Doug Peltz on Science Education and Mystery Science


In July 2014 on TOS Blog, I interviewed Keith Schacht, a cofounder of Mystery Science, then a brand-new startup in the field of science education. Here I chat with the company’s other cofounder, Doug Peltz, to gain some further perspective on their mission, their approach to education, and their progress to date. —Daniel Wahl

Daniel Wahl: Hi, Doug. I’m grateful for the chance to talk with you about Mystery Science, which I’ve been using with my son—and which he loves.

Doug Peltz: Thanks, I’m so glad to hear that, and excited to be talking with you.

Wahl: Before we dive into the details and virtues of Mystery Science, how did you become interested in science? And what is your earliest memory of being fascinated by something in the field?

Peltz: When I was six years old my family took a driving trip through the American West. Like any child, I asked questions from the time that I could speak. But this was different. On that trip, I saw and smelled the boiling, sulfurous hot springs of Yellowstone. I saw mountain goats in the Badlands of South Dakota. I stood on the slopes of Mount St. Helens just seven years after it had erupted. These experiences really stirred my curiosity, especially coming from the flat, “topographically challenged” plains of Illinois.

I went back and watched old home movies of that trip, and realized something wonderful about my parents: how earnestly they always took my questions. I would ask so many questions—I was practically badgering them! Yet they were tireless and encouraging. It was because of my parents that I learned two life lessons worth conveying to every child: First, the world around me is full of amazing wonders waiting for me to explore; and second, everything has an explanation.

Wahl: Which scientists inspired you growing up? And which do you most revere today?

Peltz: There are several, so I’ll just tell you about one of my favorites. As a child I found this old book series in the school library called Childhood of Famous Americans, which I enjoyed. That’s when I first learned about Thomas Edison. Most people just know him for the lightbulb, but he also invented the electrical power that makes lightbulbs practical in the first place, and thus made practical the entire realm of electrical appliances and devices. As if that weren’t enough, Edison invented the phonograph and motion picture camera and so every benefit we derive from that, including the entire film and music recording industries! Since he died, the world has not seen an inventor on this scale. When I stop to think about how much better off we are as a result of this one person, I feel like it’s crazy we don’t have statues of him, we don’t have streets named after him, we don’t have a holiday in celebration of his life!

Wahl: Which science educators and authors do you like most, and why?

Peltz: Two of my favorite science educators are David Attenborough and Isaac Asimov. People think of Attenborough as “just the narrator in the BBC nature documentaries,” but each of his “Life” series (such as Life of Birds and Life of Mammals) is so much richer than that—they are emotionally powerful, conceptually rich, and inductive in their approach. I wish they were the basis of a biology curriculum in elementary and middle schools.

Isaac Asimov, who is mostly known for his science fiction, was also a scientist who wrote a mind-boggling number of popular nonfiction works, such as Isaac Asimov’s The Human Body, one of my favorites. What I love most about Asimov is that he is unapologetic about the need to simplify information when presenting it to the reader. So many science communicators regard simplification as if it’s some kind of sin—heaven forbid a child ever believe that the orbits of the planets are circular, rather than elliptical! I think that nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge, to be learned, must be simplified, and levels of precision have to be motivated and presented in successive stages.

Wahl: When did you decide to make a career of science education? And what was your first job in the field?

Peltz: Because I loved science from an early age, I assumed that I would try to become a scientist. But I loved science in spite of my science education. My science classes had consisted of a lot of busy work and parroting of formulas and vocabulary that none of us students really understood. I thought that when I got to college, things would be different, because now I would have scientists themselves as my teachers. Unfortunately, the quality of their teaching wasn’t better; many of them regarded teaching as a chore.

Even though this was disappointing, it was also fascinating to me: Could it really be that all of this amazing scientific knowledge has been discovered and accumulated—we’ve been to the Moon, we’ve discovered the inner workings of the universe—and yet no one has figured out how to teach science consistently in a clear and compelling way? As Carl Sagan observed, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

Meanwhile outside of my college classes, I had been leading monthly open houses for the campus observatory, which housed a large, historic telescope. Members of the public would line up to peer at the craters of the Moon or the rings of Saturn. As people waited in line, I got to tell them short stories about discoveries and field their many questions. I found this totally exhilarating, especially getting to hear their reactions as they looked through the telescope. For example, on seeing the rings of Saturn, many people expressed incredulity. “That’s not really real,” they would say, as if it were too amazing to be true; or “that’s a trick!,” and they’d ask me to spin the telescope around to prove that I wasn’t tampering with the lens. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to be a science teacher. The world really is that amazing, and people need to know about it. So I started working on how to make science compelling and convey it to the greatest number of people. I taught and created science lessons at LePort Schools (in southern California) for seven years, then moved to San Francisco to start Mystery Science with my longtime friend and entrepreneur Keith Schacht.

