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More than Cool Science: Science Fiction and Fact in the Classroom

Vandana Singh Citation: The Physics Teacher 52, 106 (2014); doi: 10.1119/1.4862117 View online: View Table of Contents: Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers

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More than Cool Science: Science Fiction and Fact in the Classroom
Vandana Singh, Framingham State University, Framingham, MA

he unfortunate negative attitude toward physics among many students, including science majors, warrants creative approaches to teaching required physics courses. One such approach is to integrate science fiction into the curriculum, either in the form of movies or the written word. Historically this has been done since at least the 1970s, and by now many universities and colleges have courses that incorporate science fiction stories or film. The intent appears to be to a) increase student interest in physics, b) increase the imaginative grasp of the student, and c) enable a clearer understanding of physics concepts. Reports on these experiments, from Freedman and Littles classic 1980 paper1 to more recent work like that of Dubeck et al.,2 Dark,3 and Smith,4 indicate that such innovative approaches do work. I was curious as to whether a combination of science fiction and science fact (in the form of a science news article) might enhance the benefits of including science fiction. Below I describe how I used a science fiction story along with a science article on a related theme to pique the interest of students in a new and exciting area of research that was nevertheless connected to the course material.

The project
To start to explore these possibilities, I conducted a pedagogical experiment in spring 2011 with students of my calculus-based Principles of Physics II course at Framingham State University, most of whom were pre-med, pre-vet, preengineering students, or biology and chemistry majors. With a couple of rare exceptions, these students had had a prior extremely negative experience with an earlier physics course and were inclined to be even less enthusiastic about physics than typical students. The assignment itself was simple: they were to first read a science fiction story, The Light of Other Days, a 1967 short story by Bob Shaw.12 After answering some questions, they were then to read a factual science article13 on the experiments of Harvard physicist Lene Hau and answer some additional questions. My purpose was to see whether the reading of the science fiction story affected the reading of the factual article, and whether it resulted in increased interest and understanding. I repeated this experiment with the Principles of Physics II class in the spring of 2013, with very slight modifications. From a colleague in the social sciences, I learned how to code qualitative responses from students to convert them into quantitative responses. In each case the class size (13 and 19 students, respectively) is too small to draw any general conclusions from the data, but the results are nevertheless interesting and invite the possibility of further study on a larger scale. The Light of Other Days is a short story about a failing relationship. The man and woman are driving through the countryside where slow glass is grown. Slow glass, the science fictional conceit of the story, is an object that slows the speed of light so much that light takes 10 years to traverse a slab of this glass an inch thick. In the world of the story slow glass is used as dcor on the walls of city homes after it has been exposed for many years to some beautiful natural scene. The couple meet the old farmer who grows the glass and, while negotiating for a piece of glass, become aware of something not quite right on the farm. The realization of the mystery is a threshold event in the relationship of the young couple. The story is quite lyrically written and is a beautiful and rather sad testament to the enduring power of memory. The physicist Lene Hau at Harvard has, since 1999, published the results of a number of stunning experiments on the speed of light. Using a Bose-Einstein condensate, she first slowed light down to about 35 mph. Then in a subsequent experiment she stopped light and eventually started it again. The implications of her experiments are still being sorted out. They are certainly not in any textbook of an introductory general physics course.
DOI: 10.1119/1.4862117

Why science fiction?

That science fiction offers a way to engage students is a notion taken seriously by many, including NASA, which, in 2011, announced its partnership with a major science fiction publisher, Tor, to publish NASA-inspired science fiction.5 In the summer 2003 issue of the journal Thought and Action, biologist Athena Andreadis wrote an article called Why Science Needs Science Fiction.6 The article answers the question posed by the title thus: to make connections, to find larger relationships between domains that are kept in water-tight compartments in the sciences, that is, to use the imagination to explore farther and to extinguish boundaries. Jon Ogborn, director of a physics initiative at the Institute of Physics, UK, believes that the use of science fiction could help reverse the fall in the number of students studying physics.7 Stephen Hawking said that science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future.8 Many scientists say (according to an informal report by Sigma Xi, a society promoting excellence in scientific investigation) that they became scientists through an early exposure to science fiction.9 (This author is a case in point.) The National Science Foundation evidently takes the power of science fiction seriously; it has funded an online project, Diamonds in the Sky, that teaches astronomy through science fiction stories.10 The AAPT has itself recognized this connection: it has presented physicist Robert Scherrer of Vanderbilt University with a teaching award for his use of science fiction stories in his courses.11 106

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Table I. Student responses to questionnaire after reading science fiction story.


