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This month, I take Blick on Flicks in a new direction to look at my favorite album of 2009, Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants (TMBG). I've been a TMBG fan since the 1990s, and have had "Particle Man" and "Why Does the Sun Shine" on my MP3 player since the day I bought it. Though initially known for their unusual instrumentation and quirky lyrics, John Flansburgh and John Linnell moved into children's albums with Here Come the ABCs in 2005, followed by Here Come the 123s (2008) and Here Comes Science (2009). If you buy the album online, animated music videos for each song are included. (TMBG makes much of their material available for download on their website, www.theymightbegiants.com; the whole album can be purchased directly from them.)
The album's 19 songs cover the main areas of science, including biology, physical science, Earth science, and astronomy. Two ("Put It To the Test" and "Science Is Real") even deal with the nature of science and the scientific process. I consider the content most appropriate for upper-elementary or early middle school students. Ninth graders might find it a fun refresher.
TMBG addresses key topics in the national standards including photosynthesis, the cell, the periodic table, and evolution. Two ways I think these songs could be used effectively in the classroom would be as an introduction ("How Many Planets?") or to help students memorize some basic vocabulary ("Speed and Velocity"). Here are a couple of examples from each category.
"Cells" emphasizes the fact living things are composed of cells, cells replicate themselves, and cells contain DNA. I like the way the lyrics and animation use three different descriptions for the shape of the DNA molecule: a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, and a crazy spring. While none is a perfect metaphor, providing multiple representations makes it more likely students will make sense of one of the options.
My favorite physical science song, "Meet the Elements," gives a quick tour of the periodic table. For physics types like me, one of the strengths of the animated video for "Speed and Velocity" is the addition of an arrow when the lyrics change from speed to velocity. I do have a problem with the line "…acceleration, let's go faster," which reinforces a misconception about acceleration. Acceleration is any change in velocity: speeding up, slowing down, or changing direction. I know ideas must be simplified for young students, but I do my best to avoid replicating common misconceptions. Maybe the next time they came to the acceleration line, they could have written "…let's go slower," to show that it is also acceleration.
This is probably the strongest category on the album, with songs like "How Many Planets?" "Why Does the Sun Shine?" "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?" "The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space)," and "What Is a Shooting Star?"
"Why Does the Sun Shine?" was originally recorded by Tom Glazer in 1965 for an educational album titled Space Songs. TMBG released a cover version in 1993, and recorded a new version for this album. The song's video has a notable error of scale TMBG should have fixed. The lyrics correctly point out one million Earths could fit inside the Sun: The Sun's diameter is about 100 times larger than Earth's diameter, and 100 cubed is one million. In the video, however, the Earths are much too large, about 1/8th of the Sun's diameter.
Immediately following "Why Does the Sun Shine?" is a new song, "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?" which revises the line "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas" to "The Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma," and describes how plasma differs from gas. Teachers could use these songs to show how scientists refine and revise as new knowledge is created.
TMBG try to help science teachers everywhere with the problem of Pluto in "How Many Planets?" Their list initially includes Ceres (in the asteroid belt), Pluto, and Eris (which is even farther out than Pluto.) On the second time through, the list stops at Neptune, and adds "…a bunch of other stuff." Astronomers had to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet or add many other objects like Ceres and Eris to the list of planets.
Elementary and middle school teachers should check out Here Comes Science for some fun and useful songs to get kids excited about cells, blood, the periodic table, and outer space.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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