techdirections - April 2017

Science Fiction — An Inspiration For Creativity

Harry T. Roman 2017-03-31 01:33:12

I HAD this incredible high school science teacher from 1964-1966 who taught a revolutionary course called integrated science, which combined physics and chemistry in double-period classes every day. This two-year course, with a weekly lab, also had associated with it head and hands problem solving and design courses in electronics, so I had what would later become technology education-type courses combined with traditional AP science classes. All this came into being in the post-Sputnik era. Out of a high school class of 630+ kids, only 30 of us chose this rigorous course. It was formally classified as a third track in our urban high school—technical college prep—as opposed to business and traditional college prep. The emphasis was on technology and professional careers in the sciences and engineering as you may well imagine. Our teacher, Morris Lerner, later went on in the early 1970s to become president of the National Science Teachers Association; but he also loved the hands-on aspect of education. Remember, technology education was not recognized as a formal course of study until the mid-1980s. Our class was 20 years ahead of schedule. What made this course so pivotal for me was the “integrated” aspect of it. Mr. Lerner was adamant about connecting everything we did to the other subjects we were taking, and the world in general. For the first time in my school career, I was empowered to connect subjects together, to explore and appreciate the interfaces between subject matter, and to develop problem solving process skills that attempted to bring this all together in a mediated solution to problems. And, might I add, woe be unto anyone in class who could not write or speak well. This was the greatest course I ever took in my entire formal education, including my college engineering courses. Science Fiction How does this tie into science fiction? Actually quite nicely, for you see one of the subjects our teacher was also adamant about was reading literature, in all its forms, because it would help us be better writers, speakers, and help us appreciate how science and technology influenced the world and the lexicon. Many of America’s great scientists and engineers had been readers of science fiction in their youth. Some even wrote it as a hobby or did it professionally after stints in the hard sciences (something worth having students research). Remember, the original Star Trek series came out in the late 1960s, just before the moon landing. Look at how that affected the lexicon and American culture: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Wasn’t that similar to why we were going to the moon? Joseph Engelberger, the father of modern robotics, clearly admits that his reading of Isaac Asimov’s great novels about intelligent robots was the motivating force for his interest in pioneering robotics technology. Science fiction has the power to influence hearts, minds, careers, and imagination. Nothing fires the imagination like science fiction and even science fantasy, so why not use it more, as a creativity and imagination aid? It is often wrongly considered to be the poor stepchild of literature for classroom reading. Quick are we to dismiss its value as a sterling example of subject integration. When we do study it, we often neglect to study it as the sweeping, integrative harbinger of the future that it is. We need to change this oversight. Encourage your students to read science fiction and discuss it. Assign readings, but first identify and appreciate the great works of literature that were science fiction pieces: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Time Machine, Brave New World, and more. Let’s take a quick look at the benefits of studying science fiction: It is the only literary genre that systematically explores the interrelationship of science, technology, society, and history, exploring future possible scenarios and potential cultural impacts. This interdisciplinary look at the world is exactly what is now being encouraged in school curricula and standards. STEM is one aspect of this. The science fiction theme is a naturally popular one, likely to draw interest from young students who generally warm-up to the topic of futurism. Youth wants to think broadly, engage in relevant things—a nice match for STEM-related studies. Science fiction can be used to help participants recognize the connection between society, technology, art, and literature. Science fiction is absolutely loaded with imaginative aspects created by the writer and re-created in the minds of the reader. Science fiction creativity and imagination has impacted our language, stimulated our art and movies, generated many new science fiction writers, and given raw meat to another generation of inventors and futurists. That old Star Trek TV show handled some very serious social issues as well; and all this mixes together with futuristic science and technology in a wonderful stew we call progress, where everything is connected to something else. Think of the incredible technology and new products coming out of the late 1800s, from guys like Edison, Ford, Tesla, Bell, and others. This was probably like science fiction to most of the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the perceptions of the general population were 75 years ago as writers then talked enthusiastically about the potential of such new inventions and technologies in their early phases of development like: Radio Flight Electricity Rocketry Television Atomic Energy Have your students study this and speculate on the multi-dimensional impacts some of today’s technology might bring 50 years from now, like: Genetic engineering Nano technology Artificial intelligence Artificial organs Solar energy Energy from plant life (biofuels) The Internet of Things Inventions pose different potential to different people, based on how they see the world and the particular things they’ve experienced in their lives. The collective perceptions of many people through books, articles, technical papers, and of course the literature of science fiction serve to steer technology into the future. Look at nuclear power’s bright potential back in the 1950s and what has happened to radically alter that original vision. An especially