Blick on Flicks
By Jacob Clark Blickenstaff
Podcasts have exploded in popularity over the last decade. Where once only a few radio shows posted podcast versions of their content, the catalog of available podcasts in 2020 reaches into the thousands. I suspect most podcast listeners are adults, and the majority of the content available is certainly targeted to adult audiences, but some good shows exist that teachers could use while teaching science to middle and high school students.
Many have written about how to use podcasts in the classroom. Elementary teachers might read Ashley Marquez's blog post. As with movies, I do not recommend playing a full-length podcast in class, as that could require a full class period or part of several periods. A podcast could be assigned as homework, similar to a reading assignment, with students completing questions either as part of the homework, or in class as part of a discussion. Be sure all students have a way to play the podcast at home: a computer, tablet, or smartphone will be needed.
If you use a podcast during class time, a short segment could introduce a new topic or get students engaged in discussing a controversial topic. In the specific podcasts I will mention later, the podcast format is good for interdisciplinary treatment of subjects, as the presenters' narratives very often blend the disciplines of science with history, literature, and economics. Some literacy specialists see benefit in having students read along with the text of a podcast.
You could consider having students create their own podcasts as a way to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, perhaps even as a group project.
I've a few suggestions for podcasts with interesting science content.
Undiscovered is a spin-off from Science Friday, a great NPR series. Hosts Ella Feder and Annie Minhoff explored unfamiliar stories from the history of science for three seasons. Though they are not creating new episodes, the available episodes cover an amazing range of subjects, from human interactions with robots, to the controversy over the extinction of the dinosaurs, to how whales and dolphins became popular enough to be protected in the 1970s and 80s.
The Naked Scientists generally has a panel of experts on the topic of the episode and a fun identification question running through each episode. The level is appropriate for middle schoolers (and the title will likely appeal to some middle school students). Broadcast on radio continuously since the mid-2000s, this series offers many podcast episodes. The website is organized by broad subject area, so you can locate a biology or physics topic more easily. Since the show is based in the United Kingdom, U.S. students might find the accents of some guests difficult to understand, but I'm sure others will be intrigued by a series from another country.
Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam, focuses on psychology, and often the intersection of psychology and economics. I appreciate how Hidden Brain often makes connections between psychology and literature in unexpected ways. For example, a recent episode on how people respond to warnings used the Greek myth of Cassandra to illustrate what kinds of warnings are more likely to be heard, understood, and acted upon. Finally, Vedantam usually has practical tips for using the results of psychology research to improve your own life.
If you're looking for some great informal professional development for yourself, listen to a few episodes of the NSTA podcast Lab Out Loud. Dale Basler and Brian Bartel are two awesome science teachers who enjoy talking to folks about teaching science. Some episodes focus on the work of a scientist, while others are more about science pedagogy. (And yes, I was their guest a year or two ago.)
Podcasts have no official ratings as movies do, so it can be difficult to determine if a podcast includes strong language. Also, podcast versions of radio shows sometimes remove the "beep" that obscures profanity. The "beeped" version typically appears on their website.
Quality control varies widely. I generally listen to podcasts from respected radio sources like the BBC, NPR, or large radio stations like WNYC-FM. Independent podcasts can be good, but are not supported by research teams and fact checkers in the same way the larger ones are.
Insufficient Facts is an interesting case. It is hosted by three PhD students who discuss a variety of topics related to a theme in each episode. I like that the hosts are two women and one man, and their conversation shows that they enjoy discussing interesting science, which can be good for students to hear.
Unfortunately, the hosts are all life science grad students, and they don't stick to topics they're familiar with. I listened to their episode "Space," and I like that they touched on ways Star Trek features real science, pointing out that Spock's green blood is similar to the green blood of horseshoe crabs (as I did in my column on the Star Trek reboot. When addressing physics and astronomy, though, they were careless in their language, using the terms solar system, galaxy, and universe essentially interchangeably. I worry that students could be confused about the distinction between our galaxy, which has 100 million stars or so, and the universe, which is composed of billions of galaxies.
Teachers looking to engage reluctant readers could consider using a podcast or two to bring the sounds of science into the classroom.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is a learning designer with AVID based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.