Editorial #8 – Professor Attenborough

Planet Earth, the BBC’s famous nature series, received unprecedented popular attention upon its release, generating record-breaking sales. At StFX, every class essentially costs 15 dollars to attend. I wonder how much more money the BBC would make if we just paid them directly.

Planet Earth is a fantastic series. As part of the new fad of nature being cool, it brought public attention to the beauty and diversity of the planet, helping to inspire an entire generation to love and respect their collective home.

The series showed numerous behaviours never before caught on film, from humpback whales fishing with coordinated nets of bubbles, to elusive snow leopards hunting in the mountains, and did so with a quality of presentation unlike any nature film that came before. The camera work is stunning, the sound and music are crisp, exciting and emotional, and, most significantly, the science is concrete.

Because of this scientific integrity matched with entertainment value, Planet Earth has become a favourite for professors in biology. About half of the bio courses I have taken have made use of Planet Earth as a teaching aid, either in large or small chunks.

And why not? Students get bored of taking notes on the courtship behaviour of birds of paradise, and to see a video of them actually performing these displays grabs students’ attention in a way that a flowchart just can’t. Once the video is over, the professor has a captive audience that can better appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the dance.

This is especially important in my Animal Behaviour class, which depends on observation of behaviours; it is wholly impractical to bring a pod of feeding humpbacks into the classroom – plus, the Planet Earth version is handily narrated by a fatherly Englishman.

That warranted use, however, is the exception to the rule. The vast majority of the use of Planet Earth in the classroom has been little more than thinly veiled entertainment dressed as education. If I’m in the biology program, and paying well for the privilege, I am clearly already interested – I don’t need to be coaxed into developing an interest in nature, the function to which Planet Earth is best suited.

Call me an elitist, but I am not here to be sat in front of a television to absorb what millions of people have learned without leaving their living rooms. They even get to drink a beer while they do it.

The overuse of nature documentaries is a symptom of the larger affliction plaguing science programs across the country. While each class may teach you an enormous amount of information on what muscle connects to what bone, or what amino acids look like, discussion, debate, and the development of real practical skills are largely overlooked.

Very seldom have I been asked to write an essay arguing a side of a controversial topic (and in biology especially, there are plenty to choose from); I’ve also never had the opportunity to work on a presentation or debate to strengthen my communication skills.

What I hear the most often from graduates of science programs is that they don’t remember a thing they learned in their undergraduate classes. What they did retain are the subtle skills like writing a paper, thinking critically, and organizing vast amounts of information into mental compartments: skills you do not pick up from an episode of Planet Earth.

Abilities like this, as well as communication skills, should be the primary goal of a university science program, not memorization. One way to make this happen is to introduce science classes with an arts focus (or vice versa) – classes that, while learning about topics in science, we have a chance to debate their ethical repercussions, explore their future potential, or understand the ambiguity of a yet unresolved issue.

No one cares how many families of molluscs you can name, but if you can’t work with people or think for yourself, you will not get a job.

I recognize that university is about more than job placement, but that is exactly why we should be graduating with more than just a marketable piece of paper and a head full of quickly evaporating facts.

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