Tyler DeWitt: Hey science teachers — make it fun
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Tyler DeWitt: Hey science teachers — make it fun

Translator: Morton Bast
Reviewer: Krystian Aparta Let me tell you a story. It’s my first year as a new
high school science teacher, and I’m so eager. I’m so excited, I’m pouring
myself into my lesson plans. But I’m slowly coming
to this horrifying realization that my students just might
not be learning anything. This happens one day: I’d just assigned my class
to read this textbook chapter about my favorite subject
in all of biology: viruses and how they attack. And so I’m so excited
to discuss this with them, and I come in and I say,
“Can somebody please explain the main ideas and why this is so cool?” There’s silence. Finally, my favorite student,
she looks me straight in the eye, and she says, “The reading sucked.” (Laughter) And then she clarified. She said, “You know what,
I don’t mean that it sucks. I mean I didn’t understand a word of it. It’s boring, who cares, and it sucks.” (Laughter) These sympathetic smiles
spread all throughout the room now, and I realize that all of my other
students are in the same boat, that maybe they took notes or memorized
definitions from the textbook, but not one of them
really understood the main ideas. Not one of them can tell me
why this stuff is so cool, why it’s so important. I’m totally clueless. I have no idea what to do next. So the only thing I can think of is say, “Listen. Let me tell you a story. The main characters in the story
are bacteria and viruses. These guys are blown up
a couple million times. The real bacteria and viruses are so small we can’t see them without a microscope, and you guys might know
bacteria and viruses because they both make us sick. But what a lot of people don’t know is that viruses
can also make bacteria sick.” Now, the story
that I start telling my kids, it starts out like a horror story. Once upon a time,
there’s this happy little bacterium. Don’t get too attached to him. (Laughter) Maybe he’s 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. “Ouch” is right. 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. Because, you see, DNA is like a blueprint that tells living things what to make. So this is kind of like going
into a car factory and replacing the blueprints
with blueprints for killer robots. The workers still come
the next day, they do their job, but they’re following
different instructions. So replacing the bacteria
DNA with virus DNA turns the bacteria into a factory
for making viruses — that is, until it’s so filled
with viruses that it bursts. But that’s not the only way
that viruses infect bacteria. Some are much more crafty. (Laughter) When a secret agent virus
infects a bacterium, they do a little espionage. Here, this cloaked, secret agent virus is slipping his DNA
into the bacterial cell, but here’s the kicker: It doesn’t do anything
harmful — not at first. Instead, it silently slips
into the bacteria’s own DNA, and it just stays there
like a terrorist sleeper cell, waiting for instructions. And what’s interesting about this is now,
whenever this bacteria has babies, the babies also have
the virus DNA in them. So now we have a whole
extended bacteria family, filled with virus sleeper cells. They’re just happily living together
until a signal happens and bam! — all of the DNA pops out. It takes control of these cells,
turns them into virus-making factories, and they all burst, a huge, extended bacteria family, all dying with viruses
spilling out of their guts, the viruses taking over the bacterium. So now you understand
how viruses can attack cells. There are two ways: On the left is what we call the lytic way, where the viruses go right in
and take over the cells. On the [right] is the lysogenic way that uses secret agent viruses. So this stuff is not that hard, right? And now all of you understand it. But if you’ve graduated from high school, I can almost guarantee
you’ve seen this information before. But I bet it was presented in a way
that it didn’t exactly stick in your mind. So when my students
were first learning this, why did they hate it so much? Well, there were a couple of reasons. First of all, I can guarantee you you that their textbooks
didn’t have secret agent viruses, and they 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.” I mean, because God
forbid somebody have fun when they’re learning science. So we have this field of science
that’s all about slime and color changes. Check this out. And then we have, of course,
as any good scientist has to have … explosions! But if a textbook seems too much fun, it’s somehow unscientific. Now another problem was that the language in their textbook
was truly incomprehensible. If we want to summarize that story
that I told you earlier, we could start by saying, “These viruses make copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium.” The way this showed up in the textbook,
it looked like this: “Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral
nucleic acid into a bacterium.” That’s great, perfect for 13-year-olds. But here’s the thing: There are plenty of people
in science education who would look
at this and say there’s no way that we could ever give that to students, because it contains some language
that isn’t completely accurate. For example, I told you
that viruses have DNA. Well, a very tiny fraction of them don’t. They have something called RNA instead. So a professional science writer
would say, “That has to go. We have to change it to something
much more technical.” And after a team
of professional science editors went over this really simple explanation, they’d find fault
with almost every word I’ve used, and they’d have to change anything
that wasn’t serious enough, and they’d have to change everything that wasn’t 100 percent perfect. Then it would be accurate, but it would be completely
impossible to understand. This is horrifying. You know, I keep talking
about this idea of telling a story, and it’s like science communication
has taken on this idea of what I call the tyranny of precision, where you can’t just tell a story. It’s like science has become
that horrible storyteller that we all know who gives us all the details
nobody cares about, where you’re like, “Oh, I met
my friend for lunch the other day, and she was wearing these ugly jeans. I mean, they weren’t really jeans,
they were more like leggings, but I guess they’re actually
kind of more like jeggings, and you’re just like,
“Oh my God. What is the point?” Or even worse,
science education is becoming like that guy who always says, “Actually.” You want to be like, “Oh, dude, we had to get up
in the middle of the night and drive a hundred miles
in total darkness.” And that guy’s like,
“Actually, it was 87.3 miles.” And you’re like, “Actually, shut up!
I’m just trying to tell a story.” Because good storytelling
is all about emotional connection. We have to convince our audience that what we’re talking about matters. But just as important is knowing
which details we should leave out so that the main point still comes across. I’m reminded of what the architect
Mies van der Rohe said, and I paraphrase,
when he said that sometimes, you have to lie
in order to tell the truth. I think this sentiment is particularly
relevant to science education. Now, finally, I am 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. If a young learner
thinks that all viruses have DNA, that’s not going to ruin
their chances of success in science. But if a young learner
can’t understand anything in science and learns to hate it because it
all sounds like this, that will ruin their chances of success. This needs to stop … 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 like the Internet, 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. I dream of a Wikipedia-like website that would explain
any scientific concept you can think of in simple language
any middle schooler can understand. And I myself spend most of my free time making these science videos
that I put on YouTube. I explain chemical equilibrium using analogies to awkward
middle school dances, and I talk about fuel cells with stories about boys and girls
at a summer camp. The feedback that I get
is sometimes misspelled and it’s often written in LOLcats, (Laughter) but nonetheless,
it’s so appreciative, so thankful that I know this is the right way
we should be communicating science. 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. Leave out those annoying details
that nobody cares about and just get to the point. How should you start? Why don’t you say,
“Listen, let me tell you a story.” Thank you.

