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 . . .