Among the many things that can be said about science fiction, there's no question about its tremendous entertainment value and ability to convey difficult concepts in a clear and compelling manner. Which is why a pair of researchers from the University of Valencia are urging educators to get their act together and start using science fiction as a way to engage their students and motivate interest in science and technology.
An important teaching tool
To get a better sense of science fiction's current place in the classroom, researchers Fanny Petit and Jordi Solbes reviewed over 30 compulsory science and technology textbooks for physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and various technology subjects. They also took a look at teacher books, CD-ROMs, and activity books.
Of these resources, only 30% made any kind of reference to a scifi story or concept — neither through images, comments, texts, activities, or web references.
And of the resources that did, the references were fairly limited in scope, including a photo of Superman in the context of jadarite, a mineral whose chemical formula is similar to kryptonite. Similarly, they found a reference to the starship Enterprise in conjunction with a section on energy and distances, as well as a reference to the spinning space station of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a way to help explain centrifugal gravitational forces.
"Since textbooks 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," noted the researchers through a press release.
Indeed, nearly 40% of teachers admitted that science fiction references improve motivation in students, leading to a greater interest in science and technology subjects. Yet, it remains relatively unused as a teaching tool.
Some science fiction is not helping
Since science fiction especially appeals to the teenage set, the researchers also wanted to get a sense of science fiction knowledge among students. They administered a questionnaire to 173 students at four different state and grant-maintained schools both in rural and urban areas.
In total, the students listed over 578 different titles, the leaders being Stars Wars (90), The Matrix (60), X-Men (41), I Robot (36), Spiderman (32) and The Day after Tomorrow (24).
But they also listed titles that were clearly not of the science fiction realm, a potential indication of their confusion about the genre — or more perniciously, their limited understanding of science. Specifically, the students listed such movies and books as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings (those two alone garnered 59 and 50 hits), Neverending Story, and Mission Impossible.
The questionnaire also assessed the students' impression of science fiction. Some 24% of the participants looked at science favorably, while 31% were able to speak about advances in both science and technology. Nearly half of them had a positive outlook when it came to scientists, while 35% had a "distorted" or "exaggerated" impression, while the remaining 12% didn't care for them at all. In terms of the latter two classifications, the students felt that some scientists conform to the "mad scientist" category, that they are "selfish," "they spend their life in the lab," and are "people who want to rule the world".
In terms of an explanation, the researchers noted that scientists very rarely make appearances in the most popular films. And when they do, they're typically portrayed as the supervillans. "In these films, the antagonist is usually the crazy scientist that wants to rule the world or even increase their power after finding a powerful 'weapon'," noted the researchers.
Perhaps the popularization of more positive scientifically-inclined role models would be in order.