Saturday, 20 August 2011

Using Science Fiction to Stimulate Interest in Science Fact – Douglas E. Richards

Science popularizer Douglas Richards argues that Science Fiction is a great way to get kids interested in science itself. See our review of The Prometheus Project.
I have a Master’s degree in molecular biology and write science pieces for National Geographic KIDS magazine. As a kid, I read nothing but science fiction, much of it by actual scientists striving to get the science correct, and I know firsthand the power of this genre to stoke interest in science.
This is a widespread phenomena, with no better exemplar than Star Trek. The number of NASA scientists that were inspired by this series is well known and explains why so many real space ships have taken their names from those found in the Star Trek universe. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone, cited Captain Kirk’s communicator as his inspiration for the invention. Mark D. Rayman, Chief Propulsion Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed Ion Propulsion, inspired by the Star Trek episode, “Spock’s Brain.” The principle scientist at Apple, Steve Perlman, created QuickTime after watching Data the Android accessing his favorite songs on the computer, and QuickTime has been the progenitor of MP3 music, iPods, and YouTube (All of the above examples, and many more, can be found in the documentary, “How William Shatner Changed the World.”) Professor Lawrence Krauss of Case Western University has written a book, “The Physics of Star Trek.” And Southwest Washington Medical Center, on its web site, describes a new procedure as follows: “Inspired by the scalpel-free technique of Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, CyberKnife combines advanced robotics and missile-guidance technology to pinpoint the position of tumors and deliver highly focused beams of radiation without damaging surrounding tissue.”
Endless additional examples abound. This is but the tip of the iceberg for Star Trek, and there are any number of science fiction novels that have inspired interest in science as well.
When I had kids of my own, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to science fiction that would expand their minds the way mine had been expanded. Unfortunately, most of the science fiction I read as a teen was written for adults, and the science within was often either glossed over or was far too complex and advanced for young readers. My hope was to find a series of science fiction books written principally for forth, fifth, and sixth graders that would contain scrupulously accurate science, and lots of it, and that would be impossible for my kids to put down. In addition to touching on scientific facts, I also wanted the books to cover key scientific concepts that would compliment what they were learning in school.
I never did find a series that would accomplish what I wanted. While there were science fiction books that imparted science to kids tangentially, and could inspire imaginations, including a Star Trek series for kids, I was unable to find one whose purpose for being was to synergize with children’s science classes. So I decided to write a series of science fiction thrillers of my own to do just that. To ensure I could explore endless scientific topics, I decided to set the books in a vast, abandoned alien city, buried deep underground, where multidisciplinary teams of Earth’s greatest scientists would study the amazing technology found within.
In the first book in the series, The Prometheus Project — Trapped, the protagonists (a brother/sister pair named after my own two children) stumble upon the alien city and then get cut off from the scientist team, leaving them trapped inside and facing unimaginable dangers. The kids soon realize that they need to use the scientific method to understand the dangers they face and to find a way to save their mother’s life. I introduced “cool science” into the book wherever I could as long as it served the story. I also raised broad topics I hoped would stimulate children’s imaginations. For example, I had the characters discuss the following question: what would people from hundreds of years ago make of today’s world? Of our televisions, airplanes, and cell phones? They would almost certainly think our technology was magic. So wouldn’t science and technology well in advance of ours seem like magic to us? And along with great benefits, couldn’t the study of this science lead to unexpected dangers? (like a caveman sticking his finger into an innocent light socket).
The reaction to these books by kids, parents, and educators has been everything I had hoped it would be. Trapped has been called, “Perfect for middle grades,” by Teaching Pre K-8 Magazine, has been endorsed by the California Department of Education, and is included on Missouri State University’s list of “Best New Books to Engage Students in Math and Science.” Both Trapped and Captured (the second book in the series) have been endorsed by the California Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A number of teachers have even used Trapped as a read aloud and scientific discussion starter in their classrooms. “My class loved it,” said a fifth-grade teacher who was quoted by the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They were totally engaged.” A recent review published in the North Carolina Science Teachers Association Newsletter adds, “The Prometheus Project could make a great addition to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study in middle grades science. As a fast-paced science fiction adventure about an underground city built by an advanced alien civilization would help to teach children about science and technology by appealing to their creative minds. I recommend this book to any middle school science teacher, as well as reluctant readers and students interested in science fiction thrillers.”
I would like to think that Trapped and Captured add to the grand tradition of science fiction books that foster a fascination with science and a lifelong hunger to learn more about it (for the grade-school and middle-school set). For other ideas on how to use science fiction as a teaching tool in the classroom, consider reading Teaching Science Fact With Science Fiction by Gary Raham.
To learn more about the author and his books (including full reviews and National Geographic KIDS science pieces) go to You can write the author at Click here for a lesson plan for the books published on ScienceNetLinks. 

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