Batman teaches science

Justine Cleghorn, Contributor Ω

Paul Zehr speaks to science students and professors on Nov. 22. – Photo by Justine Cleghorn

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to become Batman or Iron Man?

Paul Zehr, a professor and director for the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria, has written two books on just that.

Zehr gave a lecture explaining how popular culture references could be used to teach science to a sum of 30 students and professors on Nov. 22 at the TRU Science and Health Sciences Building.

By building on concepts the general public already understands, science can become something that can resonate with people, he said.

In his published books, Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, Zehr used superheroes as the platform to explain science and attract readers.

“By understanding how Batman’s body works, you learn how your body works,” he said, adding kids are more interested when they are shown how Batman’s body works.

Zehr considers his teaching technique like “slipping the medicine in with candy.”

While Batman helps bring understanding to how the body works, Iron Man helps bridge the conversation into neuroprosthetics. Similar to how a prosthetic gives a person the functions of a missing body part, Iron Man’s suit gives his body extra abilities he didn’t have before. Instead of being worn like an article of clothing, the suit is controlled by the brain. By connecting Iron Man with brain functions, Zehr transitions into discussing how the brain operates.

Hosting informal discussions rather than formal lectures is the strategy Zehr has found most effective in teaching students about science.

By having informal sessions in coffee shops and bars, more direct interaction occurs with the audience, which leads to more engaged participants.

“Student engagement is a priority in the faculty of science,” said Karen Ross, a science department professor. According to Ross, student engagement in first-year science courses can be a struggle, so Zehr was invited to speak at TRU to inspire student engagement when learning science.

“It’s nice to hear how another educator approaches teaching,” Ross said.

The café-style talks not only benefit the general public, but also push professors to sharpen their public speaking skills and communicate their message more efficiently.

“Talking science with the general public doesn’t mean just saying the same thing using smaller words,” Zehr said. The trick is to use terms and context that the other person will understand, according to Zehr.

His style of educating forces him to provide people with what they need to know, without adding unnecessary details.

“He did a great job of introducing a different way to speak to people,” said Kaitlyn Bleasdale, a fourth-year cellular molecular biology student. “It was really cool.”

The world is becoming more complicated and science based. Knowledge about science is necessary “so we can know better about the choices we are making about what we are buying, what we are subscribing to [and] what we are eating,” Zehr said.

“I hope I can get more and more people involved in doing this because I think science belongs to everybody and people just aren’t getting information that they need,” Zehr said. “What I’m hoping is that 10 years from now, this kind of thing is just common place.”

Zehr wants to implement his strategies at the university level first. He hopes to see future professors and teachers using these techniques.

His third book is anticipated to be released in 2014. Project Batgirl, the working title, is a first-person diary narrative exploring what it takes to become Batgirl and is directed at teenage girls.

His lecture was part of a series of seminar sessions the science department offers to students and professors three Thursdays a month at 12:30 p.m. in room S373 of the Science and Health Sciences building.