TED Conversations

Jay Dalal
  • Jay Dalal
  • South Ozone Park, NY
  • United States

This conversation is closed.

Why don't we treat science experiments like primetime TV?

Hodgkin and Huxley are credited with explaining the ionic mechanisms that underlie action potentials in neurons. Their experiment involved thrusting an electrode down the giant axon of a squid. They demonstrated their experimental methods on video, which can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/5vqscw There's something hypnotizing about watching meticulous lab preparation. On YouTube, the Hodgkin-Huxley squid video has over 14,000 views. I think it's reasonable to say that there are far more people today watching the video than there are people reading about the experimental method as described in their 1952 papers: http://tinyurl.com/ayta342

But low readership should be expected. Scientific papers are filled with jargon because they're written primarily for people who are an expert in the field. Videos, on the other hand, use visual language and can be appreciated by anyone.

When the findings of elaborate experiments have mass appeal, news sources may reduce the procedure and apparatus to only one paragraph. Imagine if news journalists supplemented their headlines about latest cancer-preventing diet with video footage of the experiment. I think the audience would be more critical, and some would be more likely to look for the original paper. Videos invite curiosity more effectively than text, and can inspire new uses for highly-specialized lab equipment.

But the biggest barrier to that ideal is intellectual property law. The Journal of Visual Experiments ( www.jove.com ) has an archive of high-quality, well-edited videos of research experiments, but the audience is limited to paying customers and institutions. Perhaps the distribution of such videos can be funded with web advertising alone.

The show "How it's Made" glorifies the manufacturing industry. Do you think footage and video editing of will similarly transform the public's perception of scientific research someday? If not, who or what is standing in its way?

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    Feb 21 2013: Hi Jay,
    I have long wished that scientific papers could be more easily read and understood by the general public. I think your idea of videos being available for people to watch and learn from is a great idea. It would definitely capture more peoples’ attention if instead of reading about an experiment, they could see for themselves how it was done. I hadn’t heard of The Journal of Visual Experiments before but after visiting their website and only having access to a limited number of videos, I can certainly say I wish I could see more. I am not entirely familiar with the legal restrictions behind why these videos cannot be published, but I do think distribution of these videos would be good for the public. Shows like “How it’s Made” have given people an entirely new awareness about how the manufacturing process operates and I would love to see that kind of show be made about scientific research. I think there are a lot of people out there who would be curious enough to watch a show explaining to them the incredible discoveries being made every day. The potential problem I see is that not all research done is very visually stimulating. Much of it is very technical, analyzing data and performing calculations. If a show were to be made, it would have to focus on a broad variety of the most visually interesting experiments being done in order to hold peoples’ interests.
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      Feb 21 2013: One very popular television program around here that demonstrates how one can test hypotheses through ones own experiments is called Myth Busters. It is aimed at young people, but I expect it has a broader following.
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      Feb 22 2013: I see your point. A lot of science experiments involve reading a digital output, while the changes aren't physically visible in the setup.

      What would compel a person to watch a science experiment? The experiment, the discussion in the background, or the conclusion needs to be interesting. I think that there are still many examples that fulfill those requirements.
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      Feb 25 2013: Hi Neema,

      I agree that to attract the general non-scientific community with videos, the experiment has to be visually stimulating. However, having a visual documentation of a research/experiment is still valuable to scientists because they reveal information that may not be so obvious in papers or simply because it is easier to understand. The problem is, these scientific videos will not likely become popular enough to make it on TV. It is still worthwhile to videotape an experiment for a relatively small group of people though, given how inexpensive and easy videotaping is nowadays.
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    Feb 25 2013: Hey Jay,

    I think that a lot of the problem rests in disintrest. I recently found myself very frustrated when trying to show off a friends resume to a (clearly disinterested head-in-their-iphone) friend of mine. It wasn't that she didnt understand the engineering and inventing that went into his accomplishments, it was that, rather, she didnt feel as though the discovery/invention was useful, or even if it was, it was't available in the nearest shop!