General reaction to story

50% positive or extremely positive, 42% mildly positive or neutral, of 12 responses. 84% positive or extremely positive.

Reaction to science idea in story

67% of 10 respondents positive or extremely positive. 79% positive or extremely positive.

Description of science idea in story

62% described idea well or very well.

Reaction to emoCalculation tional/artistic aspect of n of story

Only 50% responded, all positive or very positive. 85% correct

Did story/calculation help understand n?

62% yes, all of these had n right.

2011, total number of respondents 13 2013, total number of respondents 19

79% described idea well or very well.

90% positive or extremely positive.

74% correct; some made conversion errors.

90% yes, 68% of these had n right.

Table II. Student responses to questionnaire after reading science article and science fiction story.

Class year and size

General reaction to article

Response to story and article together*(slightly different phrasing of question in 2013)

86% indicated story had positive effect on reading article. 58% positive reaction to reading the story and article together, 21% neutral, 16% omitted.

Description of main science idea

How was understanding of n affected by both readings?

Would you like to read more SF in course occasionally?

Spring 2011, number of respondents 12 Spring 2013, number of respondents 19

93% positive or very positive. 90% positive or very positive.

100% correct, 54% very well described. 79% correct. 37% very well described.

Not asked in 2011.

79% yes

79% felt improvement or great improvement.

90% yes, 42% extremely enthusiastic.

Results are summarized in Tables I and II. From Table I we can see that 50% of students in the first (2011) group and 84% in the second (2013) group had a positive or extremely positive overall reaction to the story. Some of the adjectives used by students to describe their reaction included fascinating, depressing, interesting yet confusing, imaginative, captivating, magnificent, and first confusing, then fascinating. Other verbal responses included the following reactions to the concept of slow glass: loved, very interesting, wondered about applications, amazing if possible, unbelievable, farfetched. In addition most students correctly calculated the value of n for a quarter-inch thick piece of ten-year slow glass. Table II indicates that over 90% of students in both groups had a positive or very positive reaction to the science article that described the research of Lene Hau, with such verbal responses as: very cool, amazing, dry, exciting, confusing, never thought possible, and simply awesome. In general they reported that reading the two togetherscience fiction story and factual articlewas a positive experience. Some specific comments included: story made article more believable and understandable, story made me think deeper on a theoretical what-if level, loved how both coincided, and story warmed my mind to the idea in the article. Most students described the central science idea in the factual article correctly, and both groups of students answered yes to the idea of more science fiction in the classroom, with some being particularly enthusiastic. Comments included phrases

such as: made me think of possibilities I wouldnt have thought of otherwise, sparks imagination, important to connect ideas to real world, transfers enthusiasm about science, different outlook, increases interest and ties to material, relates to other aspects of life, and helped take a step back and look at basic concepts. Those who had a negative reaction were not able to appreciate the story, liked article a lot better, thought realistic examples are better for understanding, and said the story was fun, but didnt help as much as problems. To sum up, then, the students had a generally positive reaction to the science fiction story and also to its juxtaposition with the science article. They stated greater clarity, understanding, and (despite the prior negative physics experience for the 2011 group) interest. They were amazed by the science article, and some found that reading the science fiction story beforehand allowed them to appreciate the article in a deeper way, including thinking about the potential uses of new discoveries and how that might connect to their personal lives. They indicated a better understanding of the idea of index of refraction after reading the science fiction story and most got the simple calculation right. 107

