Last week on Friday I attended a science fiction convention, Swancon where I made the happy discovery of Edustream, a stream devoted to education using science fiction. This was not just for educating science but also in literature. All of the discussion was in the context of primary and secondary education in Australia but I believe a lot of the points raised are relevant outside of this when considered in terms of getting a science message out.
The first sessions was titled, Mad Scientists: Using the science in science fiction in the classroom and despite the cringeworthy title, Peter van der Kwast and Bevan McGuiness did provide solid examples of how science fiction can be a vehicle for science literacy and literacy in general.
First up was a scene from the American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory where the science of Superman’s abilities are discussed.
By asking, “Can Superman catch Lois Lane successfully?” comes the opportunity to talk about the physics and mathematics seriously. There is also an avenue to deal with the science that falls in the “You’ve got to be kidding me!” pile. This is a common lesson plan that has been delivered to me as a high school student in Science and in English. I have been in classes where a thrilling discussion taking into consideration of the science of superheroes’ powers though this was only when all the students knew of the superhero. Even though I attended a science fiction convention, I identify heavily with Penny.
Science fiction can also be applied in History where the writings can be analysed in terms of the historical aspect looking back in time and seeing where science fiction accurately predicted the reality of science and technology. This can include Jules Verne’s predictions for space travel to the moon like weightlessness, the splashdown and even down to the size of the space capsule, all made in 1870. The predictions don’t stop there as there are examples from Star Trek when it comes to wireless devices like bluetooth headpieces, mobile phones and even iPads. Do you remember the Jetsons family from the days of cathode ray television? That cartoon featured video chat, robot cleaners, tanning beds, talking alarm clocks, and vending machines dispensing food, (only two years ago, I bought a meal of hot potato chips from a vending machine). The hover cars are yet to come. Are we now living in the world of science fiction?
A question was raised from the audience, “Did Jules Verne make those predictions or did science borrow from them?” and the answer came in a short, “Who cares? If science fiction inspires engineers to develop the stuff of fiction that benefits us, then it’s a win.” I agree with this. Does it really matter whether the developments came from a work of fiction or from the grunt work of research and development in a laboratory? Shouldn’t we just be grateful that science fiction can inspire someone to take up the role of a professional scientist?
It made for a nice segue to using science fiction as a vehicle for looking at the world today and what our values are and where these are taking us. For example, the daleks from Doctor Who grew out of the apocalyptic fear in the 1960s. What are our pressing concerns now? Climate change, nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms, water, food security, and population growth dominate the headlines today. What will our futures hold? Some of this speculation is presented in many science fiction books. This speculation can be used as a start for discussion of values and morals, (something that difficult for everyone when it is close to home), in a separate world beyond the realms of reality.
When it comes to engaging students and indeed any audiences, one way to do this is to make them laugh. There is a bevy of examples from science fiction that does this and they don’t even need anyone to have watched the entire movie. One example is the movie Mega Shark v Giant Octopus, (yes this is a real movie), particularly this infamous scene:
I laughed at this. I could not help it. It’s just completely ridiculous and even with just a discussion of the many ignorances of science. And just for the fun of it, do as Sheldon Cooper would do and start working out the numbers involved for a giant shark to jump out of the ocean and take down a commercial aeroplane.
One of the key things in the National Curriculum that is being rolled out across Australian classrooms is to encourage critical thinking and reasoning amongst students. This is a common goal in more than one learning area, not just Science but also English and the social sciences. There is an online resource over at Intuitor with suggested lesson ideas. If you know of any more, then please don’t hesitate to mention it in a comment.