    I know that if a TV series that documented the works of a lab would either fail, or the science would have to be secondary to the dramatic chaos that would be written into the lives of the cute college interns who help the scientists work.

    Finally, I want to encourage you, and raise your spirits! The new ever-growing discoveries are not lost onto the world. Perhaps not on TV, but on the internet I always see things on reddit, stumbleupon and facebook that discuss new achievements, inventions and ideas being worked on today. For instance, a facebook page (in)appropriately titled "i f***king love science" ("3,658,224 likes · 5,682,294 talking about this") posts graphics, links and articles about modern discoveries, as well as a weekly image summarizing the most important and relevant discoveries of the preceding week! If you dont mind the occasional f-bomb on your news feed, I definitely recommend subscribing to their page!
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      Feb 26 2013: Hey, maybe there's some potential in mixing science with trashy reality tv. It sounds like some science exposure's better than zero, which is what I imagine too many people at home are seeing. We can take baby steps in the right direction if we don't forget the end goal :) Could this idea potentially mislead people, or can the scientific research and the people be independent?
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        Feb 26 2013: I would definitely be interested in something like that. It's funny, because I know certain people that even though they're not chef's themselves they are very interested in competitive cooking shows. Perhaps, a component of science can be turned into something like that.

        I agree with Avi, and as many commenters posted on this conversation- an entire documentation of a scientist's research might be too boring. Even for the most interested scientist! But as you mentioned in your prompt, maybe episodes/clips of scientific research can be edited to cut out all the boring stuff. That's a major reason why I enjoy being a part of this TED community so much. There is an extraordinary amount of videos that explain years of scientific research in a 5 minute clip and I really get to enjoy it that way.
  • Feb 25 2013: Because our societal structure has promoted through hundreds of years the innate and instinctive abilities instead of the cognitive capacity, therefore is more burdensome for us to pursue and attend to mental processes that require analysis than to use simply our instictive abilities such as hunting, territorial dominion, sense of power, reproductive necessity, species perpetuation and others that are activated through the media very easily, when the cognitive abilities get involved we tend to block this messages and become "bored" by these otherwise useful concepts.
    We are animals that want to eat the chicken not to analyze how the chicken came about.
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      Feb 26 2013: I like the way you're thinking about this. Cultural studies tends to forget instinct / evolutionary advantage.

      But I've heard that orangutans have been observed to be very curious. Upon seeing a camera, for example, they might take it apart and put it back together.

      Also, it looks like the human species has thrived because of our cognitive abilities that enabled us to develop agriculture. Wasn't agriculture built from scientific research?
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    Feb 24 2013: Hi Jay - Thanks for your post!

    I agree with Hindi that video footage in combination with scientific articles would be most effective. However, the level of interest in something like the Hodgkin and Huxely experiment might never be high for the general public. This is because that level of detail regarding the functioning of a nerve does not have any use in their day to day lives or their field of work.

    That being said, I love the idea of launching a video campaign with general education in mind (Tedtalk is accomplishing this). This would not be useful to researchers as much as it would be useful to the general public, but it would amass interest, new students in the fields of STEM and, hopefully, funding. Imagine if something entertaining but educational went viral.

    In order for these educational videos to be monetized through web advertising they need to invite web traffic. This is most difficult for the "boring" subjects. How do we make videos go viral and invite this web traffic?

    It's all about proper marketing!

    Look at this tedtalk by Kevin Allocca, discussing the subject: http://tinyurl.com/a7fqnjn
    Kevin says that the videos need to be unexpected, have a tastemaker point of interest and have a large tech based community to spread them about.

    We can also pay people to make videos go viral: www.virool.com
    How do they do it? They target the audiences we want by looking at cookies on everyone's servers. They then place the video on the sites frequented by those people.
    Thus, the people who will most likely want to the video will have access to it and then spread it around.
    Virool explains how they work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRag4eCkqU4
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      Feb 26 2013: That's an interesting TEDtalk (For others: it was about how videos go viral. It argues that tastemakers and sharing within a community are what make videos popular. Not just the content of the video.)

