Published August 04, 2009
Just don't call him professor pom-pom.
A physics professor who says he'll do "anything" to get people interested in science is teaming up with the Philadelphia 76ers cheerleaders to offer online lessons on magnetics, mass and matter — all through the magic of miniskirts.
James Trefil's 20-year campaign for science literacy has led him to link up with some unlikely allies at ScienceCheerleader.com, where he and a scantily clad crew of dancing Darwins offer 18 video lessons on core ideas in science.
Trefil, who's left behind his classroom for the summer to help on the Brain Makeover videos, said it made sense for him to use "a little sex appeal" in his effort to reach and teach nonscientists.
"Why not cheerleaders?" asked Trefil, the Robinson Professor of Science at George Mason University. "My own philosophy is, any way you can get the scientific message across, that's a good thing."
The Web site offers brief scientific lessons from members of the Sixers squad ("All matter is made of atoms," explains Lauren), and a bit more background from the septuagenarian Trefil, who does not appear in the videos. Visitors can then take a quiz to judge their own scientific literacy.
The site is the creation of science advocate Darlene Cavalier, a Master of Science Policy who has spent a decade working for Discover Magazine and was also one of the original 76ers dancers.
Cavalier, who is also leading projects to increase the number of citizen scientists in the country, told FOXNews.com she doesn't worry that some people visiting the site might be less interested in their physics than their physiology.
"More than anything I think it does help break stereotypes," said Cavalier, who said a higher percentage of Tennessee Titans cheerleaders have formal science training than do members of Congress. Cheerleaders have the edge 10 percent to 8 percent, she said.
For Cavalier and Trefil, having a better educated population isn't just an end in itself — they say that in order for the general populace to debate ideas like stem cell treatments, they have to understand the science of stem cells first.
"To me, scientific literacy is one of the support pillars for having a really democratic society," Trefil said. "Democracy is a place where people who are affected by decisions have a say in how the decisions are made. And if you don't understand the science, you are effectively excluded from the debate."
Some students could be getting more skirts with their science soon. Cavalier said she's fielded a number of requests from high school teachers who want to use her videos next year "to turn people on to science."
For the time being, Trefil says his final exams are usually enough to scare students into paying attention in his classes. But he hasn't ruled out using the unorthodox method next year to break through any stragglers.
"That's a good idea," he told FOXNews.com. "Maybe I will."