By Stacy Jannis
Kavli Science Video Contest Manager
The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest challenges Gr 6-12 students to examine the science in fiction, including science fiction movies, TV shows, and games. Our contest advisors include science educators , scientists, and Hollywood scifi visual effects experts. Follow #SciInSciFi on twitter to for contest updates.
Dr. Joanne Budzien is an Assistant Professor of Physics at MacMurray College. Dr. Budzien’s research is in materials science simulation and she has been at Frostburg State University, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Sandia National Laboratories, and what is now the Idaho National Laboratory. In addition to teaching undergraduate physics, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics, Dr. Budzien has also taught physical science to elementary education majors. A fan of sci-fi movies, television, and, of course, science, Dr. Budzien’s current big project is a seminar series using movie clips to look at “everyday” science with general audiences.
When did you first become interested in science?
I can’t remember not being interested in science. When I was a kid, my mother took college science classes for her teaching license and would often try things out on the family. I can remember hearing about the road pushing on the car and being awoken to stand outside to look at the sky. I always had building toys and I got to go to special programs for kids. I was also lucky to attend public schools that valued science. Science has always been part of my life, even though I didn’t always plan to be a scientist when responding to polls in K-12 education.
What has been your research focus, and why did you gravitate towards it?
Most of my research has been in computational materials with polymers being the most common material. That means that I use computers (and math!) to simulate what happens under certain conditions for certain models. I was lucky enough to take a class in polymers to fill an elective slot and I was offered a research project after completing the class. I was hooked after starting on that research project.
What do you think are some of the best ways to engage students when teaching science?
I think the best way to engage students is to start from examples that resonate with the students. For example, my current job is teaching physics and chemistry to mostly biology and education majors. Starting from the typical physics examples don’t work, but starting from something that the students have experienced tends to work better.
Demonstrations also work pretty well when the demonstrations are something that everyone is qualified to watch instead of depending on knowing a model ahead of time.
How do you use movies to teach science?
Movies are one way to get examples that resonate with students. For example, many people want to know if a car can jump off a bridge and land on a transport (an early scene in The Transporter). People want to know about time travel and space travel shown in the movies. People want to know if the hero really can swing on the vine to rescue the girl. By choosing common movie scenes, people have the attention to wait through the math to discover the answer.
Movies are also good for finding “regular” people expounding on science, even when the movie is actually about something else. For example, The Mindhunters have a scene showing how water and electricity don’t mix. And Tango and Cash explains about not completing a circuit to make an escape from prison using high voltage wires. Click this link for a lesson plan suggestion using this clip for high school students.
How do you think we can better encourage and inspire the next generation to become scientists and engineers?
I think the best way to encourage more people to become scientists and engineers is to focus on the interesting things that people of all ages can do for fun, even without formally declaring oneself to be a scientist/engineer. Classes are nice, but having science be part of daily life (just one of those things we do) probably pays better results. I love the maker spaces that are popping up around the country that are places where people get together to share resources and build things. I like the idea of having something akin to scouting troops, 4-H, and Future Farmers of America where squads of kids with a student leader meet regularly to do science/engineering projects. I am heartened when I hear of outreach like regular astronomy programs, Science Saturdays, and similar efforts done by scientists at all levels.
I like science fairs and science festivals, especially regional ones that are geared towards “everyone”, not just the people who have already chosen science as a life path.
What inspires you in your work?
It’s about half the joy in doing and half the joy in talking to other people about shared interests. I love finding out the answer to a problem after spending weeks working on it. I like talking with other people about nifty things they are doing and getting more problems on which I can work.
My recent project putting together monthly programs around a common theme in the movies, like explosions, car chases, or outer space, has let me speak with all kinds of people who want to know the science, even if they themselves don’t have the energy or background to take formal classes in the relevant sciences. I am inspired frequently by how many questions people in the general public have related to science and how eager they are to ask the questions once a friendly atmosphere has been provided.
What advice can you give to science and engineering students?
Do some math every day. You get better with practice and skills deteriorate without use. Computers are nice, but you need to know the processes yourself, even if you don’t do all the steps for every lengthy problem.
Embrace frustration as a necessary part of learning. Everything worth doing has some frustrating parts and some of the greatest satisfaction is beating one’s head against the wall long enough to break through.
Put the arts and humanities in your life. The occasional afternoon at the art museum is worth your time. Take in a play. Be in a play. Read deep books that are outside your experience and think about the variety of human experiences. Music is more than just what’s new on the radio; go find some music that speaks to you from across the world and across the ages. If you’re not convinced that these things are important, then do them so that you have more access to what other people think are problems and you have more nifty problems to solve using science/engineering.
Follow Dr. Joanne Budzien on twitter at @JBudzien.