Podcasts have been around for a long time now, but they have only just begun to surge into mainstream popularity. That’s all thanks to a little podcast called Serial, a true crime program that reopened investigation into the murder of a high school student committed in 1999. With tens of millions of downloads, this podcast is officially the most popular of all time.
To those of us who are longtime podcast fans, the potential of the medium to both captivate and set minds whirring is no surprise. And it’s those two things that make podcasts pretty much the perfect medium for learning, whether in the classroom, at-home, or as student commute from sports practice to band practice to home
There are so many great podcasts out there, that we found we couldn’t narrow them all down into one article. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest podcasts to adapt for classroom and at-home learning within the fields of History and STEM, and we’ll follow up with other subjects in coming weeks.
Note: All podcasts listed for students here are best in a high school or higher ed setting. Some may be appropriate for middle schoolers or even advanced students reaching the end of elementary school, but they will need to be more thoroughly vetted by educators first.
As the title suggests, this podcast examines lesser known chapters in history. Sometimes, this means featuring movements and historical figures that go entirely missed in our traditional teaching of history. Other times, this means taking a deeper look at episodes and influencers who, in Hollywood parlance, would be considered in subplots or supporting characters. Think: that person who pretty much saved the entire country in the Battle of the Bulge, whose name we can’t remember now. This mixed approach allows the hosts, the endearing, funny, and engaging Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey, to shed new light on both heavily trod and daintily avoided aspects of both American and global history, breathing a broader, richer, and more nuanced perspective and life into the past.
If you find you like this one, make sure to check out other podcasts from How Stuff Works, like Brain Stuff, Tech Stuff, Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, Car Stuff and many more.
“History is written by the victors” — or the old saying goes. The show Radio Diaries, disagrees, choosing instead to find its truths in the people who pass us by every day. As such, the show is, like so many of the best radio shows and podcasts available today, rooted firmly in the tradition of Studs Turkel, the author, historian, and radio broadcaster who was the first to popularize the recording of everyday people around the country. Unlike Terkel, however, the show’s host, Joe Richman, turns the recorders directly over to those everyday people to record the details of their lives.
As you may have intuited, this means that Radio Diaries is sometimes about history, when these citizen journalists are looking back on past events, and is sometimes about capturing today, often through the eyes of populations that do not get to write their own stories, such as teenagers, octogenarians, prisoners and prison guards. This makes the show a powerful and unique look at history both as things were and as it is unfolding.
A few of my personal favorites and highly classroom-ready episodes include: George Wallace and the Legacy of a Sentence, an episode that would do well in a unit about race relations, social justice movements, and 60s history; Radio Row, a fascinating look at the bustling, exciting, technologically innovative street that stood where the World Trade Center would eventually be erected; the Square Deal, the story of George F. Johnson’s making not only of the Endicott Johnson Corporation but also of the city that supported it; and many more. As you can see, each of these episodes stem from their own historical contexts, and can provide an excellent entryway into discussing important sociopolitical movements. And because it’s all told by people who lived through it or whose parents or grandparents did, the stories come to life with incredibly depth and texture that students are sure to recall.
The Memory Palace is what happens when historical narrative and literary fiction combine. Just like the previous two podcasts, this one focuses on lesser known historical stories, or those that have been treated as subplots within a larger narrative. What’s different here is the downright literary approach taken by the show’s host, Nate DiMeo. Stories are beautifully and lovingly crafted, in a manner that is at once lyrical and gripping. As such, students who listen to this podcast will be drawn into the stories much like they would a piece of literary fiction, with the key exception being that these stories are true. The result is a work of beauty — one that moves us fluidly into the emotional perspectives of the protagonists’ first hand experiences. Just like fiction, The Memory Palace is a great tool for building empathy and expanding student viewpoints. And since they’re relatively short, ranging from three to fifteen minutes long, they’re quick to consume — and likely to lead to podcast binging.
There are many ways to incorporate these history podcasts into your classroom. Stuff You Missed in History Class has an excellent Pinterest page, with 21 boards that range from Vintage Photos to Sad Royal Childhoods to Historical Cat Pictures. Each is a great source for media to be incorporated into teaching, whether these photos are printed or brought up on student tablets. The website is also well-indexed on its left hand side, making it easy to find an episode for a period you’re studying. Lastly, the show has a Listener Mail segment, in which they read out listener feedback to specific episodes, as well as suggestions for future shows. You could easily make writing into the show a writing exercise and a lesson in email etiquette, with the reward of a potential shoutout on air.