Wahl: How would you describe Mystery Science and its mission?

Peltz: Mystery Science makes open-and-go lessons that inspire kids to love science.

Every child starts out deeply curious about the world around him, but unless this curiosity is encouraged and supported, for most children it begins to fade by their teenage years. Our mission is to help children investigate their questions about the world.

Every scientific conclusion began as a mystery that once vexed a scientist. And yet in so many science classes today, we’re just handing students the conclusions, apart from any wider context or meaning. It’s a list of definitions or formulas: “Here is what scientists know . . .” For example, “Earth has this part called the mantle, and then below that, a liquid core. Label these. They’ll be on the quiz Friday.” We all remember doing that in school. But what’s the backstory on these ideas? What led us to discover this? None of it is obvious—in fact, we’ve only drilled down seven miles, so how do you even know it’s true? These kinds of questions are much more interesting and meaningful. This is what should be the focus of science classes.

Once we realize that every scientific conclusion is a solution to a mystery, then we can see that all of this time in science classes, it is as if we have been asking students to flip to the last page of the mystery novel without letting them read the story. That is what we are doing differently at Mystery Science. We’re giving students the context and exciting backstories they need in order to make sense of the world around them.

Wahl: Well, it’s working. My son loves Mystery Science. He loves it so much I never have had to ask him to watch a lesson—he always asks me to do it himself.

Peltz: I love it! That is wonderful to hear.

Wahl: Some of the things my son likes about the lessons is that they’re seemingly directed at him alone. You don’t address yourself as “Mr. Peltz,” but as Doug. And you don’t come across as a teacher who is lecturing to a classroom, but as a really curious friend who is talking directly to him. Is this relaxed, informal approach intentional? If so, what was your thinking behind it?

Peltz: This is my teaching style, but it’s intentional. It stems from my general views on teaching. I think that any subject worth studying should be something you get to actually use and enjoy regularly in your life. It should enhance your daily perspective on the world around you; it should live on with you emotionally. For example, for me the mark of a great lesson about the Earth’s rotation would be one that has the students years later still thinking about this whenever they sit and watch a sunset, and so have that little moment of profoundness: “it’s because the Earth is turning . . .”

I myself experience that when I watch a sunset, and I’m sincerely excited to share these kinds of perspectives with others. So having a relaxed teaching style helps me to be “me”; it helps me to let emotion come through, which I know is infectious, because all of my own best teachers were the ones who were clearly passionate about their subject matter.

Wahl: My son also loves the hands-on activities of Mystery Science. Can you say a few words about the difference between watching experiments and doing experiments? What in your view is the value of the hands-on approach to teaching science?

Peltz: Young people should have the opportunity for hands-on experiments and demonstrations, and I don’t know any science educator who would disagree with that. But I think that what makes a lesson effective—and what makes Mystery Science unique—isn’t our hands-on approach, but the fact that we are very purposeful in creating content that has personal meaning for the child. We call this the “Mystery” approach. For example, in helping fourth graders understand a topic such as volcanoes, we don’t simply take it as a given that children want to understand everything about volcanoes. Instead we ask ourselves: What is a question that a child at this age would find genuinely intriguing? We don’t motivate the answer; we motivate the question. And then we guide children to investigate this question by reasoning from real, observable evidence—not merely by parroting some vocabulary words. In guiding children to investigate the question, sometimes the observations are easy to show as a photo or video, and sometimes they are more compelling when experienced firsthand. If you want to see more of this example, check out our lesson “Could a Volcano Pop Up in Your Backyard?”1

Wahl: What’s new at Mystery Science, and what are your and the Mystery team’s long-term plans?

Peltz: We started working on this just last year, in 2014. In the time since we began an initial pilot, the feedback and demand have been through the roof. Our goal is to create the most widely used science curriculum in the country over the next few years. We plan to help a significant number of children in the next generation develop a scientific perspective on the world. There’s a team of seven of us now working on this full-time. Every week we help teach about fifty thousand children. We’re very pleased by our progress, but we have a long way to go.

Wahl: Well, I can’t recommend these lessons enough. I have been telling everyone I know about it, and it’s been a pleasure learning more about the company and its future today.

Peltz: Thank you!

1. “Could a Volcano Pop Up in Your Backyard?,” http://mysteryscience.com/rocks/mystery-1/volcanoes/53.

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