      In "The Chair" by Galen Cranz, Cranz argues that chairs that encourage a C-shaped slump are terrible for our spines, while squatting on the floor or chairs that promote autonomous sitting are more healthy. But Western culture will continue to love our slump-encouraging chairs until the social elite can convince them to switch. He argues that a designer's responsibility in society is to change culture for the better, by designing body-conscious chairs in a way that is also stylish and likely to be adopted by the social elite.
      It's related to the MAYA rule of design: design the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable form of something to create the greatest impact.
      Good marketing is also an important part of the process.

      So until our culture's "tastemakers" are excited about understanding science at a high level, it won't become popular? Then maybe we have to design science information in a way that's conscious of today's popular tastes. That's tough.
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    Feb 24 2013: Hey Jay!

    The footage of Hodgkin-Huxley and the squid experiment is wonderful; it's almost hypnotizing in its mundanity until you realize the weight of the experiment that they're conducting. In saying that, I think that there needs to be both: we need scientific papers to provide the background necessary to appreciate fully the research being conducted, but we also need a means of showing the research and its importance to the general public. In the comments below, somebody mentioned this being akin to Mythbusters, but in reality the portion of the general public that watches Mythbusters doesn't get a firmer grasp on the science involved in the experiments. Those that have a working knowledge of physics definitely appreciate it, but I have friends who are art majors, who have never taken a physics class in their life, and they LOVE the show. They don't understand the science, even after watching, but it is a program they enjoy. Still, how many people would still watch without the explosions and the personalities of the people on screen?

    I think the real problem is the level of science education expected of most people. In order for these videos to make a real difference, the scientific background just needs to be there. Maybe in the future we will have a more scientifically literate public, but in the meantime, I just don't think cool footage alone is enough to make people appreciate research in a significant way.
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      Feb 25 2013: I see. So TV series need to have long-term interest in order to succeed. But there's a tradeoff between popularity and academic depth.

      Maybe we don't need to turn everyone into researchers then. I think that a real difference can be made if people simply became more skeptical of non-scientific sources of information.

      Maybe people don't need to be shown many different experiments to understand what goes into making a sound conclusion. A couple of very good, interesting, and thorough examples, in the form of a documentary movie?, are what people need to see.
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    Feb 24 2013: Jay, Thomas Edison once said invention is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent prespiration. IMO when we take the "short cut" of showing the video of the results the viewers would miss all of the effort that went into the "final" results.

    A good instructor would allow, within reason, mistakes. It is through these errors that we review documentation and findings that will lead us to victory. Failure is a important component of research. Failure can mean growth or death to a project depending on the researcher.

    Reality is that one bad teacher can turn off a generation in his classes. Whereas one good teacher can make a generation appreciate science and a few to go on to greater heights.

    TV shows a photo of a snow leapord ... it does not show that a photographer camped out for over a year to get the picture.

    Good luck. Bob.
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      Feb 24 2013: That's a great point: a fuller picture of the research field would not only be more honest, but also more appealing. If we limited film to successful perfected experiments, we miss out on the people and the decision-making. When we can have an audience that forms opinions on the research, maybe we've succeeded in engaging them. ("You should give up because it didn't work three times" versus "Keep trying, you'll get it!" for example.)
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        Feb 24 2013: The importance of documenting each step ... following the scientific method .... isolating ... triple blind applications ... all the biggies.

        Communications and collaboration are factors that I encourage. Some people want to go it alone. That is okay too. But I always point out that sometimes even the best of us get stuck in a rut and do not see it in ourselves.

