One group of Oklahoma science educators and enthusiasts is hoping to spark “insatiable curiosity” in Norman residents and students with a lecture series that returns to OU this week.
“Science: The Cutting Edge” will explore misunderstood or somewhat controversial subjects through four lectures this spring and four in the fall, each free and open to the public. Spring topics will include ice ages and extinctions, dark matter and energy, climate change and evolution.
Each of the lectures will take place at 7 p.m. at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History on OU’s campus, and, weather permitting, will be followed by star gazing in the museum parking lot. The first lecture will feature Kerry Magruder, associate professor of the history of science at OU, speaking on “Early Theories of Ice Ages & Mass Extinctions” on Jan. 30.
“This gives people a chance to communicate with the experts and figure out: How do we know what we know? How does a scientific theory get developed? It’s not opinion, it’s based on evidence, and I think these speakers are going to speak to those kinds of topics,” said Eileen Grzybowski, an AP biology & astronomy teacher at Norman North and one of the series organizers.
The lecture series, the third of its kind, is the result of a partnership between multiple Norman and Oklahoma City-area organizations, including Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, Ten Acre Observatory, Oklahoma Science Teaching Association and the Sam Noble Museum, among others.
The series has its roots in a yearlong, 12-lecture series on astronomy at the Sam Noble Museum back in 2009, which Grzybowski was also part of. The series was such a hit that organizers hosted another in 2018, and are expecting similar interest this year.
“After (the 2009 lecture), we’d be walking around Norman and be in Borders or Barnes and Noble, and people would come up and greet you with, ‘Hi, when are you going to have another one?’” Grzybowski said.
Unless people have studied science at a higher level or have careers in the field, most of the general public is not regularly exposed to accessible scientific ideas, said Richard Henry, a David Ross Boyd professor emeritus from OU who has now helped organize each of the three lecture series. That’s where resources like “Science: The Cutting Edge” come in, he said.
“Most of those topics, I would guess go right over people’s heads because they’ve had no introduction to them, and they probably feel like they’re not smart enough or they don’t have the proper background to be able to understand it. That’s, of course, not true,” Henry said. “...So, it’s just exposing the general public to ideas that they wouldn’t normally read about.”
While previous lecture series have each focused on one field of science, “Science: The Cutting Edge” will expand to encompass multiple sciences, from earth science to physics. The series will follow up on an Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education “Controversies that Aren’t” series last spring that explored “controversies that aren’t really controversies” like climate change or evolution, Grzybowski said.
“Some of these do lend themselves to being controversial topics, or things that we feel science hasn’t communicated very well, a lot of times,” Grzybowski said. “We try to look for good communicators and good topics that the general public needs to be informed on the fact versus the fiction.”
While fall lecture topics will depend on what speakers organizers can get, and how the spring lectures go, Grzybowski said future subjects could include fracking or the intersection of science and religion.
The lecture topics could easily be complex or dense, but this year’s speakers will make scientific subjects accessible to anyone listening, Henry said. The lectures tend to draw anyone from middle schoolers to older Norman residents, he said, and often produce thoughtful questions from even the audiences’ youngest members.
“We’ve done 24 of these now — 12 for two years — and I would say probably 90% of them were standing room only,” Henry said. “It’s not just 10 or 20 oddball people who show up — we have a big cross section of people who show up.”
This year’s series is funded by an anonymous source, but also has secured backup funding from Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education and the Oklahoma Science Teaching Association. Gryzbowski says she also hopes to film the lectures and post them on the OESE and OSTA websites, where people across the state who might not be able to come to the lectures can still watch them later.
“As an educator, I see a lot of confusion and misconceptions in the classroom, and I’m hoping that some of these topics will encourage kids to think further than whatever blog they happen to be reading at the time,” Grzybowski said.
Dan Hough, president of OESE, said investing in science and technology is critical for states like Oklahoma to create informed citizens and bring in new industry and workforces. Accessible resources like this year’s lecture series help inform the public and give them access to scientists that they might not normally have, he said.
“People can learn something new, and they can learn how science works and realize that the things that scientists say have evidence behind them, and that the people who are doing this are scientists trying to do the best they can,” Hough said.
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