Science fiction may be a relatively young genre in the vast span of human literature, but it holds a unique place in our modern technological world, and thereby in our educational system. Science fiction has the ability to inspire imagination and innovation. It also helps draw young people to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, challenging them to take artistic visions and turn them into scientific realities. Some real-world examples are noted astronomer Edwin Hubble, who provided strong evidence for the big bang theory and was the first person to prove that galaxies exist outside of the Milky Way – he was inspired to become a scientist after reading French novelist Jules Verne. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku enjoyed the television show Flash Gordon as a child and has stated that “…years later, I began to realize that the two passions of my life – that is, physics and understanding the future are really the same thing – that if you understand the foundations of physics, you understand what is possible and you understand what could be just beyond the horizon.”
Though there were science fiction stories written as far back as 100 CE, the modern age of science fiction started in about the mid-1800s with the likes of Jules Verne, who first imagined such technologies as electric submarines, television newscasts, and video conferencing in his works (e.g. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth). H.G. Wells, an Englishman, burst onto the science fiction stage in 1895 with his first book, The Time Machine, which both posited time as a fourth dimension and created a reality that allowed people to move forward or backward in that dimension. In the era in which he wrote, the idea of time as a fourth dimension was neither accepted nor even discussed among the scientific community and would not be until Albert Einstein published his 1905 paper on relativity which discussed space-time as the fabric of the universe. Wells also described the atomic bomb in his 1914 book A World Set Free; he predicted it would be built in 1933 and first detonated in 1956, which was within the margin of error for its use in 1945 to end World War II. In fact, after physicist Leo Szilard read the book, he patented the idea of using atomic reactions for weaponry, which served him well when he became part of the Manhattan Project.
Later authors, such as Arthur C. Clarke, imagined modern-day telecommunication satellites. Isaac Asimov’s works laid the foundation for robotic technology. Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Greg Egan all explored the nature of reality and the human mind; their books have led to new understandings of how the brain functions, to treatments for various psychological disorders, and to the exploration of new social structures. And it’s no great surprise that television – itself an extension of science fiction hypotheses – played a large role in helping to develop our current space technologies with shows like Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek”, as well as inspiring technologies such as the flip-top cell phone, and, more recently, a non-invasive medical device called the “tricorder.” In addition, many current and former astronauts credit that single show with piquing their interest in working within the scientific community as well as going into space themselves.
In its 2014 Prospectus, the new Museum of Science Fiction stated that “Through story, science fiction has the potential to transform, motivate, and educate. In one sense, science fiction is fun, but in another sense, it explores the themes of ethics and morality in evolving societies and inspires its audiences. Science fiction is the art of the possible.” Science fiction stories, it continues, are those that “encourage innovation or provoke thought about different “could be” states of society, science, or technology.”
Science fiction and scientific fact are actually symbiotic areas. When Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story “The Minority Report” was first published, identifying criminals before they committed their crimes was truly a fictional endeavor. By the time the 2002 Tom Cruise movie version came out, though, the filmmakers were able to update the story to use the near-state-of-the-art technology of gestural interfaces with a stunning sense of accuracy. Fiction had influenced science which had gone back to influence fiction again. The same is true of both the book and film creations of Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story contained visions of a powerful supercomputing AI (artificial intelligence), space-Earth communications, and advanced space vehicle design. When the film was made, many of the technical details of the production, which set it apart from the so-called “space operas” of the time and gave it a more realistic, “scientific” feel, were those suggested by a NASA technical advisor named Fred Ordway.
If science fiction can aid students’ interest and integration in our technological age, how should we go about using it in a classroom setting? There are many discussions about this to be found on the internet, including curricula for individual scientific subjects:
- Professor Joan Slonczewski offers a biology curriculum that draws upon science fiction to explore concepts such as mutation, genetics, adaptation, and immortality. She also presents suggested student projects. You can learn more at http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/bio3/bio03syl.htm.
- Science fiction legend and university professor James Gunn offers insights on teaching science fiction for subjects ranging from social and physical sciences, history, ideas, futurology, religion, morality, ecology, and reading skills. His special project, AboutSF (http://www.aboutsf.com/), offers a database of resources for teachers seeking to use science fiction in the classroom, as well as links to the new Speculation Speaker’s Bureau that connects corporations, agencies, and even local schools and libraries to either local or nationally known speakers on a wide range of topics.
- Author Julie Czerneda has created materials useful to teachers and librarians seeking to use science fiction to entice bright young minds. You can find her article, “Why Use Science Fiction?”, as well as classroom resources and anthologies of stories, at http://www.czerneda.com/classroom/classroom.html.
You can find additional resources on science fiction and education for educators, parents, and students at https://www.scoop.it/t/using-science-fiction-to-teach-science.
We are currently in an age of innovation, but we need the next generation to continue to think and dream and invent. If science fiction can help to ensure this occurs, we must entertain ways to make it a part of every student’s educational experience.
 Kaku, M. (nd.) “How does science fiction influence scientific research?”. Curiosity. Retrieved from http://www.thestargarden.co.uk/Why-society-needs-science-fiction.html
 Pultarova, Teresa. (29 August 2014.) “Finalists of the Tricorder XPrize Announced.” The Institution of Engineering and Technology. In Sweeney, Mandy. (2014.) Using Science Fiction to Motivate Learning and Innovation. 65th International Astronautical Congress. Toronto, Canada.
 Sweeney, Mandy. (2014.) Using Science Fiction to Motivate Learning and Innovation. 65th International Astronautical Congress. Toronto, Canada.
 Leovy, Jill. (July 1, 2014.) “Fred Orway dies; Prominent NASA Engineer and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Adviser.” LA Times. In Sweeney, Mandy. (2014.) Using Science Fiction to Motivate Learning and Innovation. 65th International Astronautical Congress. Toronto, Canada.