Tyler DeWitt: How Do We Get Kids Hooked On Science?

Aug 11, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 3:35 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Rethinking School.

About Tyler DeWitt's TED Talk

When a student complained that science textbooks were boring, teacher Tyler DeWitt got thinking about how he can make his lessons fun. DeWitt recounts his quest to make kids care about science.

About Tyler DeWitt

Tyler DeWitt hosts the YouTube channel, 'Science with Tyler DeWitt,' aimed at helping students understand chemistry. In the past, he taught Biology, Chemistry and English at high schools in both the United States and South Korea.

DeWitt was a National Science Foundation Fellow and in 2014, received his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So remember your high school science class? Maybe you had a textbook that sounded something like this.

TYLER DEWITT: Remember that a water molecule is polar, with a partial negative charge on the oxygen atom and partial positive charges on the hydrogen atoms...

RAZ: This is Tyler DeWitt.

DEWITT: So, you know, good luck teaching that to 13-year-olds.

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RAZ: Before Tyler got his Ph.D., he taught high school chemistry and biology. And one day, he realized that he just wasn't getting through to his students.

DEWITT: I'm so excited to be describing and teaching my favorite topic in all of biology, which is viruses and bacteria. And I look out at all these students that I'm teaching, and they just have completely blank faces, right? It's like, the joy that I've brought to the subject myself - you know, they're like, where is this coming from? Because we're not finding it in the textbook. And, you know, what you appreciate in this subject is completely not our experience right now.

RAZ: So you had a student - what? - like, raise their hand and say, this is just boring?

DEWITT: Yeah. I was, like, you know, can somebody just kind of explain the general gist of what you read in the textbook last night? And a student raises her hand. And she's like, yeah, I can tell you the gist. It was boring. It made no sense whatsoever - totally confusing. It sucked. And why should I care? It was great because, you know, it's that kind of honesty that you only get from young people. That sort of edgy, teenage honesty can be a really good thing. And it was just sort of this wake-up moment for me. I was like, wow.

If your only experience with this is reading the textbook, I can understand why you'd feel that way about this. It's such a shame how many creative, critical-thinking people relatively rote, dry science education turns off. You know, it's like how many Nobel Prizes, how many cures to cancer, you know, how many solutions to our energy challenges are locked in the minds of people who will never go anywhere near the scientific fields because they were so intimidated or turned off when they were in formal education? And they thought God, you know, I could never do that. I could never be a scientist.

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RAZ: You know, for most of modern history, humans have taken smaller humans, roughly between the ages of 6 and 17, and we've put them in these institutions to educate them. We call them schools. And that system is pretty much the same wherever you go, practically unchanged for 200 years. Kids sit in a room with a bunch of other kids. They listen to some information. They repeat it a few times and then they go home.

So today on the show, we're going to take a look at ideas about rethinking education - how we might want to change school, from the classroom to the technology available to the way we value teachers and the students they educate, and how all of this could transform education. But for Tyler DeWitt, rethinking education, especially science education, isn't actually all that complicated. It just takes some creativity.

DEWITT: Students really struggle to see how any of what they're learning really applies to their lives, really how science is more than a laundry list of memorized definitions and sort of nonsensical equations.

RAZ: So back when Tyler was teaching about his favorite biology topic - bacteria and viruses - and his students basically told him that it sucked, he decided to change his approach with a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DEWITT: Now the story that I start telling my kids - it starts out like a horror story.

RAZ: Here's Tyler DeWitt on the TED stage.

DEWITT: Once upon a time, there's this happy little bacterium. Don't get too attached to him. Maybe he is 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 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.

So when my students were first learning this, why did they hate it so much? Well, I can guarantee you that their textbooks 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.

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RAZ: I mean, did you face any challenges from people who were like, well, that's just wrong? That's just wrong science. You can't - you can't turn bacteria and a virus into these characters without explaining the this and that and the exceptions and the anomalies, et cetera, et cetera?

DEWITT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I think that's one of the biggest issues with science education, and with trying to present science in an engaging way, particularly for young people. Science can be a highly technical discipline. And I think practitioners of that discipline will often argue, oh, you could never say this because that's dumbing it down. You know, that's ignoring an exception.

And so there's always this tension between presenting something in an engaging way and then this sort of other side of oh, no, you couldn't possibly say that because it's not completely correct. And that really frustrates me because in science, there is no perfectly correct explanation for anything. At every level of scientific information, we're presenting only part of the story. And we need to understand that we need to present what is relevant and what is accessible for each level of education appropriately.

RAZ: So you - how did that change the way you talked about science?

DEWITT: Yeah, so I realized that relying on textbooks to convey the information just wasn't going to cut it. And so what good teachers do is they look at all of this very highly-formalized information, all these resources, and a lot of what they do is translate it into this vernacular so that young people can, one, get excited about it, two, understand it and three, see how to apply it in a broader sort of cognitive sense.

And then they have to teach the students how to sort of package it back up and present it maybe on state or national assessments, again, in the sort of highly-formalized, jargon-filled, very dispassionate kind of way.

RAZ: So Tyler took those ideas to YouTube, where he started to make and upload videos all about different kinds of subjects in science.

DEWITT: Where I started teaching all this information, not from a textbook, but in a way that students could understand...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

DEWITT: You can remember this because cats have paws, and a cat ion is positive.

...Using simple language...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

DEWITT: We could have a mole of donuts, which would be 602 hexillion donuts.

...Using fun analogies.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

DEWITT: A lot of people get confused by isotopes. So I want to describe them by starting out with an analogy to cars, OK?

And originally, it was just for my students. And then, students from around the world started watching.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DEWITT: I'm 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. 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 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. 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. How should you start? Why don't you say listen, let me tell you a story?

RAZ: I mean, that kind of engagement requires a certain level of charisma and creativity by the science teacher.

DEWITT: Yeah, I mean, I think it does. I also don't think that all science teachers need to be performers, that they need to be amazingly charismatic, right? I think there are many ways to make science engaging. But it does require that they look beyond just the facts and think more about what the overall purpose of education is and sort of what this broader narrative is.

RAZ: You know, it seems to me that the underlying idea here isn't necessarily about - just about science. It really is about conveying passion for something that is filled with wonder.

DEWITT: Oh, very much so. There is amazing wonder to be found in every academic subject. I obviously went into science because I think it's amazingly cool how we're able to investigate the wonders of the universe. And so we have this field that's all about just asking and answering these amazing questions. And rarely are we able to convey that excitement and wonder in traditional science education.

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RAZ: Science educator Tyler DeWitt. He hosts a YouTube channel geared toward helping high school and college students with chemistry. It's called Science With Tyler DeWitt. By the way, since he gave this talk, Tyler did earn his Ph.D. in microbiology from MIT. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, Rethinking School. In a moment, what do Finland, Vietnam and Canada all have in common? Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.