Hollywood-style physics finds a grateful audience Movies in class? Poets say, 'Roll 'em'

March 01, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Eyes began glazing over about 20 minutes into Dr. LeRoy Dubeck's lecture on sound waves, part of his introductory physics course for liberal arts majors.

So the 53-year-old physicist and science fiction film fan cut to the chase.

He snapped on a videocassette with the opening scene of the thriller, "The Abyss," in which the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine has a deadly encounter with an alien craft.

Papers stopped rustling in the cavernous Temple University lecture hall, jammed with about 90 students taking the course -- nicknamed "Physics for Poets" -- to fulfill their science requirement.

The chatter died. Heads came off desks and chests. Bodies leaned forward as the fictional sub headed for a watery tomb.

Ever since "Star Wars" blitzed box offices in 1977, Dr. Dubeck, a former president of the U.S. Chess Federation, has gone Hollywood, using films to teach science to his liberal arts students.

By all accounts, it's a very tough audience. The Educational Testing Service released a study last week confirming numerous earlier reports that U.S. students with no special aptitude for mathematics and sci

ence know less about these topics than do their counterparts around the world.

With the backing of grants from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Dubeck co-wrote a textbook, "Science in Cinema," in 1988 for high school teachers who want to spice up their classes with such matinee classics as "Forbidden Planet," "Them!" and "The Day of The Triffids."

Now he's collaborating with two University of Nebraska professors on a text due to be published in the spring of 1993 to help college instructors teach elementary physics, biology, chemistry and astronomy using older films as well as modern blood-and-goo, special-effects orgies like "Alien," "Terminator" and "Terminator II."

Sound like fun? Dr. Dubeck, a pencil-thin chess expert who during a recent class wore a vintage gray flannel suit and spoke in a gravelly monotone, is dead serious.

"In the decade ahead, our society's economic welfare is going to depend on technology," he said. "How are we going to make rational decisions about technology without knowing anything about technology? It beats me."

Studies have shown that the more science courses students take in high school, the less they like science, he said.

Students who hate the subject will absorb only the minimum needed to pass required courses and promptly forget it.Dr. Dubeck hopes that science fiction films will kindle a lifelong interest in the topic.

Although Dr. Dubeck has received grants from the NSF and the praise of many colleagues, his cinematic style of teaching has been criticized by a few academics.

"They feel if it's not traditional, it's a gimmick, and they don't want to buy it," the physicist said. "The educational establishment has a non-trivial amount of inertia, in terms of resistance to change."

Gimmick or not, he said, his cinema-centered courses work.

He commissioned an independent study of about 1,000 high school and junior high students, half of whom took his "Science in Cinema" course and half of whom didn't.

In almost 80 percent of the students, he cases, he said, "the kids that had the science fiction film technique had a better attitude toward science than those that didn't. They also had a better understanding of the process of science -- not the rules or the laws, but how you approach the problem."

Many of Dr. Dubeck's Temple students look forward to his physics lectures.

"You want to stick around in class and see what the movies are about," says Michael Conallen, a senior from Newtown Square, Pa., who is majoring in political science and hopes to go to law school.

(Mr. Conallen was speaking in the hallway, on his way out of the one-hour and 40-minute-long class about 15 minutes early. But he slipped away only after the second film clip, from "Superman: The Movie" flickered off the screen.)

"I wish they had something like this when I had to take physics in high school," he said.

"It gives you a way to see what is happening, instead of basically putting a lot of numbers on the blackboard," said Stacy Struzynski, a senior from Brookhaven, Pa., who is majoring in criminal justice.

Dr. Dubeck's love of science fiction films flowered during Saturday afternoon matinees in Maplewood, N.J., in the early 1950s, when the first of the Cold War classics debuted -- movies such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which aliens must judge whether to incinerate those quarreling earthlings.

The young scientist was enchanted. "Those films showed was )) what was possible," he said.

Today, he has a private collection of about 500 science fiction films on videocassettes at home in Cherry Hill, N.J., and never misses a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode.

He estimates he has seen about 1,000 science fiction films, but he won't sit through those he considers schlock.

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