        Thanks for the reply. Bob.
    • Feb 26 2013: agree with you wholeheartedly in principle, but i must out that teachers are obliged to follow the policies set by education department bureaucrats, psychologists, school boards, and principals, none of whom teach now and most of whom never did. it's not about the teacher being good or bad these days, it's about how good they're allowed to be.
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        Feb 26 2013: Ben, Often the school administrators have no input either. IMO ... The most power in education is held by the book publishers and the test writers. They provide a daily teachers guide to follow that will teach the test. Additionally Arne Duncan who wants complete control of education has added Common Core Curriculum to the teachers load ... the states add a standardized test that is still required by No Child Left Behind ... The only person not represented here are educators ... and I might add no regard for the student either.

        The hoops that teachers are required to jump through are higher and smaller than ever before. They literally have no time for anything other than to prepare the student for the test ... pay attention I am (literally) only going over this once .... you don't get it tough ... absent - tough .... sick - though ...

        The USA got its butt whipped in the PISA Exams so the government has the red tail and is acting like they care when in fact it is a brused ego that is being treated. In doing so the feds state do it my way and by my rules or we cut off your funding.

        That being said ... if the states maintained the rights given to them this threat would be hot air. IMO ... I do not see the Dept of Education listed anywhere in the Constitution nor many of the other Departments. So the problem could be resolved by going back to a Constitutional government and allowing teacher to do what they are trained to do. Just sayin ...

        Thanks for the reply.

        • Feb 26 2013: thanks for the follow-up! the book publishers and test writers publish under the direction of the education department, which actually thinks it's helping students by forcing schools into tests, they don't actually teach themselves so they are misguided and don't realise how counter-productive these edicts are. the school administrators then fail the teacher by giving school boards (who also don't teach at all) the power to adopt or veto texts and curriculum material, and punish teachers who don't toe the line no matter how terrible it is, instead of helping those who try their best to make the most of a bad situation.

          these standardized tests are absolutely terrible. a properly written test that tests student communicative and analytic abilities instead of just rote knowledge that may not even be properly comprehended are what's needed; a test should be to determine what a student can do, not a test of whether they can pass a test or not. state education boards are just as much to blame. you want good students? ask the teachers instead of telling them. i'm even hesitant to go as far as "what they are trained to do", remember teachers are usually trained by university professors who've been out of the real classroom for at least a decade. personally i learned how to teach by trying a lot of things and throwing out that which didn't work, which means i don't use any of the methods i thought would work or i was taught were the way to go!
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    Feb 23 2013: Jay,

    What a question! I'm glad you mentioned the online video format for science education and things. In fact, there is a whole Youtube science community (Veritasium, Periodic Videos, etc.) dedicated to these kinds of visual experiments. But this raises an interesting point that although television is one of the main communications mediums in the world today, I don't think it will always be so. So, it might be that scientific content might never reach the television. However, the television watchers might eventually reach the scientific content on the internet (the song "Video Killed the Radio Star" comes to mind).

    I love your concept, though. It's so important to make sure that people who have even a very low understanding of science (but have high interest) have access to short methods of conveying information that will help make the world smarter. Which is why I love TED-Ed, as well as Youtube channels such as SciShow among other things. So, maybe it's better for science to remain off of long-form media such as television?
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      Feb 24 2013: I agree, it looks like we're moving towards more interactive ways of watching videos. And online streaming is an even better way to watch academic videos because it allows us to digest information at our own pace, rewind and rewatch, or pause and learn outside of the video.

      You touch on another important point: People are discouraged from learning whenever they can't find an answer to their question, especially an answer that they can understand. Information can be presented in a way that accommodates everyone, or in many ways designed for different levels of prior knowledge. Which is better?
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    Feb 21 2013: Hi Jay,

    I definitely appreciate your question as I think about this idea frequently. With creation of organizations, such as TED, society has been able to access ideas and experiments more than ever before. This allows for us to contemplate different concepts that we might not necessarily focus on in our life. This flux of new ideas is definitely very beneficial in many respects.

