From M*A*S*H to Math

Alan Alda -- yes, that Alan Alda -- has recently made the news as a science educator. PBS News Hour, the New York Times, and numerous blogs and other publications are reporting Alda's efforts to excite children's interest in science. Alda recalls himself as an eleven-year-old, asking his science teacher to explain what "flame" is. The answer he got was "oxidation," a big word that explained nothing. Eleven-year-olds, as Alda points out, have other excellent questions, such as: Why is the sky blue? Where does rain come from? What makes the stars shine? Why am I here? Exciting questions. But the prosaic answers scientists give are seldom as exciting as the questions. Even grown-ups don't get good information, because, as Alda and others think, scientists are just not good communicators. Alda has found an answer, though, and the answer is art.


Through the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, Alan Alda mounted a contest for ideas to make the concept of flame comprehensible to kids. There were 800 entries -- eight hundred different efforts to tell the plain truth about flame. The winner, judged by a panel of eleven-year-olds, is Ben Ames, a young American physicist studying for a PhD at the University of Insbruck, who uses video, animation, drama and song to tell the story of flame. Flame shoots and rises; its colors vibrate; molecules combine and separate on stage; lyrics linger after the story ends. Flame has a history, a story line, a meaning. Alda especially loves the fact that the eleven-year-old judges were unsatisfied with entries that were too simple or just amusing or dense. They judged by how much they learned from the entries.

The winning video is below:

This endeavor really interests me because it tips the idea of arts education in a slightly different direction. We often claim that art classes encourage creativity, that they allow for expression and individuality, that they build confidence and self-awareness. For all these reasons, we argue, the arts are essential in a child's education. These are good, strong intrinsic arguments for the arts -- important arguments. Dance does help children's physical prowess, their ability to interact and to make judgments about space and place. An engagement with music does relate to the understanding of numbers, of structure, of the progressions and relationships of parts; it helps with mathematical understanding. The visual arts give vitality and depth to individual observations, expression to individual experience, sensitivity to environment. Researchers study how the arts contribute to education, how they enhance childrens' lives and motivations and their comprehension of the world. ( offers access to studies that measure such effects of the arts on students.)

But Alda's contest -- and the winning entry -- illustrate another point about the arts in education: that they can become essential tools in the understanding of ideas and concepts in science and, assuredly, in other subjects, too. Starting not with arts classrooms but with classrooms in science, math, history, languages, with classrooms in any subjects, really, we should be able to see and to assess the usefulness of the arts in increasing communication and comprehension in school. It is true, and certainly encouraging, that such interdisciplinarity is being encouraged by many educators, that there is much good talk about the "infusion" of arts in the curriculum. In practical terms, however, we know little about how forceful that movement is, or how widespread. We know little about how successful it can be in teaching and inspiring youngsters.

Maybe Alan Alda's interest in bettering the communication of science will provide a prelude to a more daring use of the arts in teaching not only science but math, too, and other subjects. The eleven-year-old judges of the Flame contest have already determined the science question for the second contest to be offered by Alda and the Center for Communicating Science. The new challenge: What is time? A good question that the arts may again help answer.

And there are many other good questions that the arts might tackle, even some other questions about time itself. What did people do before there were clocks and calendars? What was it like in the old days? Where did Americans live before there was an America? How do we know what happened in the past? What was it like before airplanes? Or automobiles? Or cell phones? What does the future hold? There are many ways in which the visual arts and design, dance and music, drama and literature, can help us face these mysteries, too -- mysteries of history, language, technology, social studies, mathematics.

For eleven-year-olds, the arts prove to be the best communicators as well as great educators for what they need and want to know. That's true, the kids might say, for the rest of us, too.