Radio Diaries has an excellent Teen Reporter Handbook, which provides concrete and comprehensive tips for becoming a teenaged citizen journalist. This makes for a great lesson base, as you can first teach your students the art of storytelling and podcasting — another writing lesson — and then have them tell their own stories, have them interview a family member who experienced a particular part of history firsthand, or have them put together a newscast on a particular historical episode. Who wants to read and grade long papers and exams when you can listen to teen history podcasts?
Last but not least, the Memory Palace would again make for an excellent joint writing and history exercise, as you encourage students to take on the perspective of a historical figure, either famous or relatively unknown, and write their version of important events.
Chances are, you know — and love — the resurrected Cosmos. You should be just as familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, which is really the best space talk show around. Each week features a different influential guest, from George Takei, who recently dropped by to discuss the legacy of Star Trek, to Elon Musk, who showed up to muse about the future of humanity. Part-interview show, part delving into philosophy, the universe, and the meaning of life, and ever a giant space nerd-a-thon (a term I can use as I am among their ranks!), this one is a must all of your kids who navigate through life with their heads craned permanently to the skies.
It’s no secret that we here at Edudemic love our neuro- and cognitive science. In fact, one of our greatest goals is to help unpack the neuroscience and psychology of learning in a manner that is accessible, concrete, and easily applied to the classroom. The Invisibilia podcast, which is hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, shares similar goals, though their scope isn’t limited to the educational sphere. Over the course of its first season, Invisibilia covered such issues as: why we, as humans, tend to define ourselves in categories, and what these categories do for us; what it’s like to be a person with the world’s most true definition of empathy, in that she can really feel the pain of the people around her (a condition that has kept her mostly confined to her neighborhood and to her home); and oh, you know, only how some blind people can use echolocation to see (no big deal or anything!). In case it’s not clear, this podcast is big on the wow factor, and explanations of the science behind this phenomenon feel more like a detective story than facts laid out in a dry textbook.
Too often, we tend to think of art and science as separate entities, and never the twain shall meet. In truth, they make the perfect pair, as science is the pursuit of the world’s deeper truths, and art seeks to reveal, contextualize, and communicate those truths in a manner that will resonate with the human psychology.
And that, really, is what the excellent podcast Radiolab does on a regular basis. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the program has covered topics ranging from: the CRISPR, a defense system that exists within bacteria that could completely change the way we modify DNA (and, really, the course of human evolution); the chemistry behind the human brain in love; a rare brain disorder that renders loved ones into strangers; the science of blinking; and so, so, so many parasites.
This is a definite “yes” to add to your list.
These science podcasts can be used in the classroom in numerous ways. At the most basic and easiest to implement level, you could simply scan episode titles for those that might describe a scientific phenomenon in a compelling manner, and have your students listen to this for homework to get them ready for classroom discussion. You might also choose a favorite podcast for students to listen to regularly, and then ask them to vote on a topic you might all investigate further either as a class or for an independent project. This kind of exercise would generate intrinsic interest, and would inject choice into the assignment.
Given that many of these podcasts take a much wider perspective of science, they are perhaps even better used as the framework for discussing specific scientific issues from the perspective of ethics or societal impact. For example, the Radiolab episode Bad explores, among several other fascinating narratives, the stories of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize winning chemist after whom the Born-Haber Cycle is named, and who also invented the Bosch-Haber Process, which enables the large scale synthesis of fertilizers. Because of him, agricultural production has dramatically increased across the globe. But is that a good thing, if it has lead to overpopulation? And, even if its benefits outweigh its detriments, what can we say of Haber if he also helped to create the gas first used in WWI trenches, and later used to gas Holocaust victims? Can the same man who ended mass starvation for a great portion of humanity, and in so doing, saved billions of lives, be considered good if he also promoted his work for evil? For older students, listening to episodes like this can form the framework of an excellent debate.
Last but not least, you could also consider following in the footsteps of Dacia Jones, the District Science Specialist for Durham Public Schools. With Jones’ leadership, students and teachers in Durham have virtually visited everyone from top athletes to astronauts, just by reaching out on Twitter and connecting via Google Hangouts. Why not reach out to these podcast hosts, and see if you can ask your most burning science questions? We’ll be writing more about Jones’ impressive virtual field trip initiatives in a future article, so keep your eyes peeled for more excellent ideas on this topic.
There are so many amazing history and STEM podcasts out there, and this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Here are a few other great one to check out:
We also recommend this listing of podcasts from History Extra for more subject-specific shows and episodes.
What are your favorite podcasts for teaching these subjects? We’re sure we missed something, so please do contribute in the comments!