At the Science Channel, a STEM renaissance reaches the small screen

The Science Channel is moving to revive the nation's interest in science, with a little help from Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg and a stable of brilliant, approachable minds.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Debbie Myers is feeling anxious.

But for the general manager and executive vice president of the Science Channel, it has nothing to do with the fact that she is on her way to meet Morgan Freeman.

The moment her plane touches down on the tarmac at Los Angeles International airport, she switches her BlackBerry on.

“I did the happy dance," Myers said. "The person next to me probably thought I was crazy."

On the screen in her inbox appeared the news she had been waiting for: the ratings for the actor's new show, Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, were off the charts.

So far off the charts, in fact, that the show made network history: with a rating of 0.72, Freeman's show easily surpassed the previous record holder, Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible, which scored 0.51.

Myers couldn't help but smile.

From its onset, the show was a gamble. Freeman had never hosted a TV show before, and not every show -- famous actor or not -- is a success.

In fact, when the Science Channel previously tried its hand at a news show, Brink, it didn't quite live up to expectations. It's always hard to predict what will resonate with a TV audience, but it's may be that the show's attractive host, Josh Zepps, was a bit too charming to attract a younger audience.

"It was too much entertainment," Myers said. "Our audience said, 'Give me more science and don't play games with me.' "

The goal of the endeavor -- besides ratings, of course -- was to continue the company's mission to bring science to the masses. And, for the first time in awhile, it appeared to be working.

“Sure, we are a business and the numbers are very important," Myers said. "But what we have going for us, always, is that people are innately curious. That is our fuel, our secret weapon."

Myers said she felt the interest in science intensify two years ago, as the U.S. economy sunk into a deep recession.

"People are beginning to value innovation," she said. "People are waking up. We don’t have kids in the pipeline to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians."

Myers called it "a science renaissance," and while the recession may have accelerated interest in the field, it's no secret that the scientific movement has been building, slowly, over the past few decades.

Post-economic downturn, however, it's become ever clearer that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields -- called "STEM" -- are critical to maintaining our technology-driven society.

Part of the White House's STEM initiative has been to motivate youth to pursue degrees in the STEM fields. In general, students in STEM fields perform better than their peers, according to several national studies published between 1995 and 2006.

But women and minorities in STEM fields have taken a plunge. And the U.S. isn't where it needs to be.

So what can be done? Finding a good narrative is key, with a helping hand from government-sponsored programs and initiatives.

"There really is no pressure [to push STEM education] because we truly see this as our obligation," Myers said. "And it's a great opportunity for us to be the architects of a kind of innovation playground where genres are twisted and bended to draw a new audience in that is excited about science."

It certainly helps that President Obama has been an advocate of math and science education ever since he rose from obscurity into the national spotlight.

"In the U.S., a major challenge is to revive the interest, opportunities and abilities of students in math and science," Obama said to CNN in 2009.

Why? Because our economy depends on innovation. Obama launched the Education to Innovate campaign, which raised $260 million in financial and in-kind support from philantropic organizations and individuals. In a statement issued by the White House:

“America needs a world-class STEM workforce to address the grand challenges of the 21st century, such as developing clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on foreign oil and discovering cures for cancer,” said John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It is extremely gratifying to see this first and very robust set of responses to the President’s call to action.”

Despite a sixth-place finish for the U.S. among 40 nations in technology and innovation, the nation's economy placed dead last for progress in the last 10 years, according to a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Blame reverse brain drain: talented students come to study in American higher education, then return to their homeland to conduct prize-winning research.

Is it so far-fetched to say that STEM initiatives might be this generation's space race? The major difference: education impacts society quietly, subtly, slowly -- hardly with the flair of a 46,000-lb. Saturn rocket carrying an astronaut to the Moon.

But the classroom is where more substantial change could occur. In a TED talk, mathematician and magician Arthur Benjamin noted that the way math is taught -- particularly the concepts of randomness, probability, and uncertainty -- needs an overhaul:

The Science Channel's contribution to STEM education is embodied in their new, kid-friendly show called Head Rush, which will premiere Monday, August 23 at 4:00 p.m. ET.

Mythbusters star Kari Byron will host, aiming to inspire kids with hands-on experiments, videos, Q&As, games and guest visits from other popular TV show hosts.

Back at The Science Channel headquarters, Myers is thumbing through fan mail. One is from a mother, who writes that she and her pre-teen daughter really enjoy watching Freeman's show together.

(Interestingly, the actor's presence has also sparked acute interest from within the African-American community -- enough to double the channel's usual African-American audience.)

Myers knows the feeling firsthand. "My nephew worships astronauts," she said. "He loves our science programming and the whole notion of making the impossible possible.”


Postscript: In my experience as a young student, I did not find a lagging interest in the STEM fields from women and minorities. When I was in college, I majored in chemical engineering, and my classes had as many women as men, and a fair share of minority students, too. In fact, from the moment I began kindergarten to the final year of my graduate degree, I was enrolled in a science-related educational program.

Still, the perception of science was different the moment I went out at night. There, peoples' eyes would pop out of their heads the moment I told them that I was a chemical engineering major. Science was still this far off, abstract thing to students who stopped studying science in high school. That was in 2004. Already, times have changed.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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