About James Carlton

Read All Posts By James Carlton

100 thoughts on “Tyler DeWitt: Hey science teachers — make it fun

  1. He’s the only reason why I’m passing chemistry in college. My college professor its an incompetent bitter woman 💁‍♀️

  2. Just entering high school..and really interested in chemistry but never found even a single friend of mine to accompany me. For them, its total debris but now I think u and ur videos are gonna be a great companion..thanks a lot!!!

  3. I was just watching his video about voltaic cells and I came up to this. This man is a true gift from God. I believe that teachers , publishers , and educational institutions should listen to his opinion.

  4. is it just me or do the TED audiences always seem so condescending and snobbish. "it starts off like… a horror story!" that made me sit up in my seat.. all these teachers are like "oh no, social norm violated, act nervous so you don't seem weird… engage nervous laugh"
    "I make youtube videos.." "This guy's such a loser"
    I guess I just have a chip on my shoulder, he did get a pretty good applause.. Idk

  5. Love i sir… Thank you to Make me love Chemistry and any others thing to learn too…. Am So grateful to you… Can't ever repay u sir… 🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

  6. 5:28 i am an 11 year old and i can translate that into simple language…basically bacteriophages(the type of virus that attacks bacteria) introduces its nucleic acid(fancy language for DNA) into the bacterium to start its replication(reproduction).

  7. Those 154 dislikes all came from my chemistry teacher. I can't believe she stayed up all night to do this. smh. Shame on you Miss…

  8. Watch a 30 mins video in 3 mins. The BEST extension in google chrome store. https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/threelly-ai-for-youtube/dfohlnjmjiipcppekkbhbabjbnikkibo
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  9. Thanks Tyler! You have articulated the idea so well. This is exactly what I wanted to say to whoever preparing primary school Maths curriculum too. Leave out the seriousness and jargons, make it a story and make it fun!

  10. tyler is my fave teacher he teaches me more then any teacher ever has in middle-high school hes the best teacher i know i wish i could have a conversation with him

  11. best chemistry teacher I have seen I so much don't like chemistry before since when I saw him on YouTube God my life has changed

  12. I went from getting a zero on my college chemistry quiz to getting an A on the test because of Tylers videos. He is truly a life saver! Explains difficult concepts in a way that is easy to understand. Thank you Tyler!!!

  13. Lol I have a science teacher that make it fun 😊 but my fifth grade teacher is pretty good too lol but at the end of the year she keep giving us text book to read .-.

  14. But it is possible:

    Viruses that attack bacteria (bacteriophages) inject their genetic information into the cell. Then the cell mistakes the genes as its own and starts generating viruses which breach the cell membrane ,making the cell explode or "pop" like a pimple.

    How was that!!
    Written by a 13 year old (a.k.a me)

  15. The 'tyranny of precision' he mentions is also doublespeak. In this case, it's doublespeak for the sake of accuracy instead of misleading, but the end result in either case is gobbledygook that is incomprehensible to anyone who didn't already have a sound understanding of the subject matter.

    In other words; people who don't understand the fundamentals of teaching equally as well as they understand their subject, shouldn't be teaching. in teaching shouldn't teach. They will end up doing more harm than good; scaring all prospective students out of reading their textbooks.

    It's okay to be verbose for the sake of clarity when explaining to a layman. However, it is not okay to condense information such that accurately stating it puts it in college-level English with MIDDLE SCHOOLERS as your audience.

    Clearly, these people didn't pay attention in English or Rhetoric classes in college, or they would known better than this.

  16. I am a high school science teacher and this vid popped up on my suggested videos. I clicked on it because I strive to make science fun for my students. I watched the video and did not recognize Tyler until he he showed screenshots of his chemistry videos. I watch his videos and use his stories in my lesson plans all the time!😆 This guy is awesome!

  17. Imagine se todos os livros abdicassem da precisão apenas porque a maioria das pessoas não pode compreender. Que geração de profissionais teríamos…
    Por isso existe a criatividade que diferencia autores em didáticos e não didáticos.

  18. it's so exciting seeing that Tyler Dewitt has had a TED Talk, I watched so many of his chemistry videos, it's like my own chemistry teacher is famous

  19. As a science teacher this is my dream too.. I do whatever I can to teach it like a story..but I wish they could change the sustem

  20. LOL. I do stuff like this in ecology all the time with ecology like: female Woodhopoes that reproduce early end up like pregnant teenagers while those that stay at home longer, caring for their siblings learn how to be a good single mom. Practice on your siblings, so when it really counts, you don't screw up your own kids.

  21. I worked as a substitute teacher for 6th graders for one day. I didnt know the curriculum so i told stories about ecological interactions in marine life. They went absolute BANANAS!

  22. Thank you for inspiring me sir Tyler, I'm a newly licensed biology teacher and I'm so eager to teach my students science in a meaningful way om my first day work

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