How Claire from the BA test kitchen made me rethink our scientific role models

This blog post is by MSU faculty member Arend Hintze.

I love making stuff, let it be wood crafting or building cosplay Halloween costumes for my kids. However, I also like to do things the right way.  Consequently, I have to learn new skills all the time. To that end, I watch a lot making of videos and tutorials.  Over time I realized that I spend a lot of time watching experts on YouTube doing things.  At first, I thought I am just a sucker for infotainment, but then I took a closer look at my YouTube-history. I found confirmation for the infotainment preference. I watch a lot of Physics Girl, Computerphile, Numberphile, the Backyardscientist, Captain Disillusion, Today I Found Out, Scott Manley, the Slowmo-Guys, SciManDan, and Veritassium. These all fall into the category of science or technology dissemination. But I also saw that I follow Claire from the Bon Appétit test kitchen, Adam from Tested, Peter Brown, Odin Makes. All YouTuber’s who are experts in what they do, but instead of disseminating scientific content or technological advancements, they usually build or create things.

Claire Saffitz from Bon Appétit’s BA Test Kitchen

Here comes the strange observation. Me being a scientist, I feel much more connected with the makers. I have a much deeper emotional connection with Claire and Adam than with Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson. But why is that?

Most science YouTubers talk about scientific facts, and how they can be understood. They debunk false claims and fake news. Or they show advancements, and how sophisticated detectors allow us to understand the very stuff reality is made from. While I love all of that, I don’t feel myself doing science properly represented. Yes, accomplishments are great, but 99.9% of the time, I don’t feel like I accomplished something.  Scientific discoveries are rare, most experiments fail, and results keep contradict each other until much later when suddenly everything makes sense. No, I don’t have imposter syndrome, that is an entirely different thing.  Almost by definition, we scientists work on the edge of the known. If we didn’t try to push this boundary, we wouldn’t do our job right. If our experiments worked out every single time, we could have known the answer beforehand. It is “being wrong” that is informative. It is “not knowing” what drives the quest for knowledge, and it is a long, cumbersome, and often frustrating path.

However, the typical US education is not preparing students for such challenges. STEM education makes science “fun,” everything has an answer, and tests only require you to regurgitate these answers. Our kids experience immediate rewards not only in their learning environments but also in how they play. Digital games are optimized for instant rewards, which is what makes them so addictive.  Critical thinking is nice, but you also need to come up with new and creative ways to solve problems.

We need to show our students and children that failures are an integral part of learning.  We need to show them how to deal with setbacks. I think students learn the most from watching others fail and deal with failure than just being baffled by other’s accomplishments. One allows you to empathize, and the other makes you depressed.

Adam Savage from Tested and MythBusters

This is the reason why I watch MythBusters with my kids, where “failure is always an option.”

This is the reason why I try to get my kids with questions as quickly as possible to a point where they don’t know anymore. I want them to be comfortable with not knowing. I need them to enjoy this state, as it is the motor for curiosity and creative exploration. I stereotypically respond to the “I don’t know” answer with “take a guess!”

This is also the reason why I emotionally bond with Adam and Claire. Both explore, both fail often, and both do “not know” in front of the camera. The only difference between Adam and Claire is in their ability to cope. Adam has more than ten years of experience from MythBusters in not getting the expected results. That is probably the reason why he can enjoy what he does so much more.  He lets you feel how little he is bothered by failure. Similarly, Claire shows how frustrated she is when something doesn’t go according to plan. She also lets us experience how she deals with that frustration: A sigh, a comment, and then she goes on. No regrets! Now she knows more, and now she can try something new, which ultimately leads to the answer.

I don’t want the other science YouTubers and science advocates to change what they do, please keep up the great work. I enjoy every bit of what you are doing. The reason why I think Adam and Claire are also such great science role models is their ability to struggle publicly. They show how failing is an integral part of finding the solution, and their ability to cope with that frustration is exemplary.

Thank you for that, and I promise I keep failing, thank you for leading by example.

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