August 30, 2019

Credit: Getty Images / CBS

*This piece was originally published March 15, 2019. 

The launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite back in 1957 had a lasting impact on science education in the United States. Washington poured more than a billion dollars into overhauling the U.S. science curriculum. But television was transformed too. According to Ingrid Ockert, a Haas Fellow at the Science History Institute and a NASA History Fellow, the television show “Continental Classroom” was launched in direct response to the Sputnik challenge. Five days a week, “Continental Classroom” was broadcast into American homes to encourage and inspire budding scientific minds.

From “Watch Mr. Wizard” to “Mythbusters,” lots of Americans have grown up watching various science television programs. Ockert walks us through how science has changed television, and how television has influenced science.

Three Takeaways:

  • The marriage between science and television was not a smooth one. Lynn Poole, the first host of one of the earliest science television programs, “The Johns Hopkins Science Review,” was not comfortable giving scientists complete reign over the show. Television required performance, which Poole found severely lacking among scientists. He is known for having said, “If scientists were left to their own actions, they would be swaying like cobras on the set.”
  • This perception changed with the rise of science shows such as Don Herbert’s “Watch Mr. Wizard” and, most famously, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, which brought charismatic science personalities to the forefront. Sagan, Ockert argues, was one of the best science communicators of the 20th century because of his ability to share his genuine wonderment and amazement through the screen, creating a personal connection with his audience. (Johnny Carson invited Sagan onto his show 7 times, just because he thought he was a funny guy.) Other shows geared towards children, such as 3-2-1 Contact, portrayed science as an approachable topic by showing real kids doing science.
  • With television now shifting to online digital platforms, Ockert believes these new spaces face the same hurdles as early science programs from the late 1940s and early 1950s. How can these new platforms not only encourage science curiosity but also create a large fan base? An essential element that made science programs so successful is that they created a sense of community and trust among viewers, which is a challenge for online digital platforms to replicate.

More Reading:

  • Is television responsible for dumbing down science? Science personalities have often been ostracized by colleagues for “selling out” to television. Read this article from The Guardian that explores the debate around science broadcasting.
  • Where are all the female science celebrities on television? While online platforms have allowed some of them to shine, equal representation is still lacking.
  • Why are there so few educational scientific programs addressing the issue of climate change for kids? How can these programs raise environmental awareness?
  • Looking for a new science television show to get hooked onto? Ockert says she’s looking forward to an upcoming partnership between National Geographic and actor Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park). They’re working on a docuseries called The Curiosity of Jeff Goldblum, exploring stories behind everyday objects.

Education, NOVA, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Mr Wizard, Cosmos, television

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