Fiction & Fact

By Schock, Jaimie N. | ASEE Prism, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Fiction & Fact


Schock, Jaimie N., ASEE Prism


In the movie Independence Day, alien spaceships larger than Manhattan hover above the world's major cities, emitting giant blue beams that spread death and destruction. In Albert Segall's estimation, the weapons are superfluous. Given the downward force exerted by the stationary spaceship- a force equal to the total weight of the craft - the inhabitants would be crushed anyway. If that sounds morbid, it gives first-year engineering students an unforgettable lesson in static equilibrium and pressure. Another scene from the 1996 film depicts terrorized earthlings finding shelter from aliens' plasma guns. Again, Segali delivers bad news, this time by way of conductive and radiative heat-transfer concepts. The victims' supposed refuge has a metal door, which the beams will heat to 1,900 degrees Centigrade in a few minutes. All inside will be "barbecued."

Segall, an engineering science and mechanics professor at Penn State, has been using scenes from science fiction for more than a decade to teach basic engineering concepts. By pointing out- and then correcting- the scientific and engineering flaws in movies and TV episodes, he hopes to leave students with a lasting mental picture "of the way things function and the complexities of design." Science fiction's "potent combination of theory and imagery" not only serves the teaching of core topics but also helps illustrate engineering's contributions to society and generates a positive image of the field, Segali argues.

In his first-year seminar, which combines both ethics and hard engineering and scientific principles, Segali starts with the concepts he wants students to learn and then selects the right science fiction to get the job done. A great deal of the engineering topics discussed come from dissecting Independence Day which Segall says "has so many great examples on so many different levels." The original series of Star Trek, shown on television in the 1960s and still popular as a Web franchise, is another rich source. Principles of dynamics and mass acceleration, for instance; would prevent the spaceship Enterprise from flying smoothly through, space. Instead, its lopsided design would cause it to do somersaults.

Segall's seminar) one of a diverse assortment for freshmen, is popular. "From what I understand, the course is always filled," says Renata Engel, Penn State's associate dean of engineering for academic programs. "I think it's a captivating topic." She adds, "There's no shortage of engineering and science content in these subjects."

In 2002, when Segali described his technique in the Journal of Engineering Education, he lamented that science fiction wasn't widely used in engineering. If that was the case then, it's not anymore. Across the country, sci-fi and fantasy, from Star Trek and the original Outer Limits to Doctor Who and Harry Potter, are helping to draw students into engineering and science classes and make the lessons stick.

Trekkies it Tweets

At Syracuse University, many students sign up for TrekClass, based on Star Trek, out of sheer curiosity. Of the class's 45 to 80 students per semester, only a handful'start out as Trekkiesfans-but information studies Prof. Ahthony Rotolo tells them, "I can't promise you Won't be one when it's over?' Rotolo uses the qpisodes broadly to teach social media, ethics, and technoloa but says, "This class is really designed to try and spark an interest in the STEM disciplines?'

TrekOlass uses full episodes of The Original Series (TOS), which first ran between 1966 and 1969, The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-94), and Voyager (1995-2001) to spur discussion, which is accomplished in part by tweeting with each other while students watch. Teaching Assistant- "First Officer"- Meghan Dornbrock leads the conversation and keeps students on track.

In Star Trek, a race of computers called the Borg (short for "cybernetic organism") takes over the bodies of humans and aliens alike in a quest for galactic domination. …

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