2009 Portland GSA Annual Meeting (18-21 October 2009)

Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:05 AM


METZGER, Christine A., Environmental Science, Whittier College, 13406 Philadelphia Street, P.O. Box 634, Whittier, CA 90608, cmetzger@whittier.edu

Earth Science at the Movies: Science and Pseudoscience in Cinema, an interdisciplinary course, was developed to fulfill the science- and math-in-context liberal education requirement at Whittier College, a small liberal arts college outside of Los Angeles, CA. The course used blockbuster Hollywood films as a framework to discuss concepts in introductory geology and environmental science. The scientific method—how scientists do science—was an omniscient theme in the course, and a special emphasis was placed on current hot topics in the geosciences, especially climate change. Students were mostly non-science majors (>90%), enrolled in the course to fulfill the liberal education requirement. For more than half of the students, this class was their first college-level science course.

Films were used to direct the introductory geology course, with topics including planetary geology (Armageddon), Earth structure (The Core,), earthquakes (10.5, Earthquake!), volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano), energy resources (There Will Be Blood), paleontology (Jurassic Park), and climate change (The Day After Tomorrow). Films were accompanied by lectures and discussions about the myths and mistakes, as well as cinematographic techniques and stereotypes about science and scientists.

Assessment was based on active participation, problem sets, and essays. Students in small groups participated in directed post-film discussions and jigsaw-type activities. In the problem sets, students used math-based reasoning to examine inconsistencies in the films via Fermi (or “back of the envelope”) calculations. Reflective essays highlighted synthesis of the science and the films. For example, students were asked to compare three reviews of The Day After Tomorrow which strongly reflected the author’s tone but with the author’s identifying information removed.

Preliminary data show that the majority of students’ perceptions of their scientific knowledge increased from “average” to “above average” and a decrease in students’ perception of the accuracy (from 38.8% to 23.9% accurate) of the science in Hollywood films. Course evaluations also reflected student willingness to take additional science courses and to disseminate the information learned in this course about Earth and environmental science.