In a two-and-a-half-hour panel at the Discovery Building, scholars and media professionals from across the country discussed the challenges and opportunities present in promoting scientific fields through entertainment. Titled “Science in Entertainment and the Arts: The Most Powerful Way to Communicate Science,” the panel was part of over 330 events that took place over the weekend for the 2019 Wisconsin Science Festival.
Jo Handelsman, former Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Obama Administration and current Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin moderated the panel.
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Handelsman began the discussion by addressing the concern in the scientific community over a lack of diversity across gender, race, ethnicity and more.
Young people are turned off from becoming scientists particularly due to a lack of diverse, appealing representations in entertainment, Handelsman said.
Handelsman explained this lack of diversity is not only unfair but also hurts scientific efforts by limiting the number of minds who “bring more creative and defensible solutions out of any given group.”
The five panel participants each introduced themselves through their various approaches toward promoting science through entertainment and the arts.
Ginger Ann Contreras, the Coordinator for Science to Street Art, is working to bring five new science-themed art murals throughout the city of Madison.
Professor David Lynn introduced a multitude of programs at Emory University in Atlanta such as a 48-hour brainstorm of plays between scientists, playwrights and actors.
Carrie Hanson presented her experimental dance pieces produced with her Chicago dance group, “The Seldoms,” which confront issues like climate change denial.
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Throughout the questioning period, the group of panelists responded in agreement to the challenges they face in bridging science and the arts. Common themes included how to make stories or characters related to science compelling, balancing creative liberty and scientific integrity, and accurately measuring the success of initiatives.
Overall though, panelists said there is hope in the potential for collaboration between the two fields.
In response to the question of what their creative process is to make science entertaining, director and screenwriter Michael Graf said, “the trick to translating compelling science into story driven content is to not tell a story specifically about a scientific proof, but rather to use that discovery as either a character’s intention or obstacle.”
Using the film “Hidden Figures” as an example, Graf said how it “uses science both as an intention and solution to overcoming the obstacles” of the three female mathematicians fighting racism and sexism.
Research backed many of the arguments made by panelists. Elizabeth Kilpatrick of the Geena Davis Institute shared a study that named a phenomenon “the Scully Effect,” which found women in the study who view the “The X-Files” and its lead character, female scientist Dana Scully, were 50% more likely to enter STEM fields.
Kilpatrick elaborated later that studies found scientists depicted in media are rarely shown outside their job, and more needs to be done to depict scientists as “fully-dimensional human beings” to make science more appealing to kids.
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The panelists ended their discussion agreeing how the arts and sciences can be bridged to aid each other as tools to teach and inspire more youth into their fields.