interesting subject is the portrayal of technology in past world fairs. Here the theme of science fiction is center stage as companies and organizations try to envision what the world will look like years from now. Artists, scientists, and engineers combine their ideas and imaginations to create a possible future scenario for humanity. The World’s Fair of 1939 is a classic example of this legitimized dreaming. What’s wrong with studying past world fairs and the visions and imagination they offered? Chesley Bonestell, America’s premier space artist and illustrator, influenced many of today’s rocket engineers and scientists to pursue their dreams. His bold and visionary graphic portrayals of planetary worlds fired the imaginations of a whole generation of science fiction writers, further fanning the flames. He took them to the solar system’s most exotic places, long before Werner Von Braun made it possible to dare to dream of spaceflight. Take a look at past magazine advertisements and artwork that illustrated new technologies and how they might be used in the future. Everything from home appliances to cars to buildings is impacted by how and where we believe technology is going to take us. Look at how rapid advances in jet aviation in the 1950s and 60s inspired the sleek, fin-shaped refinements of automobiles of that period. Architects design buildings that have as much “theme” as they have functionality. Their structures make social and cultural statements. Technology and their speculations about how it impacts us influences how they design and build structures. Thomas Edison invented the very utilitarian concrete house. Look at what that technology produced in terms of “art” and compare it against classical home building designs of the 1920s and ’30s’ and against some of the more modern designs. What do these designs say about how technology “feels” to your students? Which type of home best fits their preferences? How might they feel in a world where the buildings did not fit their preferences? Discuss with your students how technological advances in paints, materials, and tools have allowed artists, painters, sculptors, and designers to boldly try new art forms. Look at how computer art and animation have completely changed our visual forms of entertainment. Compare this to the then revolutionary work of Walt Disney in the 1930s and ’40s. The Hollywood movie technique of “morphing” has allowed studio artists to create whole new families of imaginary characters and alien beings for movies. The eerie shape-changing transformations produced by this cinematic technology has completely changed our ability to create almost unbelievable movie scenes at reasonable costs. Albert Einstein who once commented, “imagination is more important than knowledge”—a most perceptive and unexpected quote from one of planet Earth’s most towering intellects. Science fiction is constructive imagination, focused on how technology and science affect the future. Its premise is the impact that both have on society. What better way to explore what we envision technology education to be—the study of the human designed world. Integrate science fiction into your classroom. Supercharge your student creativity and imagination! Activities for teaching SF in your Classroom What technologies today appear to your students like science fiction? What can they envision these turning into and being used for say in 15-30 years? Solar photovoltaic cells were first demonstrated in 1954 at Bell Labs. Trace their development over the six decades since then and how they came to be so visible today. Do all new technologies take decades to become used and useful by the general population? Cite some examples. War is a huge booster of new technologies. Examine World War II and identify technologies that came from that conflict and how they have benefited humanity. How were these technologies viewed by people back then? Which of these had a distinct science fiction aura? The science fiction aura of the atomic bomb led to many concerns, science fiction movies in the 1950s and 60s, and all sorts of apocalyptic predictions and scenarios. What has nuclear technology morphed into today, in its many forms? What good came from it? Write a humorous, short science fiction story, no more than two pages, about a common technology that gets innovated upon with some very interesting consequences! Here are some classic books from the hard science version of science fiction, circa 1950s/1960s. Discuss what they are trying to tell us: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress— Robert A. Heinlein I, Robot---Isaac Asimov A Canticle for Leibowitz---Walter M. Miller, Jr. The Martian Chronicles---Ray Bradbury A Fall of Moondust---Arthur C. Clarke Who are the great science fiction authors today and what are they writing about? Three of the great science fiction writers—Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke---wrote some of the really great stories of their time. Research what these men also did and how those activities might have influenced how and why they wrote what they did. How are science fiction and fantasy alike and different? What do you prefer and why? Where does the action adventure movie set in the future, Starship Troopers, come from? The great movie classic Forbidden Planet, released in 1956, has a fascinating message about ourselves in it. Where did this incredible storyline originate? Robots premier in the American psyche here as well. How might this have influenced how we envision robots today? Watch this one in class for lots of suspense and discussion! Examine some old science fiction book cover art from the 1950s and ’60s and compare it to today. What is the message in the art? Look at modern day versions of the old science books and see if there is a different message in the updated cover art. In the final analysis, like good learning, science fiction is about asking questions—many questions—and systematically evaluating the possible outcomes of what we might contemplate doing. Some would say it is scenario analysis without the harmful aspects of bad decisions—wonderful and detailed thought experiments from which we gain insight about the future and our role in it. Harry T. Roman, DTE, is a retired engineer and inventor, East Orange, NJ.

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