CLASSY CLASSES: THINK 1 teaches students how to fail for science


Students are learning how to fail in THINK1: The Science of MythBusters, a popular course offered by the Thinking Matters program focusing on the scientific method and which integrates the television show “Mythbusters.”

According to course instructor Steven Block, professor of biology and applied physics, students learn how to apply the scientific method in the real world.

“It’s not the scientific method you learned in high school,” Block said.

The real scientific method is defined by active failure, Block added. In the class, students do not learn science the normal way — that is, they do not learn the details of biology, chemistry or physics. Instead, they learn how to think like scientists.

“Scientists spend probably 90 percent of their time recovering from failure,” Block said. “But they do it in very systematic and interesting ways that lead to the acquisition of new knowledge.”

One of the main projects of the class is building and launching small piezoelectric devices called “piezo poppers” using film canisters. Students then determine how various factors like the launch angle or the fuel type affect the distance traveled by the canister.

“I kind of fell in love with the hands-on part of it,” said Triple A. Oswald III ’17.

For Oswald, this class was the perfect way to begin his academic career at Stanford.

“It was a very comprehensive introduction to STEM classes at Stanford,” Oswald said. “If they made a second part of the class, I would love to take it.”

Science-based learning is relevant to all students, Block said, regardless of their intended major. In fact, although most of the students in THINK 1 have an interest in the sciences, the course was originally designed to attract students who were not necessarily planning to major in the hard sciences.

“Someone going into journalism or political science or economics still needs to know a scientific approach, because that way of thinking is going to be increasingly defining our lives as we go into the 21st century,” Block said.

A unique aspect of this Thinking Matters course is its integration of the “Mythbusters” television show.

“ ‘MythBusters’ is particularly nice [as a springboard to expose students to scientific thinking] because a lot of questions they ask don’t necessarily come out of the scientific arena but instead relate to other parts of your world,” Block said.

“And it really helps to underscore the lesson that scientific thinking can be used to answer a bewildering number of questions,” he added.

Moreover, every year, Jamie Hyneman, one of co-hosts of “MythBusters,” comes to Stanford to give a lecture to the class. He also takes a group of THINK 1 students on a tour of M5 Industries in San Francisco, which is where the shows are filmed.

“It was really cool to see how this research-based science could be turned into a fun thing, and how it could be expressed to non-science-y people,” said Oswald.

Each week, The Stanford Daily will be spotlighting a unique, popular or otherwise interesting course for the recurring series called Classy Classes.

Contact Riya Mehta at riyam ‘at’

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