Pom-Poms and Protons: Promoting Science with 76ers Cheerleaders

Posted: July 20, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm

By Tara Laskowski

Jim Trefil. Creative Services photo

Jim Trefil. Creative Services photo

Jim Trefil is all about bringing the wonders of the way our natural world works to the general public. And if it takes cheerleaders to get his message across, then so be it.

Trefil, Robinson Professor of Physics, has built his career on bridging the gap between science and society, but this newest project — possibly the quirkiest partnership to date — proves one thing. He is willing to try any means.

Trefil is working with former 76ers cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, a science journalist who founded the Science Cheerleader web site (sciencecheerleader.com). She is dedicated to increasing the average citizen’s science knowledge and encouraging citizen involvement in research projects and federal policy discussions.

Cavalier brought together the Philadelphia 76ers cheerleaders and Trefil to partner on her Brain Makeover web site and bring general science concepts to the public in a fun, easy-to-understand way.

“Why not cheerleaders?” Trefil says. “It’s an interesting idea, and if it works it may lead to other ways of getting people interested in science.”

The theory behind the project is that people might actually think about the way the universe works if it comes with pom-poms.

“It’s also partly about breaking down stereotypes,” says Cavalier. “The quintessential ditz is often pictured as a cheerleader, while the king geek is donned in a lab coat. Yet 10 percent of the gorgeous Tennessee Titans cheerleaders, for example, hold formal science degrees.

Trefil teaches science on the Brain Makeover web site.

Trefil teaches science on the Brain Makeover web site.

“Compare that with the 8 percent in Congress,” she continues, “where critical science and technology policy decisions are being made, and one can begin to understand how and why it’s important to trust the public’s capacity to learn about, and weigh in on, major federal science policy discussions.”

On the other hand, it’s also about making science and scientists, often thought of as nerdy or serious, fun and quirky. Trefil believes that everyone, regardless of their college major or occupation, needs a basic understanding of science concepts for everyday living and informed decision making.

His popular course, Great Ideas in Science, is a nontechnical introduction to the ideas that have shaped the growth of science, with special attention to its importance in mankind’s understanding of the nature of the universe.

On the Brain Makeover web site, people can find videos of the cheerleaders explaining various science concepts and theories, as well as Trefil’s discussion of the phenomenon.

A passing grade on the science literacy quiz of 18 basic concepts will score an “I’m a Science Literate!” certificate.

It will also give you, in Trefil’s words, “the satisfaction of understanding enough about the physical universe to deal with issues that come across our horizon, in the news or elsewhere.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu