publisher,

  • and as a writer, I was always told never to use stories

  • or fun, engaging language,

  • because then my work might not be viewed

  • as "serious" and "scientific."

  • Right? I mean, because God forbid somebody have fun

  • when they're learning science.

  • So we have this field of science that's all about slime,

  • and color changes. Check this out.

  • And then we have, of course, as any good scientist has to have,

  • explosions!

  • But if a textbook seems too much fun,

  • it's somehow unscientific.

  • Now another problem was that

  • the language in their textbook was truly incomprehensible.

  • If we want to summarize that story that I told you earlier,

  • we could start by saying something like,

  • "These viruses make copies of themselves

  • by slipping their DNA into a bacterium."

  • The way this showed up in the textbook, it looked like this:

  • "Bacteriophage replication is initiated

  • through the introduction of viral nucleic acid

  • into a bacterium."

  • That's great, perfect for 13-year-olds.

  • But here's the thing. There are plenty of people

  • in science education who would look at this and say there's no way

  • that we could ever give that to students,

  • because it contains some language that isn't completely accurate.

  • For example, I told you that viruses have DNA.

  • Well, a very tiny fraction of them don't.

  • They have something called RNA instead.

  • So a professional science writer would circle that

  • and say, "That has to go.

  • We have to change it to something much more technical."

  • And after a team of professional science editors

  • went over this really simple explanation,

  • they'd find fault with almost every word I've used,

  • and they'd have to change anything that wasn't serious enough,

  • and they'd have to change everything

  • that wasn't 100 percent perfect.

  • Then it would be accurate,

  • but it would be completely impossible to understand.

  • This is horrifying.

  • You know, I keep talking about this idea

  • of telling a story,

  • and it's like science communication has taken on this idea

  • of what I call the tyranny of precision,

  • where you can't just tell a story.

  • It's like science has become that horrible storyteller

  • that we all know, who gives us all the details nobody cares about,

  • where you're like, "Oh, I met my friend for lunch the other day,

  • and she was wearing these ugly jeans.

  • I mean, they weren't really jeans, they were more kind of, like, leggings,

  • but, like, I guess they're actually kind of more like jeggings,

  • like, but I think — " and you're just like, "Oh my God.

  • What is the point?"

  • Or even worse, science education is becoming

  • like that guy who always says, "Actually."

  • Right? You want to be like, "Oh, dude,

  • we had to get up in the middle of the night

  • and drive a hundred miles in total darkness."

  • And that guy's like, "Actually, it was 87.3 miles."

  • And you're like, "Actually, shut up!

  • I'm just trying to tell a story."

  • Because good storytelling is all about emotional connection.

  • We have to convince our audience

  • that what we're talking about matters.

  • But just as important is knowing

  • which details we should leave out

  • so that the main point still comes across.

  • I'm reminded of what the architect Mies van der Rohe said,

  • and I paraphrase, when he said that sometimes

  • you have to lie in order to tell the truth.

  • I think this sentiment is particularly relevant

  • to science education.

  • Now, finally,

  • I am often so disappointed

  • when people think that I'm advocating

  • a dumbing down of science.

  • That's not true at all.

  • I'm currently a Ph.D. student at MIT,

  • and I absolutely understand the importance of detailed,

  • specific scientific communication between experts,

  • but not when we're trying to teach 13-year-olds.

  • If a young learner thinks that all viruses have DNA,

  • that's not going to ruin their chances of success in science.

  • But if a young learner can't understand anything in science

  • and learns to hate it because it all sounds like this,

  • that will ruin their chances of success.

  • This needs to stop,

  • and I wish that the change could come from the institutions

  • at the top that are perpetuating these problems,

  • and I beg them, I beseech them to just stop it.

  • But I think that's unlikely.

  • So we are so lucky that we have resources

  • like the Internet, where we can circumvent these institutions

  • from the bottom up.

  • There's a growing number of online resources

  • that are dedicated to just explaining science

  • in simple, understandable ways.

  • I dream of a Wikipedia-like website that would explain

  • any scientific concept you can think of

  • in simple language any middle schooler can understand.

  • And I myself spend most of my free time

  • making these science videos that I put on YouTube.

  • I explain chemical equilibrium using analogies

  • to awkward middle school dances,

  • and I talk about fuel cells with stories

  • about boys and girls at a summer camp.

  • The feedback that I get is sometimes misspelled

  • and it's often written in LOLcats,

  • but nonetheless

  • it's so appreciative, so thankful

  • that I know this is the right way

  • we should be communicating science.

  • There's still so much work left to be done, though,

  • and if you're involved with science in any way

  • I urge you to join me.

  • Pick up a camera, start to write a blog, whatever,

  • but leave out the seriousness, leave out the jargon.

  • Make me laugh. Make me care.

  • Leave out those annoying details that nobody cares about

  • and just get to the point.

  • How should you start?

  • Why don't you say, "Listen, let me tell you a story"?

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Let me tell you a story.

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B1 INT dna bacteria bacterium textbook agent understand

【TEDx】Tyler DeWitt: Hey science teachers -- make it fun

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    VoiceTube   posted on 2013/04/22
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