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MIT uses reality TV, online games to show science’s appeal

“ChemLab Boot Camp’’ follows MIT students who use alliances and other tactics from reality TV to land a job in a research lab. Catherine Russell/MIT

In an effort to attract more high school students to science, two teams at MIT took inspiration for projects from reality TV and from online games.

Their endeavors are part of a broader movement to alter stereotypes associated with science, engineering, and math and give students a novel way to learn and practice science. The researchers spearheading the two projects hope to draw in students by humanizing scientists and immersing the teens in the problem-solving challenges that lie at the root of science.

When reading about a research finding, “it all seems like it’s very ordered and clear and there were no mistakes ever made and everybody did a perfect job,” said George Zaidan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus who returned to campus to direct the video series “ChemLab Boot Camp,” which will begin posting episodes this month on MIT’s OpenCourseWare website.


But the reality, he said, is that “science is messy, and especially when you’re learning things.” And he hopes to show teens they can relax and have fun with it.

“If they see it as this messy, creative interesting thing, that it’s an OK-to-make-mistakes-type field, I think it makes it more attractive,” Zaidan said.

Zaidan spent 3½ weeks in January following a grueling class called 5.301 Introductory Lab Techniques, in which 14 students struggled to grow crystals and learn how to work in a laboratory, in hopes of gaining coveted research jobs.

The class has been offered for years, but this year funding to film it and create the video series was provided by Dow Chemical Co. The series includes confessional video diaries and the same kind of drama, competition, and alliances that routinely unfold on prime-time television. The films are a departure from typical science videos that give straight instruction in how to conduct an experiment or explanations of how something works.


Emily Yau, a sophomore this year who participated in the class and earned a spot in a bioengineering lab, said that, as in any reality TV show, the participants went through periods of boredom, excitement, and sometimes a little despair.

And just as in reality competition shows, she said, strategic teams sometimes formed among the students. One episode on a crystal-growing competition featured an alluring prize: dinner at Legal Sea Foods with the professor, the teaching assistants, and two friends of the winner’s choice.

The result? “A ton of drama in there that you wouldn’t really expect,” Yau said, as students teamed up to help win the dinner or get an invitation to it.

In a different project at MIT, a team is developing a game modeled after popular multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft.

In The Radix Endeavor, human-like characters battle a villain — tentatively called Cyril — who has decided to corral all scientific knowledge for himself. Players must solve problems using knowledge they could have only by understanding biology or math concepts. In one example, players must grow particular plants to produce medicine that can help cure sick people, which requires knowledge of crossbreeding and Mendelian genetics, standard high school fare.

The game, supported by a $3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on making high school biology and math more appealing.

“What’s powerful about games is they are places where you can try things and fail, and that’s OK,” said Eric Klopfer, director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program. “And you can work with other people and develop an identity in that space. That’s what games are really powerful at — this gives a sense of what science is.”


The game, which is being produced with the help of Filament Games, a Wisconsin company, should be ready for more widespread testing online next year.

John Essigmann, a chemistry professor at MIT who is executive producer of the ChemLab series, said the goal is to dispel dated notions that scientists are geeks without personalities or other interests.

Essigmann said he was pleased that this provided a way to show another side of science: the high-five moments, the failures, the rallying, and the persistence.

“The reality TV is meant to be a hook that will capture people — the young woman who thinks, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to go to MIT. It’s all male nerdy geeks’ — to bust the stereotypes and show the students the way they really are,” he said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson
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