January 26, 2011

Alum to Host Discovery Channel’s Curiosity

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Dan Riskin Ph.D ’06 is hosting Discovery Channel’s Curiosity:The Questions of Life which aims to spread science education and engagement.

Tests, such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), place American students behind those of several European and Asian countries.

President Obama has made STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education a priority. His campaign, Educate to Innovate, incorporates TV programming on the Discovery Channel and Sesame Street, math and science video games, and scientists volunteering in classrooms.

Dan Riskin Ph.D ’06 is playing a role in the campaign as host of the forthcoming Discovery Channel show Curiosity: The Questions of Life. Essentially, the show explores “the big questions we all ask,” which sounds unimpressive, especially given that Riskin acknowledges that these questions are not answered. Rather, Curiosity seeks to explore topics, such as fear, aging and regeneration, and memories through groundbreaking science and stylish production.

Riskin confesses that the look of the show is “much closer to the kind of things people would watch when they’re not looking to get educated.”

Too often, he found that “the really interesting fun things that I learned from science, I didn’t learn until I was in my third or fourth year,” Riskin said, meaning that those outside of science “get an impression of science that isn’t as exciting.”

Accordingly, he embraces TV as a medium, in which “you can bring people in in the middle of a story, where you think is interesting,” Riskin said.

The TV industry is changing due to the multiplication of channels and the availability of shows on the Internet. Riskin acknowledges that “people aren’t going to watch unless they’re seeking it out” and that at the end of the day, “TV stations are in competition with each other,” which is not necessarily beneficial to STEM education.

At the same time, no branch of Discovery Communications ­­­­­­— neither the production team nor the advertising team — pressure Riskin into crafting a stereotypical mad scientist, or other TV scientist personality.

“I’m pretty stubborn. I am who I am,” Riskin joked.

What Curiosity instead showcases is that scientists and their work are interesting. Commenting on Bill Nye’s personality, Riskin says, “I’ll bet he’s like that. One of the things that’s great about scientists is that they’re characters […] they can be so interesting, and they can be so engaging; they can be hilarious, or they can be quirky and weird.”

Contemplating the work of a scientist, Riskin recalled the words of an advisor: “The great thing about being a scientist — you can’t possibly be doing the same thing year after year. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong,” Riskin said.

That is the impression Riskin hopes to pass along to his younger viewers. He participates in select shoots without having been briefed, so he engages with each commentator or activity along with the viewer. Throughout, he gives the perspective of a scientist, which is to “train yourself not to be fooled, [to] think very, very carefully.”

Taking a page out of evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s book Biophilia, Riskin relates that “what makes the natural world so beautiful is the fact that there are surprises out there […] the ability to explore the world is what makes the world wonderful.”

Riskin believes that everyone’s curious and asks questions but that “your ability to explore the world is limited by your creativity.” The show, as a part of the Curiosity Project, is rooted in the Discovery Channel’s founding purpose: to empower people to explore their world and satisfy their curiosity.

His eye is on the goal of creating “high quality, scientifically accurate, entertaining material that people are going to be drawn to.” Whether or not the programming will raise test scores is hard to say, but if curiosity and creativity are critical — essential, even — to learning, then Curiosity will have satisfied the goal of Educate to Innovate.

Original Author: Jing Jin