Getting a Hand from Pop Culture

Karen3A great pleasure in learning afforded by my 23-minute drive to work is listening to Terry Gross of WHYY’s Fresh Air interview a wide variety of people on all sorts of topics. Earlier this week, she spoke with Adam McKay, who received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film The Big Short.

The film details the collapse of the housing bubble and the ensuing consequences for the global economy….scintillating stuff, right? McKay and his collaborators devised an innovative way to deliver wonky information to their audience. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

GROSS: So you have some cutaways for popular personalities, not that I’m necessarily familiar with all of them (laughter) like actors Margot Robbie, and Chef Anthony Bourdain and actress and singer Selena Gomez. Explain some of the more complicated things. And they’re just, like, cutaways where, like, Anthony Bourdain’s in the kitchen and Margot Robbie is in a bubble bath. How did you come up with the idea to do cutaways like that and to find, like, the comedy – the comic way for them to explain it?the-big-short-1-556x300

MCKAY: You know, it came about from, really, the – what I think once again is the central question of the movie, which is why did these people see it and we didn’t when the numbers were so obvious if you looked at them? So one of the answers we started talking about was just this kind of white noise pop culture that America has a lot of. I mean, the rest of the world has it, too. So we started talking about the idea of, like, we want to represent that pop culture in the movie. We don’t just want the movie to be in offices with Wall Street guys talking. We want to see what America is thinking. And then off of that thought I had the idea of, like, well, what would happen if pop culture actually gave us usable information? Like, what would happen if Kim Kardashian every time she was on camera explained the LIBOR rate scandal? You know, what would happen if any time you’re watching a red carpet for an award show and everyone comes down in their gown, you know, each person, you know, talks about climate change statistics…
(emphasis mine)

If an award-winning filmmaker can do this, why can’t we? In fact, I do it all the time…just yesterday in fact.

Here’s what my students needed to grasp about the thirst mechanism: When your serum osmolality rises above 300 milliosmoles, osmoreceptors in your hypothalamus (part of your diencephalon), trigger the desire to drink.

What this means in plain English: If you eat something salty, or lose too much water, your brain realizes that your blood is too salty, and you want something to drink.

How to make this more accessible and memorable? Get a little help from Seinfeld!

If you’re not sure how to find a good clip for your concepts, just collar any culture-savvy young person of your acquaintance, offer them the “plain English” version of the idea, and ask them for suggestions. Works every time, and I now have a pretty spectacular collection of clips stored in my YouTube account.

Clever Clip(s) of the Week

Metaphor, simile, parable, allegory….these are words that we recognize as the lexicon of the Humanities folk rather than the Science geeks.  When we science nerds do employ video to help our students learn, we often rely on the “science-y” ones alone, often almost pathetically titled by some soul struggling to make them sound irresistible:  “Translating the Code: Protein Synthesis.”  Sign me up for that!

Here’s a trick that I like to use when introducing the daunting topic of cell physiology.  My students have just finished their first exam in the previous hour and are typically tired from lack of sleep, stressed about their performance on the test, and frightened by the length and complexity of the cell physiology chapter in their text.   So I show them this clip:

Next, a slide of a puzzled baby, asking “Now why would she show us that?”

(Long pause for response….someone usually hazards a pretty good guess.)

Now, I show them this clip from Harvard Biovisions by StudioDaily (cue ooohs and aaahs):

After watching both videos, students are able to tell me how the two are alike, and they begin to understand, without much prodding from me, that the workings of our cells are fascinating, complex, and, like the workings of that fabulous Coke machine, completely hidden from our senses.

Finally, I promise that by the end of the week, they will be able to identify almost everything in the Harvard video. We often sneek a second peek at the Coke video as well, and the class has fun making analogies to cellular processes with their newly acquired knoweldge.


Do you have favorite videos that you use to invite your students into the wonders of your discipline?  How do you use them?