CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 2 . . . . September 20, 2002
I couldn't have been more enthusiastic when given the opportunity to review the boxed set of Science, Please!. The two videos, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, focus on many of the concepts in early years and middle years school science curricula. The caption under the box title reads, "Fast, factual explanations of scientific phenomena and discoveries! Who said science can't be fun?" My immediate reaction was: "Wonderful. Age-appropriate videos that will help to clarify phenomena in children's lives which are difficult to understand and explain." I then realized that Part 1 with four topics listed under the heading "Matter and Chemicals," six topics under the heading "Force and Motion," and four topics under the heading "Heat and Cold" was fourteen minutes long. Part 2 was twelve minutes with six topics under each of the headings "Magnetism and Electricity" and "Sound and Light." As a science teacher, I didn't see how it would be possible to offer one minute "factual explanations" of the atom or gravity or fire or lightning or sound or any of the twenty-one other phenomena listed. After watching all twenty-six sequences, I'm convinced that what is provided is certainly fast, but it merely offers information rather than meaningful scientific explanations.
Excerpt from Number 26, "Why is the Sky Blue?", Part 2:
At the end of this segment, my son asked, "Why do we see things that are blue? Why isn't everything yellow, red, or green?" Given the narration, he assumed that the blue wavelengths would be scattered to such an extent that few, if any, would reach Earth's surface to fall upon objects. You might also wonder about the variability of the colour of the blue sky, why the colour becomes paler, almost white, near the horizon, and why warmer hues appear at twilight. To say "the blue light is deflected by the particles in the air" (or due to Lord Rayleigh's theory of molecular scattering) is insufficient. One has no more reason for believing this than believing that the colour of the sky is an inherent property of the atmosphere itself.
Excerpt from Number 9, "Wheel Meets Friction," Part 1:
Viewers of this particular sequence should realize that, in mechanical systems, friction might be further reduced but not eliminated. Overstatements of this kind occur in other sequences. One of the more obvious examples is the introduction to "The Wonderful World of Colour" (Number 23, Part 2). The narrator states: "There is no such thing as colour. We live in a colourless world. All colour is an effect produced in our eyes and brains by light." The physical mechanisms that cause colour (the interaction of an object's electrons and the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) are ignored. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgement of the complicated nature of colour vision that continues to be an active field of study.
It's possible in productions such as these to forgive the occasional occurrence of inadequate and oversimplified statements. The same cannot be said for errors, particularly in animations that are attempts to make the non-observable less ambiguous. The depiction of the full moon and new moon phases in "The Moon Changes" (Number 24, Part 2) are the positions of the Sun, Moon and Earth during lunar and solar eclipses. This should not have escaped the notice of the science advisor.
Finally, what the producers and animators incorporate in an attempt to make science fun may be one of the reasons the series has been sold to Teletoons. At first viewing, the inclusion of animated sequences, archival film footage, and exaggerated dialects reminds one of Bill Nye, The Science Guy. The humour, however, is often achieved at the cost of sensitivity and good taste. "The Dirt on Soap" (Number 3, Part 1), as an example, attempts to familiarize the viewer with soap's molecular structure using the following narration: "Soap has a split personality. The head of the soap molecule is made of an alkali and its body made of fat. Yes fat." Innocuous, but the animated image of a soap molecule's body of fat shifts to film footage of an overweight traffic policeman when " fat. Yes fat." is spoken. A chuckle precedes, "Yes fat." Those who choose to show the series to students should also be aware of less explicit forms of bias, particularly the gender bias displayed in "The Atom" (Number 1, Part 1, and "Why the Sky is Blue" (Number 26, Part 2).
I see no benefit to the science education of students who might have the opportunity to view Science, Please! They might walk away remembering the Frankenstein-like head in the refrigerator or the grazing cow that undergoes spontaneous combustion, but have little understanding of the phenomena these videos attempted to explain. I do not recommend this series to teachers of science.
Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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