Do your students lack lessons in warp drive?

3rd May 2013 at 01:00
A US senator aims to make science-fiction study compulsory

It is perhaps the ultimate revenge of the nerds: generations of geeks have been forced into compulsory sports but now one US lawmaker is aiming to make jocks - and everyone else - study science fiction.

West Virginia delegate Ray Canterbury has proposed a bill to make science fiction a mandatory part of the curriculum, to encourage an interest in real-world science and maths. According to Mr Canterbury, the move is vital to ensure the "economic well-being of the state and the nation".

Like many science-fiction fans, Mr Canterbury is ready to counter the jibes of critics who portray the genre as frivolous. "I'm not interested in fantasy novels about dragons," he told Blastr, a website dedicated to science fiction.

Mr Canterbury favours the classic novels of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne over melodramatic space operas. "I'm primarily interested in things where advanced technology is a key component of the storyline, both in terms of the problems that it presents and the solutions that it offers," he said.

The delegate believes that science fiction opens children's minds to a world of possibility. This viewpoint has drawn support from science- fiction writers, and not just because of the value of being on school reading lists.

"I think there is evidence that reading science fiction encourages an interest in science," James Gunn, a novelist and founder of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, told TES. "Many, maybe even most, scientists have testified to choosing careers in science because of their early science-fiction reading.

"(Astronomer) Carl Sagan summed it up something like this: before the discipline of science must come the romance of science. Dozens of testimonials have been cited in which inventors have attributed their discoveries to the inspiration of science fiction."

Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, agreed that much anecdotal evidence supports the theory that science fiction inspires scientists.

"Loads of people in science professionally will tell you that their imagination was first fired by Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek," he said. "I grew up with them and turned into a massive science geek, though clearly we need to check if that's causation or correlation."

Mr Khan conceded that not much in the way of hard evidence suggests that more Star Trek would inspire a new generation of scientists, but he still believes that the genre could play an important role.

"Sci-fican be particularly helpful in helping people think about science in a creative and exploratory way, rather than in . `textbook' fashion. It helps you think about possibilities," he said.

But Mr Khan and Mr Gunn rejected the idea of compulsory study. "I can't think of a better way to take the fun out of it," Mr Khan said. "But it would be a brilliant idea to encourage more kids to read and think about science creatively."

The idea of increasing enthusiasm for science through science fiction has had long-standing support from educators, with research dating back as far as the 1960s. But a study by academics at the University of Valencia in Spain last year found that although teachers viewed science fiction positively, few teaching materials made use of it (see panel, right).

The researchers also discovered clashes between science fiction and science fact, with a survey of students finding that 35 per cent had a distorted view of scientists. Scheming supervillains appeared to be the culprits: among the negative comments were that scientists are "selfish", "spend their life in the lab" and "want to rule the world".


Academics from the University of Valencia in Spain found that few science textbooks make use of science fiction, despite support for the idea from teachers.

Only nine of the 31 textbooks they examined last year made any reference to science fiction. One calculated the speed of rotation that the space station in 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey would need to achieve to simulate the Earth's gravity.

Another compared a recently discovered mineral, jadarite, to kryptonite, the fictional mineral in the Superman films and comics. The two substances share a very similar chemical composition, although the real mineral is white, not green.

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