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One surprise to this author was the degree of emotional response and engagement of many of the students in both groups. Among those who expressed their reaction in the most heartfelt manner were also some who were very quiet in the class (particularly in the 2011 group), and this allowed me to see quite another side of them. One particularly quiet young man commented that what worked for him about the story was the vivid descriptions of the landscape the feelings each person had at given times. A woman student who was generally withdrawn in class wrote a detailed account of her reactions to the relationship described in the story, and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding that extended also to the science article, which she found quite amazing. Another woman student speculated on the psychological effects of a technology like slow glass. A young man from the 2013 group said that he almost cried at the end. Some students wrote with intelligence and passion about the story and the technology, and provided detailed analysis of their emotional and intellectual reaction. Thus, it seemed as though the science fiction story provided a catalyst for students to open up and participate in the class, and to discuss science and technology in a wider context.

and race affect student reactions to these readings, and how gender dynamics in science fiction could affect the ways in which these stories are read by students. Acknowledgments I am indebted to colleagues at the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service (CELTSS) at Framingham State University for useful discussions. In particular I am deeply grateful to Dr. Bridgett Galvin of the psychology department at FSU for helping me understand how to code student responses as described in this paper. A version of this talk was presented at the AAPT New England section meeting on April 28, 2012. References
1. Freedman and Little, Physics 13: Teaching modern physics through science fiction, Am. J. Phys. 48, 548551 (July 1980). 2. Dubeck et al., Science fiction aids science teaching, Phys. Teach. 28, 316 (May 1990). See also Ref. 7. 3. M. Dark, Using science fiction movies in introductory physics, Phys. Teach. 43, 463 (Oct. 2005). 4. D. Smith, Reaching non-science students through science fiction, Phys. Teach. 47, 302305 (May 2009). 5. NASA news release on partnership with Tor, http://www.nasa. gov/home/hqnews/2011/aug/HQ_11-273_NASA_ TORFORGE_Books_Partner.html. 6. Athena Andreadis, The double helix: Why science needs science fiction, Thought and Action (Summer 2003), http://www. 7. As quoted in Science fiction to the rescue of teaching? Phys. World (Feb. 1998), news/1998/feb/15/science-fiction-to-the-rescue-of-teaching. 8. As quoted in htm. 9. Did Science Fiction Influence You? Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society (July 2010), 10. Diamonds in the Sky, diamonds/. 11. Klopsted-SM10_PressRelease.pdf. 12. The story in its entirety: http://baencd.thefifthimperium. com/13-TheBestofJimBaensUniverseCD/TheBestof JimBaensUniverseCD/Vol%201%20Num%201/1932093001 _17.htm. 13. Article in the Harvard Gazette (Jan. 2001), Also see Lene Haus lab page at and subsequent links. 14. Raising the Bar: Employers Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, a survey conducted on behalf of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), 2009, EmployerSurvey.pdf.
Vandana Singh is an assistant professor of physics at Framingham State University, where she researches creative pedagogies and co-leads a faculty initiative to transform STEM courses. She is also an avid science fiction reader and writer.

The big picture

This study suggests interesting possibilities for pedagogy despite the fact that it is meant to be no more than a precursor to a more detailed quantitative study. It seems possible that by pairing science fiction stories with science articles, we can engage the student both intellectually and emotionallyin other words, we can engage the whole person. An emotionally affecting science fiction story allows the science to intersect with social, psychological, and ultimately personal concerns while putting in the forefront the wonder that so many people miss about science. Including a relevant science article could emphasize these concerns and connections while cementing conceptual understanding. Perhaps this is one way that students can become invested in the content of a physics course and more deeply understand its relevance to their lives. A 2009 study14 of potential employers by the AAC&U reveals that in the real world, there is a need for graduates to be able to think in a holistic way, to apply their knowledge to real-world situations, and to be able to consider the ethical dimensions of an issue. Classroom discussions of well-chosen science fiction stories presented along with relevant science articles may help students engage in such scenarios. I might also speculate that a more inclusive, interdisciplinary physics culture that does not shy away from discussing seriously how science and technology shape and are shaped by our being human (which would presumably allow for discussions of ethics and responsibility as well) may attract many different kinds of people, including possibly more women. An NSF survey in 2001 revealed that of those surveyed who read science fiction, there were nearly equal numbers of men and women.8 Perhaps further experiments combining science readings with science fiction could investigate how gender 108

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