Bringing science, entertainment, and education together, Janet English is a science and broadcast journalism teacher in Orange County California. A go-to resource for The Exchange, she has served as director of education services for KOCE-TV, and received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Do you think a show like the The Big Bang Theory, whose characters are modeled after researchers at Caltech, has a positive or negative influence on young people choosing careers in science?

The Big Bang Theory makes us laugh, it makes us think, and it makes those in the geeky world more approachable, loveable, and fallible. It has a positive influence on our kids – definitely – but I send extra applause for a recent episode when Penny beat Leonard in her first game of chess. It was the first time I had seen Penny portrayed as having an intellect on par with the other characters. It was a great moment, and a refreshing one at that. I would love to see Penny find her intellectual side in this series, just as many women do when they release themselves from the strange cultural norms of thinking they should be less than intelligent, submissive, and a less vital part of the intellectual community. Keep up the great work, Big Bang!

How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?

Film and television need to share the joy of learning about the vastness, diversity, and miraculous wonder of this spectacular universe. What our kids – and our population in general – need to know from science is that the universe gets more intractable, creates more unanswered questions every day, and that when a fictional tale takes place in the intellectual world as it is evolving it becomes more intriguing than a story whose backdrop is simply speculative.

Stories do not have to go into great detail about the science but they do need to tease the audience with this sense of wonder. At least get them hooked.

What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science and engineering?

There are so many over-the-top exciting and inspiring stories about the natural world that I see no reason why film and television cannot use these to create an intellectual high in their viewers. It is an easy grab. When we learn something new that engages us, our brains release chemicals that make us feel good. Learning actually gives us a physiological pleasure bonus. Just translating these ideas into ones that the public understands in an entertaining and engaging way can go a long way toward inspiring our kids to love intellectual discovery and the pursuit of advanced problem solving.

From international studies we know that quite a few other countries do a better job than the United States in teaching science to their students. What should we being doing better and differently to improve science education in this country?

Most of us can agree that we need our young people to be great, creative problem solvers – whether it is in science or anything else. Our future is dependent on it. With the state and national assessments as they currently stand, this will not be our end result.

If we change our assessments to stress problem solving and understanding of the science curriculum in real-world applications, schools and teachers can respond in kind. Teachers love to teach so children love learning and feel part of the community in which all that learning applies. The way it stands, our current system oftentimes squelches that creativity and love of learning, as well as the love of teaching. Finland is known for training students to be good problem solvers – and we should be, too.

You won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching several years ago. It must have been great to receive such an honor. Tell us how you were selected. What are some of the perks from being recognized for your work in the classroom?

It was a great honor to be selected; I had to document thoroughly how I plan my teaching, how I structure learning, how I extend the learning outside the classroom, and how I involve the real world into my students’ lessons. The Presidential Award honors great teaching, but the state tests honor rote memorization. Why is there a disconnect? Because of this honor I have been able to participate in many professional activities that aim to improve science for our children including the California Teacher Advisory Council and the National Teacher Advisory Council. Some side benefits included getting catapulted off (and landing on) an aircraft carrier, carrying the Olympic torch, spending four years as Senior Director of Education and New Media at KOCE-TV, PBS (now PBS SoCal), and working with my friends in Hollywood and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange.

What are the benefits of the entertainment industry and the science community working together?

The science community has great stories for you to use in your film and television productions. Use us!

See Janet's presentation at our Science, Entertainment and Education Summit -