    As you mention, with short scientific videos displaying experimental methods becoming more available, we have a unique opportunity to discover the ways in which various theories were developed. However, there are some risks with transforming to this way of conveying information. These videos tend to be short and to the point. For many, this is actually very convenient. But I fear that we might lose some of the depth and knowledge that is behind these experiments.

    With our high-paced moving lives, we rarely have the time to read rigorously about experiments that don't pertain to us. These quick videos provide us with an opportunity to be exposed to numerous research Yet, we won't achieve expertise without the dense scientific papers. I worry that with increasing quantity, we might lose quality.
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      Feb 22 2013: Yeah, there are a lot of tradeoffs to consider. When we teach someone a difficult subject by simplifying it, we pose the risk of making them overconfident in their knowledge. This is important when they plan on passing that knowledge on in some form, like if they're going to do an experiment and share the results, or if they're going to take that knowledge and teach someone else (which will often distort the information). It's a lot like how the news often distorts science. Whoever makes the videos should be very careful not to mislead.

      But I think that we can remedy these problems by always pointing to more detailed sources, and including a disclaimer. The potential for innovation that comes with increasing people's interest in science, to me, outweighs the risks.
  • Feb 26 2013: Yes Jay, thank you for your comments, however curiosity is not a cognitive ability but an instinct developed through innate abilities for search, defense and attack, when you see a dog apparently recognizing the word ball and chasing the round object in a payful manner the reality is that the dog is training its skills of defense, attack, hunting and curiosity, although humans may seem curiosity as part of the analytical capacity of the brain, it seems that curiosity is a more simple task with its origins in the survival skills necessary on any species.
    Humans have definitely improved (used loosely) due to the cognitive and analytical abilities of our brains, the development of agriculture yes is definitely the result of a series of observational, learning and deduction processes, however the beginnings of agricutlure were mostly rudimentary and aimed at satisfying a necessity more than a scientific analysis, empirical learning has been with us up until modern times and even games played by children tend to enrich the instictive nature of our brains more than the logical or deductive capacity of our brains. the evolutionary advantage has blurred the separation between our instinctive nature (stronger in primtive times) than the cognitive and analytical abilities we have improved and developed through our evolutionary process, hence the conclusion in my opinion is that our brains and mind have become more analytical, yes, but in most cases the hunting, perpetuation, defense, feeding, curiosity and even love as natural insticntive abilities of our species are the predominant factors in determining what represents an interest to us, no wonder that prime television has a sexual,violence, even the sense of integration innuendos that are very popular among humans, whereas the mental process required to advance a logical conclusion or a mental process tends to be tedious and burdensome. that seems in my opinion why science is not a prime time material.
  • Feb 26 2013: i wish that were the way to go, but the fact is that real science these days i extremely boring - and i studied to be a biochemist! experiments in most fields are hours of repetition of putting different amounts of stuff in different vials and spinning them or heating them, and if you're lucky you might be able to conclude that yes substance X inhibits process Y! whoop-dee-doo?

    people need to have a background in science to understand what was behind the experiment, and appreciation for the field itself to understand why the experiment is worth doing, but even then the possible future applications of the result are usually unclear, and it will be decades before anything useful and even remotely interesting comes of it. even on this site the most popular video is not about science or even engineering, but the things a non-educator with no teaching experience whatsoever has to say about schools, probably because schools are familiar to almost all. think of all the hype the iphone generated, touchscreens are 60s science but everyone is amazed to have them in their phones.

    it's unfortunate, but science can't be packaged for mass-consumption in a way that doesn't stop it from being science.
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      Feb 26 2013: Hi Ben,

      I appreciate your comment about how scientific experiments by nature are very difficult to package in a way that will make people want to sit and watch. However, I do think there is potential in the presentation of advances in scientific methods. It could essentially be a knock-off of "How Things Work". I feel like perhaps that type of idea is what Jay had in mind when proposing this question. These kinds of videos could inspire people (particularly, the youth) and encourage further scientific innovation.
  • Feb 25 2013: A Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit invented by Nikola Tesla around 1891.It is used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity.
    (bolts of lightning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

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  • Feb 24 2013: Not a chance! No killing or steamy love. TV is for keeping reality from the masses, not showing it to them....AKA Rome.
  • Feb 24 2013: I don't know the answer unfortunately. All I can speculate is that TV is ALL about the ratings. Perhaps the execs out there in TV land simply don't see any money in scientific experiments?

