Hi-fi sci-fi

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Rosemary Feasey and Cathy Given explore how to use fiction for understanding

What is science fiction? A relatively new genre of writing, its origin is usually attributed to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817), but it became established as a genre in the 1920s. It is fantasy based on potential developments or changes in science, technology or the environment. SF differs from fantasies such as the Star Wars series which, though set in space or future worlds, merely replicate past elements from history in space or future worlds (for example, empire, genetic supremacy) with add-ons such as spaceships or aliens.

Science fiction draws upon our history and present-day dilemmas, but in a metaphorical way, making the reader look afresh at current assumptions, dilemmas and expectations. Different worlds are created.

The differences are signalled by the use of "nova" or "new things" (such as warp drive, time dilation) which have to be scientifically plausible and mesh together convincingly enough to create a different, yet realistic society. "Otherness" is much to the fore. For example, how aliens or robots are situated in society raises ethical and moral issues: as does genetic engineering or distribution of resources. SF offers a vehicle to explore such "big issues", with pupils engaged as readers, writers, philosophers and scientists.

What do children think of science fiction? We asked a mixed-age group class of Years 4, 5 and 6 pupils about the genre. Most of the children had some notion of what it is, but few had read any. The majority linked science fiction to familiar representations in television and film and not surprisingly confused SF with "high fantasy" (like Harry Potter). A minority linked their interest to science and technology; even from this small study it was evident that SF is mainly explored by boys.

We also asked 60 teachers to complete a questionnaire. Answers suggested that most do not use science fiction in any way, nor do they make creative links between science and literacy.

Yet SF, as well being a stimulus for creativity, can familiarise pupils with possible futures and related moral and ethical issues; can encourage them to engage with ideas about science and to use their scientific knowledge and understanding; develops literacy skills, such as evaluating different points of view; and explores technology and its consequences unlike most other genres of fiction.

The more difficult question is not what is the value of science fiction but how does it translate into the curriculum? Science fiction can and should be fact in our classrooms.

Rosemary Feasey is a freelance primary science consultant Cathy Given is a lecturer at Northumbria University


Begin with open discussion on what pupils think science fiction is, whether they have read any and what their definition would be. Science fiction is:

* a story;

* set in the future, past or another world;

* based on real science;

* has to be realistic and pay attention to detail.

Ask pupils to imagine it is the year 4005. Give them a scenario: for example, global warming has resulted in the Earth becoming very hot, arid with nothing being able to live on the surface.

* What would the world be like in environmental terms? (Pupils develop an "accumulation of detail" (the Novum)).

* How would people live, for example, their homes, transport, clothing, food.

* What would pupils need to learn (given the changed environment)?

Ask children to close their eyes and imagine that they are travelling to another planet. On reaching the new planet they have to send information to mission control in the first few minutes, but this information has to be based on what they can actually see, since the craft's sensors take some time to recalibrate. Show an incredible scene (a "PowerPoint" picture of an imaginary planet taken from websites offering dramatic scenes).

Making inferences from what they see, children use personal scientific knowledge to create an email communicating conditions, such as gravity, temperature, gases, life forms, atmosphere, and so on.

Offer 'What if...' scenarios where children have to consider cause and effect, for example:

* What if we could use DNA to create dinosaurs?

* What if we had robots to do all our work for us?

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