When I had to pick a minor for my Bachelor of Education, English was the obvious choice. All throughout my degree, people would say “Math and English? That’s an odd combination.” Really, is it? Why do you have to be passionate about one and not the other?
A polymath (or the more common term Renaissance man) is a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. During the Italian Renaissance, sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts. Leonardo da Vinci is a prime example as he excelled as a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. Why would we not want the same for ourselves and our students?
For years, I have tried to reconcile my “two sides” in my teaching. As a pre-service teacher, I discovered the short story The Feeling Of Power by Isaac Asimov. The story is about a future society that has become so reliant on technology that no one can perform even simple math operations. I would share this story with my math classes before we would use graphing calculators for the first time. It wasn’t much but it was a start.
Last semester I found out about a biology teacher who used the novel Ishmael to teach her class about biodiversity and sustainability. The idea of a novel study in a science classroom intrigued me. I reached out to friends for ideas
Was I crazy for trying? Would it be more work than it was worth? I know I went about things backwards: I was looking for ways to justify using literature because of my own interests as a teacher. I soon discovered that there is a benefits beyond pointing out the bad science in books and movies.
Sheila Tobias, in her book They’re not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier (1990) offers that “First-tier students may well be teacher-proof, curriculum-proof, and classroom culture-proof, in which case they will learn no matter how the course is taught” (p. 80), whereas second tier students “hungered . . .for information about how the various methods they were learning had come to be, why [scientists] understand nature the way they do, and what were the connections between what they were learning and the larger world” (p. 81). What better way to show the nature of science than through biographies? Biographies can show students that
- Data must be obtained that support or refute each scientific claim.
- Conclusions must be confirmed by repeatable investigations by other researchers. Science is fallible and replication leads to the elimination of error.
- Scientific knowledge evolves over time and is not a rigid body of right answers.
- The greater the number of diverse observations that can be explained by a theory, the more likely it is to be accepted by the scientific community.
- Good science seeks to be unbiased and objective.
- Scientists value simple explanations.
- Scientists value skepticism. No conclusions are accepted on face value without careful analysis of the evidence supporting and refuting the claim.
- Curiosity, creativity, politics, culture and chance play roles in how scientific knowledge is discovered.
More than anything, biographies can show students the passion that others have for science.
Saskatchewan is currently renewing our Physics curricula and it is very possible that Modern Physics unit will be added. The topic makes MY brain melt so I had no idea how I could present it to my students. I came across examples of teachers who use literature to teach topics like radiation and space travel that difficult for hands-on activities. Literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, can engage students in ways that a textbook never could. It can focus discussions and generate interest in a subject that might be unfamiliar. Not only that but literature can give a common experience for the entire class and a basis for the construction of knowledge. There are so many interesting books and videos on Modern Physics that are written for a general audience, it became clear how I would teach the unit. Not only are they cheaper than textbooks and educational videos, they are usually much more engaging.
Science fiction certainly can be used to address misconceptions about science but Julie E. Czerneda warns
Unfortunately, in my experience, this approach can result in students who come to distrust anything that sounds like science. Science fiction has so much more to offer in terms of good science and how science works, while at the same time addressing the basics of literacy. (Science Fiction & Scientific Literacy, The Science Teacher, February 2006, p 39)
For generations, science fiction has inspired scientists to explore the “What if?”. It is better to show good science which can inspire research and innovation than to potentially cause mistrust.
Not only can reading science fiction open our students to new ideas, it can make them them critically aware of the consequences of change. In my grade 12 English class, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time. My edition included the essay “Brave New World Revisited” where Huxley explains the scientific discoveries that his story was based upon and whether this was the direction society was heading. I became instantly fascinated by this dystopian future that heeds the warnings on reproductive technology, eugenics, and the overuse of antidepressants. I began to research this “society that could be” and wished these topics could have been addressed in my science classes. How often do we address the consequences of science and technology in the science class? Science fiction can help us do that.
Hopefully I have inspired you to use literature in your science classroom. I’ve collected a list of possible resources but more suggestions will be appreciated. In the weeks to come, I hope to write about how to use literature circles for science related books.
“Connecting Students to Science Through Structured Reading of Historical Nonfiction”, William J. Straits, Susan Gomez Zwiep, and R. Russell Wilke, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2011, p 26-31
“Idea Bank:Tips and Techniques for Creative Teaching”, Kristi Kilby-Goodwin, The Science Teacher, Summer 2010, p 60-63
“Science & Science Fiction”, David Oravetz, Science Scope, March 2005, p 20-22
“Science Fiction & Scientific Literacy”, Julie E. Czerneda, The Science Teacher, February 2006, p 38-42
“Star Trek Physics: Where does the Science End & the Fiction Begin?”, Sue Ellen Radhe and Lynn Cole,Science Scope, March 2002, p 52-57