    I get frustrated by it all, especially day time tv(in Australia) where not only is intelligent tv not on the menu, but it goes completely in the other direction. Psychic Bullshit artists are regulars for example. They sell their trade unopposed. The host presenters don't question the legitimacy of these con artists at all. Now I don't believe for a second that the TV execs buy into that rubbish. They don't care that the constant bombardment of unintelligent TV is dumbing down our societies, all they know is $$$ & ratings.

    Want science on TV? Find a way to make it interesting, accessible & don't show stuff that directly or indirectly contradicts the supernatural. Cause the supernatural is exciting!
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      Feb 24 2013: Hahaha. Yeah, the media likes to say that they decide what to show based on what the consumer wants. The media does not fully realize that they partly control the taste of the public. (Think fashion magazines and the way they choose models.)

      When people have learned something interesting, they feel some pride and they want to share it with their friends. I have faith that someday, current scientific research can be popular on television (or whatever form of media takes over), but we have to take baby steps in the right direction.

      Channels separate topics -- and people. TV-watchers identify with a list of channels. There is a channel for news and a channel for science, appropriately called Science in the US. Why do they need to be separated in the first place?
      • Feb 24 2013: Well I hope your right :). A science channel? No fair! I for one would love it. There is so much we don't know, even for those of us who like the sciences. Such limitless potential. And to think how some smart tv could teach & inspire a children as they grow up.

        I went to watch a show called wonders of the universe. & not for the first time I had to turn it off when joined by my girlfriend who's reaction to seeing anything with science/politics/religion is always, 'what is this shit your watching.' That's what your dealing I suspect in a lot of cases. I'm not sure about this, but I think I recall hearing that females in general(not all females!) aren't interested in theses subjects... Perhaps there's an underlying reason behind it, and a little bit of psychology research may clarify whats going on there?
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    Feb 23 2013: Jay,

    I think that science will never be able to reach primetime status. Think about the human population and the average intellect level. Science and experimentation (such as that of Hogdkin and Huxley) are things of high intellect. Most people in the world will not understand what is going on, leaving them to not care about the subject as a whole. Now think about primetime television. The stuff that makes it on the air is what satisfies 'most' of the people who watch TV. I would have to say that most of these people are simply uninterested in science. Obviously, discoveries such as that of Hogdkin and Huxley are important to the science world, but they stand much lower on the totem pole to the general public.

    As a side note, I love "How It's Made"... its Canadian producers know how to put on a good technical show that you wouldn't normally see on prime time TV.. and get viewers! I personally wish there were more science-based prime time shows, but I also understand why there is such a large void in that category.
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      Feb 23 2013: I agree that a highly scientific show would not be widely accepted by the TV-watching public.

      However I reject the idea that most people /cannot/ be interested in science. I believe that most children are curious about everything, but as they get older, they begin to think that they are not smart enough to understand science, or that science is for boring people and social outcasts.

      I guess that there are at least two questions raised by this discussion: How can we make the general public (especially the youth) more interested in performing scientific research? This is difficult because of the reputation that the field has.

      But also: How can we better communicate scientific experimentation methods to a wide scientific community?
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        Feb 24 2013: At the urban middle school where I taught, kids were typically very interested in science.It helps that science tends to be very inquiry/experiment based in school these days and that there is so much very public excitement around high profile discoveries.
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    Feb 21 2013: great topic, should be in Ideas category
  • Feb 21 2013: Good