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REVIEW: Why This is Science not Fiction

Tom Eagan, Teacher St. Thomas Aquinas HS

I have found a channel called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and it is excellent in so many areas. Generally, I am biased towards talks on physics but this show is entertaining, informative and practical on multiple science levels.  

There are two main parts of the show I use in my classroom and they are Forgotten Superheroes of Science and the Science or Fiction challenge. I would like to share how my use of Science or Fiction has helped me develop authentic scientific inquiry versus memorizing facts for a test.

I want my students to learn how to make proper assumptions and not be fooled by the latest internet story of a Mayan calendar ending to our civilization. It would be nice to have critical thinkers who are skeptical of what they are learning and interested in fully comprehending how and why science works so well. Unfortunately, I have too many students who just want the correct answer and the scientist's name to match with a famous law or theory. They are not interested in why the current theory is better than previous theories.

I have had great success with my SPH4U class using the podcast’s Science or Fiction questions to generate intense scientific discussions. The podcast presents three statements: one is fiction and the other two are science. Here are two examples.

Science or Fiction Episode 555:
  1. Astronomers now claim that LIGO’s two black holes which collided were likely both formed within the same star.
  2. Examination of the dodo cranium reveals that they had well above-average intelligence for birds.
  3. Scientists have developed a chip that enables the detection of a single molecule using an ordinary cell-phone camera.

Science or Fiction Episode 503:
  1. In Stockholm, wild rabbits are being culled and their corpses are being burned in a heating plant in central Sweden. 
  2. A Beverly Hills plastic surgeon used the waste from his patient’s liposuction to create biodiesel to fuel his SUV.
  3. On the International Space Station, human waste is dried to reclaim moisture, and the remains are burned to produce power for the station.

I tried different approaches but the best success seemed to happen when four or five students who felt so strongly about all three statements (why two of them were true and one had to be fiction) shared their reasons with the class.  As students were defending their reasoning, others often would jump in to argue specific facts, feelings or ways of looking at the questions. In fact, I had to limit how many could participate.  Without doing a lot of prep work (actually any) and inventing at my end, I was able to provide a method of learning that made them question their assumptions and validate their opinions. They were thinking and practicing scientific inquiry and having fun with their peers.

Often they leave the class still talking about a concept or idea and wanting to research it further. I always gave them the correct answer (or most correct in some cases) at the end of the exercise. I did not share the source of questions until the end of the semester. At that time I shared the link http://www.theskepticsguide.org and encouraged them to listen to the podcasts or web page for themselves.
Each week there is a new episode so there are always new science or fiction questions plus hundreds of past ones. On the actual show the reasons for choosing which one is fiction are informative, educational and engaging. I emailed Dr. Steven Novella (the show’s creator) about sharing this resource and he fully supported sharing science resources with any teachers.

If you want the answers to the above challenges go to:

Click on show answers. There is also an attachment after each science statement linking to an explanation.

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