Teacher Tips Science Fiction can help to Teach Science

“Science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.” – Isaac Asimov

This quote is included in a marvellous short video, entitled “What if”, which looks at the impact science fiction can have on young people. The video suggests that science fiction – whether on film or in print – can encourage ethical responsibility, thinking outside the box, and a respect for diversity. According to the video, it can also help prepare students for the future, by having them think about the changes, consequences, and solutions that occur in science fiction’s imaginary worlds.

For high school students, these are ideas that may rekindle an interest in science. The plausible alternate realities of science fiction can, ironically, make the study of science seem more relevant, and the guiding question asked by every writer in the genre can become their mantra too: “What if?” An intrigued, thoughtful student is one who is willing to learn, and science fiction can be the teaching tool that sparks that fascination.

Above all, science fiction is about ideas. Many of these are extrapolated from present day society and science, and it is worth asking students to compare and contrast the technologies and beliefs of imaginary worlds with those of their own. What might have changed, and what scientific principles might have made the change possible? How plausible are the changes? To answer these questions, students will need to call on their research and thinking skills, and use scientific fact to support – or deny – fictional developments.

There are many suitable books, stories and movies that could be used; all good science fiction has a “what if” question at its core. For instance, the film, “Gattaca”, could spur an interest in the Genome Project and the ethics of applied science. The ‘hard science’ novels, “Rendezvous with Rama” (Arthur C. Clarke) and “Ringworld” (Larry Niven), which feature plausible alternate biospheres, could support a course in ecology or physics. Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” asks important questions about the way in which research is conducted on creatures that are not human. Even the popular TV show, “Futurama”, with its whiz-bang vision of the future, can challenge students to consider what might be possible.

Teachers who are not familiar with the genre may want to do a little online research of their own, or ask colleagues in the English department or college library to offer further suggestions. In an ideal world, the text would be studied in English while science classes investigated the facts behind the story, but that’s not always possible and texts may need to be delivered as homework.

If students have had sufficient exposure to science fiction, they may like to write their own stories based on whatever topic is being studied. In this way, they can clearly demonstrate an understanding of important scientific concepts, in a format that may seem less threatening and more enjoyable than a test or traditional project.

The current reality for students is the science fiction of the past: in some ways, Newton’s apple is the antecedent of space flight, and Gregor Mendel is the grandfather of cloning. Any student wishing to pursue a career in science – including teaching – will be dealing with ideas and innovations that are currently only hinted at in the pages of science fiction stories. Students who see no further use for science can nonetheless be led, by means of a fictional setting, to an understanding of how the facts of chemistry, physics, and biology impact on their daily lives.

Above all, science fiction can help students to realise that science is not really about white coats and test tubes; it is about understanding and changing the world. This is of paramount importance. As Isaac Asimov also said, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”