Using Science Fiction Movie Scenes to Support Critical Analysis of Science

By Barnett, Michael; Kafka, Alan | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Using Science Fiction Movie Scenes to Support Critical Analysis of Science


Barnett, Michael, Kafka, Alan, Journal of College Science Teaching


Byline: Michael Barnett and Alan Kafka

In this paper we discuss pedagogical advantages and challenges of using science-fiction movies and television shows in an introductory science class for elementary teachers. We describe two instructional episodes in which we used scenes from the movies Red Planet and The Core to engage students in critiquing science as presented in the films.

One of the most widely claimed goals of science education is to produce citizens who are scientifically literate. Recently, the science education historian George DeBoer identified nine major goals of science teaching that would advance the development of a scientifically literate individual. He noted that one of the major goals of science education was to support citizens in understanding reports and discussions of science that appear in the popular media (DeBoer 2000, p. 592). Unfortunately, for the average citizen, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in an increasingly visual society. According to the National Science Foundation (2000), the blurring of fact and fiction by visual media has corroded the public's critical-thinking skills and hindered the development of a scientifically literate citizenry. This concern was further expounded upon by Helga Nowotny (2005), the chair of the European Research Advisory Board, who noted that the past few years have seen an increasing proliferation of images and symbols via high-tech-driven media entertainment that is deliberately designed and intended to meet the public imagination about science, but often creates misunderstandings regarding the nature of science and leads to a blurring between fact and fiction.

In an attempt to improve students' capacity to be critical consumers of science (as depicted in the media), we have been developing and implementing an interdisciplinary course for nonscience majors with a particular emphasis on targeting future elementary teachers. As a part of this course, we strive to increase students' scientific literacy by improving their ability to critique and analyze "scientific" images and arguments that are put forth in film and television. This paper describes the instructional strategies that we have used in the lecture portion of our course to support students in separating fact from fiction.

Background: Movies' pedagogical potential and challenges

Researchers who have focused on public understanding of science have argued that fictional cinema and television are particularly effective at blurring the distinction between fact and fiction (Frank 2003). This blurring is especially evident for natural phenomena that have never actually been directly witnessed (e.g., dinosaurs in Jurassic Park). Film scholars suggest the reason for visual media's impact on its audience members is because today's visual, fictional depictions of science in film and television encompass more than just entertainment and focus on the production and presentation of a plausible image of science, whether or not it has anything to do with real science (Kirby 2003). Given that the average American student (ages 10-22) spends three hours per week watching movies and eight hours watching television shows (Roberts et al. 1999), it is important that introductory, college-level science courses provide opportunities for students to develop their skills in critically analyzing visual media. With this goal in mind, a number of educators have been exploring the use of films to teach science (Brake and Thornton 2003; Dubeck, Moshier, and Boss 2004; Efthimiou and Llewellyn 2004; Freedman and Little 1980; Knight 2004; Mares, Cantor, and Steinbach 1999; Miksanek 2001; Neves et al. 2000; Rose 2003).

The application of science fiction films in education is not a new concept. In fact, science and physics education have long recognized science-fiction films' intrinsic value for teaching basic principles at the undergraduate and high school levels for over two decades (Freedman and Little 1980).

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