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Breaking Good, Not Bad

April 28, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 17

Although the final episode of the Emmy Award-winning AMC television series “Breaking Bad” has aired, discussion of its influence on society continues. Questions range from “Will it increase interest in science generally among both U.S. students and the general public?” to “Will it encourage our younger generation to synthesize meth?”

Students sometimes can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. Students see negative characteristics in Walter White, the fictional high school chemistry teacher portrayed on “Breaking Bad.” Then they wonder if their own real-life high school teachers have similar characteristics. Students have reportedly asked high school teachers, “Do you make meth?”

Being confronted with such a negative parallel can be disappointing. But such a teachable moment can be transformed into an opportunity to demonstrate the good that chemists do.

One can point to personal experiences and those of other chemists in sometimes heroic efforts to improve human lives. The visibility and high-quality narrative of “Breaking Bad” could greatly impact the image of chemistry teachers.

Without commentary and interpretation, young people might infer that chemistry teachers spend their evenings cooking methamphetamine. What will be the perception of our students?

We can confront the issue head-on and inspire rather than apologize. We can point out the ways in which chemists and chemistry teachers have shaped our world, making our contemporary society possible. When students ask this type of question, we should be ready. We want to inspire them to reach positive goals by offering positive role models.

We hope high school chemistry teachers will respond to such questions with, “We inspire, we persuade, and we teach.” Therefore, “we are proud to be chemistry teachers.”

Note: Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, served as a science adviser to the producers of “Breaking Bad.” Sally Mitchell is a teacher at East Syracuse Minoa High School.

Donna J. Nelson
Norman, Okla.

Sally Mitchell
East Syracuse, N.Y.



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