November 19, 2012
At Stanford, 'The Science of MythBusters' teaches the scientific method
In the new Thinking Matters course The Science of MythBusters, Stanford freshmen learn the scientific method by studying exploding chicken manure and the mathematical probabilities of winning game shows.
By Bjorn Carey
Jamie Hyneman, co-host of the Discovery Channel's 'MythBusters,' talks about the scientific method in Professor Steven Block's freshman seminar 'The Science of MythBusters.' (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
On a recent Monday morning, a classroom of freshmen were asked to contemplate the following scenario:
A chicken farmer has been collecting a pile of manure for several years, and it so happens that a diesel fuel storage tank, situated near the pile, has been slowly leaking some fuel into the manure.
One day, the farmer's grandson, Jimmy, climbs to the top of the pile to set off some fireworks. One of his firecrackers sparks the diesel-manure mixture, causing an explosion, and the shockwave launches Jimmy over the nearby barn, where he lands on a mound of hay, and is able to walk away uninjured.
Now, the lecturer asks, how would you determine if such a thing could actually happen?
The students are not fazed by the task. At the halfway mark of the quarter, students taking The Science of MythBusters, a new freshman seminar in the Thinking Matters curriculum, have plenty of practice applying the scientific approach to think their way through a variety of real-world problems.
In fact, the day's guest lecturer is none other than Jamie Hyneman, co-host of MythBusters, the popular Discovery Channel show (it often involves explosives) that inspired the course.
The students begin slicing the problem into its individual components. Could chicken manure plus diesel fuel, mixed passively over time, become an explosive? Is the spark from a firecracker sufficient to ignite that explosion? How strong of an explosion would it take for Jimmy to clear the barn and, most important, would he survive the experience?
Hyneman considers these questions in turn, and things begin to look good for Jimmy. For starters, manure is less than 0.3 percent ammonium nitrate, far short of the 95 percent concentration used in making so-called fertilizer bombs, composed of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
Furthermore, even assuming that there was enough ammonium nitrate in the pile for it to explode, the ignition of such an insensitive explosive would require blasting caps or the equivalent; a stray firecracker wouldn't get it started. This is great news for Jimmy, Hyneman notes, because any shockwave sufficiently strong enough to propel him over a barn would most likely liquefy his organs.
As the students continue to address various elements of the problem, Steven Block, who devised this course as part of the new Thinking Matters curriculum, stands off to the side wearing the expression of a professor who's proud of his pupils.
Lesson 1: Think like a scientist
Block, a professor of applied physics and of biology, created the course to give freshmen a crash course on applying the scientific method. While many students arrive at college bearing the fruits of scientific knowledge, comparatively few have firsthand experience putting that information to use outside a classroom setting.
This isn't the students' fault, Block said. "Most high school students learn about physics and chemistry the same way they learn about history, which is to remember, and be able to recall, specific facts. It turns out that you can ace a physics exam but still never learn how to think like a real scientist."
Similarly, laboratory "experiments" assigned in high school and introductory science courses, he said, are actually just demonstrations: The students follow a set of prescribed steps to achieve an expected result.
There is certainly value in learning some laboratory techniques, Block said, "but when you know the answer in advance, that's not how real science works."
Many students will employ the scientific approach through trial by fire at some point in college, but Block thought that training freshmen – especially those who don't necessarily plan to major in a science – to dissect myths, and to introduce them to the peer-review process, would prime their brains for easier success in future studies.
So Block began outlining The Science of MythBusters, based loosely on how the show's cast tests various urban myths through evidence-based investigations.
He assembled a team of faculty, including Vijay Pande, a chemistry professor and director of Stanford's graduate program in biophysics, and Jan Skotheim, an assistant professor of biology. Three postdoctoral lecturers – Steffi Duttler, Julie Desjardins and Hania Koever – provide an intimate "peer-review" environment for the course's 60 students.
Together, the teachers charted out a course that will require students to think their way through numerous scenarios, like the exploding chicken manure, and, in doing so, introduce them to statistics, metrics, modeling and data analysis.
Students are encouraged to consider the full range of questions that need to be answered when designing an experiment, and challenged to find new solutions when an experiment goes awry or the results come back murky.
The course lives up to its Thinking Matters affiliation, Block said, by deviating from asking students to memorize information and instead giving them the opportunity to focus on the processes involved in challenging perceived facts. He teaches them all to be skeptical.
"It seemed rudimentary at first – most of us learned the basics of the scientific method in sixth grade," said Rosie Steinbach, a freshman who anticipates majoring in mechanical engineering. "But learning how to talk about and be critical of science in this way, learning how to write a grant proposal and having that work reviewed by PhDs, that's going to be invaluable in future endeavors."
How well they learn how to "think like scientists" will be tested by the final project: Students must each write a grant proposal detailing their plan to test a popular myth or hypothesis of their own invention.
Applying it to the real world
The students are slow to disperse as they emerge from the classroom. One pair has paused over their bike locks to discuss possible ways to shield Jimmy from the manure explosion. Another group has peeled off to revisit a previous week's lesson, the probability mindbender known as the Monty Hall problem (loosely based on the television game show Let's Make a Deal and named after the show's original host).
"It's much more interesting and engaging to learn the scientific approach using these real-world examples," said freshman Matthew Callahan. "And we're developing our science writing skills and learning useful tools that will be an asset down the road."
In particular, Callahan, who is interested in biotechnology, said he is now more likely to be skeptical of certain scientific claims. "If I see a study that says 'coffee helps you live longer,' I now want to examine the actual study to see how it was conducted, and whether the results are significant," he said.
Block and his colleagues are pleased with the reception from students so far and expect to double the class size in the second year (the course was heavily oversubscribed this year). And though the course has a science tilt, Block thinks freshmen from all prospective majors could benefit from learning how to think scientifically.
"We're teaching critical thinking and research skills," he said. "If you want to become an economist or a businessman, you need to know how to take a scientific approach."