Science Fiction & Scientific Literacy: Incorporating Science Fiction Reading in the Science Classroom

Article excerpt

The term science fiction has become synonymous, in the media at least, for any discovery in science too incredible or unexpected for the nonscientist to imagine. This without a doubt annoys many scientists because the "fiction" label has the popular connotations of "willingly false or misleading." This image also bothers those who know that in good science fiction the "science" is often to be taken seriously.

One of the most common classroom uses of science fiction is for students to pick out flaws in science fiction movies or television shows. Unfortunately, in my experience, this approach can result in students who come to distrust anything that sounds like science.

Science fiction has so much more to offer in terms of good science and how science works, while at the same time addressing the basics of literacy. Take, for instance, short fiction such as "A Man's Place," by aerospace engineer Eric Choi, originally published in Space Inc. (2003). This short story, like all of the stories in the book, focuses on science and the future of work in orbit or outer space. [Editor's note: Teachers can read this story at www.sciencenewsforkids.org/pages/scifizone/choi.asp.] Another good example is The Cold Equation by Tom Godwin (2000) that looks at the unalterable and potentially tragic constraints of space travel. These books show why science fiction is an ideal medium for exploring issues in science and society.

In this article I make a case for why science fiction should be a part of science curricula and I provide an all-purpose activity to help teachers use science fiction in the classroom.

The opportunity for literacy skills

Science fiction is read not only for enjoyment, but because it digs into scientific concepts with imagination, creativity, and a thorough appreciation of consequence. Most science fiction authors ask, "What if?" and speculate about what could happen if a certain aspect of science or technology existed--or did not exist. By bringing science into the realm of individual lives as well as entire cultures, these stories are thought experiments about anything we can imagine, from global warming to evolution.

In the past, science fiction stories, with few exceptions, have been viewed as little more than entertainment for young readers, something to whet the appetite for "real books" later in life or to encourage a reluctant student. But they can do much more. I have worked to incorporate science fiction into curriculum with experts at many levels including the Wright Center for Innovations in Science Education, Wayne State University, Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association, and Science Teachers of Ontario. In many cases individuals most comfortable with the flood of new technologies and scientific discoveries and most able to see past the novelty to the potential for good or ill, have been prepared by their choice of literature. We are living in a world that seems science fictional, and science fiction readers have the advantage of knowing the terrain.

This is true because science fiction stories, particularly the short form readily available in "Year's Best" anthologies in libraries (Hartwell 2005; Dozois 2005), speculate from known concepts. The authors of these stories ask: "What if this happens?" "What if that continues or even stops?" From this start, good science fiction stories do not violate scientific principles, but rely on them to guide thought experiments through to possible consequence.

Good science fiction is story, science, and speculation all wrapped up in a package custom-made for improving literacy and critical-thinking skills--it does not get more convenient. Literacy concerns the communicating of ideas from one mind to another, including component skills such as vocabulary, language structure, reading, and writing to elicit comprehension. Critical thinking blends with literacy in the interpretation and extrapolation of ideas. …