Excellent Idea of the Day: Sci-Fi in Class

One of science fictions most well-known creations was Gene Rodenbarry's Star Trek. Here is a museum recreation. Click to enlarge this image. Josh Berglund19
Josh Berglund19

Fictional works based on science fact can be a bridge for piquing kids' interest in the good of science (and scientists).

Textbooks may someday use science fiction more as a tool for teaching students real science, a study published in the journal Enseñanza de las Ciencias suggests.

The hope is that youthful interest in science fiction, such as the popular flicks "Star Wars," "Spiderman" and "X-Men," might spark a fondness for actual science and technology.

"A current concern is that students are no longer studying science and engineering and this trend is more common amongst females," ]Jordi Solbes Matarredona, a researcher at the University of Valencia and coauthor of the study, was quoted as saying in a press release. "Science fiction can be useful in awaking the scientific vocation of younger students."

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He and colleague Fanny Petit noticed that while students often gravitate to science fiction for entertainment (in movies, books, video games and more) they didn't always have a positive outlook on real science and scientists. In a questionnaire given to 173 students at four different schools in Spain, the teen respondents hardly raved about scientists. Comments included "they are selfish" and "they spend their life in the lab."

Some others thought they upheld the stereotypical image of the "crazy scientist" or were "people who want to rule the world."

Conversely, many students knew about popular science fiction movies and their respective characters. Interestingly, many such films do portray actual scientists in a negative light. That seems to hold true for numerous movies. Think of the brilliant, yet diabolical, scientist-type villains from the James Bond movies.

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The researchers also looked at high school-level science and technology textbooks for subjects like physics, chemistry, biology and geology. The books came from seven of the main Spanish/European publishing houses between 2000 and 2008.

"Out of the 31 secondary and upper school books analyzed, in 22 of them not one single reference to science fiction is made either in photographs, comments, texts, activities or web references," Matarredona said.

A glimmer of science fiction was found in just five of the books (either in the form of a photo, text or a problem-question).

"The most salient of these was a photograph of Superman found in one of the complimentary texts on the discovery of the mineral jadarite, whose chemical formula is very similar to that of the fictitious mineral kryptonite," explained the researchers.

"Since texts books make up the bulk of what is taught, this tells us that, along with the scarce number of activities proposed by teaching staff, science fiction is hardly present in the classroom despite it being viewed positively by teachers," they concluded.

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In light of the findings, the researchers propose learning activities based on science fiction films and series as a way of verifying if these activities do actually improve the image that students have of science and scientists.