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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1

Table of Contents


Lights, Camera, Educate!

Using Entertainment to Spark Interest in
Learning Science

Scenes from the Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education, held Feb. 4, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif., photos by John Kotcher

Two-and-a-half years ago the National Academy of Sciences paired up with Hollywood filmmakers to launch the Science & Entertainment Exchange, which matches scientists with screenwriters, directors, and producers in an effort to more accurately portray science, and scientists, on screen. Since then, the Exchange has arranged for scientists to consult on dozens of hit movies.

Scenes from the Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education, held Feb. 4, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif., photos by John Kotcher

Now the Exchange is exploring how to tap the creative energy of the entertainment industry to produce science-themed products that not only entertain, but educate, too. This idea was the topic of a daylong summit held in February at the Paley Center for the Media in Beverly Hills, California.

NAE President Charles M. Vest told the summit audience that he thought the entertainment industry could ignite interest in science and technology by doing what it does best -- telling moving, inspiring stories. Storytelling is what science, entertainment, and education have in common, added summit speaker Sean B. Carroll, an NAS member and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He said that people learn from stories because, like science, they present a coherent argument in support of a conclusion. Carroll believes that the enormous number of science stories presents a tremendous opportunity for Hollywood to tell them on the big screen. Half jokingly, he suggested that Out of Africa would make a great movie title again, only this time it should tell the story of the Leakey family's archaeological adventures discovering the roots of humanity in eastern Africa.

Scenes from the Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education, held Feb. 4, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif., photos by John Kotcher

Other ideas for how entertainment could be used to engage students surfaced at the summit. NAS President Ralph J. Cicerone recalled a suggestion made by film producer Janet Zucker that electronic press kits of behind-the-scenes footage could include commentary on scientific concepts in a film to make them useful in a classroom.

Many participants at the summit thought entertainment could be particularly useful in making science relevant to students. For instance, Tony DeRose, senior scientist and leader of research at Pixar Animation Studios, described a project he initiated to show students how much geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and other math it takes to make animation. Teacher Tyler Johnstone agreed that often the secret to teaching science is making the subject matter tangible to students: "When it's relevant to them, they are engaged and will buy into black holes or string theory or whatever else we throw at them."

Video and computer games are another entertainment medium with teaching value, explained game developer Will Wright, best known as the creator of the virtual reality game SimCity. He noted that playing a computer game requires learning from a series of successes and failures in a process of experimentation that mimics the scientific method.

Film director Jerry Zucker, husband of Janet, declared that he believed the market for entertaining educational material is potentially huge. "If a studio put its mind to it, it could create teaching tools and be profitable," he said. Meanwhile, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which sponsored the summit, announced that it was making $225,000 available to fund pilot projects that leverage entertainment media to improve science learning. --  William Kearney

Video of the Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education can be viewed at NAS President Ralph J. Cicerone chairs the advisory board of the Science & Entertainment Exchange. Filmmakers Jerry and Janet Zucker are vice chairs, as is Patrick Soon-Shiong, former chairman and CEO, Abraxis BioScience Inc., and co-founder of the Chan Soon-Shiang Family Foundation. More information on the Exchange is available at

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences