General Science


Six Degrees of Secret Life

How do you get from 80s teen star Molly Ringwald to The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers in 6 moves or less?  Read on.

In February of 1985, Universal Studios released John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.  In the official trailer, one can hear Don LaFontaine, the pre-eminent voiceover artist of the age, say, “A Brain, a Beauty, a Jock, a Rebel, and a Recluse.  Before this day is over, they’ll break the rules, bare their souls, take some chances, and touch each other in a way they never dreamed possible!”  The piece is considered a hallmark in the teen film genre, and dozens of movies about young people have followed Hughes’ basic formula: at the beginning, the characters’ identities are rigid. By the end, the protagonists realize a degree of flexibility, and they’re all better for it.  The end.

©1985 Universal

The simple truth, however, is that it’s rarely so easy as a Saturday in detention to free anyone from the bounds of social expectation.  For younger students, this can result in far-reaching educational consequences.  If the stereotypes hold, “the Brain” becomes the scientist, “the Jock” becomes either the professional athlete or the armchair quarterback, and their corresponding identities influence their educational choices throughout life.

Movies are rarely like real life, but stereotypes about what a scientist is “supposed to be” influence young people all the time. Thus, we encounter realities such as the achievement gap between boys and girls in STEM.  The stereotype is that science is for boys (because, perhaps, most famous scientists are men), so at about grade 8, gender starts to become a significant predictor of test scores.  Girls score, on average, lower than boys on standardized science tests across the country1, and the eventual consequence is a professional scientific community that lacks equal gender representation.

© WGBH Educational Foundation

In the Emmy-nominated second season of the NOVA web series, The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers, we follow in the footsteps of John Hughes, and show that identity isn’t so static as it may, at first, appear.  NOVA presents 32 new profiles of individuals who pursue their passion for science and engineering while at the same time demonstrating a natural zest for life that the public rarely gets a chance to see.  From a lab scientist who spends her weekends as a professional wrestler to a theoretical physicist who loves to figure skate, to a biochemist who has also, in fact, been a beauty queen, Secret Life sheds light on the fact that scientists and engineers, rather than conforming to a single stereotype, are as varied in their interests as the students on a school campus.

Check in soon with Secret Life to find a teacher blog that will provide tips on how to use the series shorts as a part of lesson planning and unit development.  We want to encourage teachers to use Secret Life in their classrooms to let students in on all those awesome secrets that make the lives of scientists so rich, diverse, and fulfilling.

Also, remember to be on the lookout for Secret Life’s “Questions from Kids” videos, wherein students get to ask our profiled scientists questions about what it’s really like to live a day in the life of a researcher, teacher, or other science professional.

Use Secret Life in your classrooms, and maybe…just maybe…your students will learn more about themselves than they ever thought possible, and they won’t even need to sit in detention with Molly Ringwald to do it.


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Scott Asakawa

As Outreach Coordinator for NOVA, Scott works to inform the formal and informal educator communities on the multitude of resources NOVA has created to increase STEM understanding. A former classroom educator, Scott received his B.A. from UC Santa Cruz in the History of Art and Visual Culture, and earned his Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Mind, Brain, and Education.