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Education and outreach

Education and outreach

Science fiction to the rescue of teaching?

15 Feb 1998

The popularity of books such as The Physics of Star Trek is making lecturers and teachers consider a new way of teaching science - through blockbuster movies.

At the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Philadelphia today, Leroy Dubeck from Temple University presented a lecture on teaching science with the help of science fiction.

Science fiction movies are well known for breaking physical laws, and although Scotty, the chief engineer on Star Trek, frequently protested that he “could not break the laws of physics”, the spaceship itself frequently did. This has not stopped books that explain the physics behind the series becoming extremely popular.

Dubeck has published books on the use of movies to teach science. His most recent book – Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science through Science Fiction Films – described the fundamental principles of physics through movies such as The Day the Earth Caught Fire and 2010 . In his AAAS lecture he used Star Trek: the Next Generation to explain the Greenhouse Effect, and Star Wars to discuss the physics of outer space.

Usually Dubeck employs the movies to teach physics to arts students who require a core physics unit as part of their degree. Over 150 students enrol in such courses. He also teaches a specialized non-core science course Science and Science Fiction in Film to a much smaller class.

Dubeck has found that by teaching students through science fiction instead of traditional techniques, students gain a better understanding of the scientific principles. As an additional benefit, students seem to retain interest in the course throughout the semester, and class enrollment is higher than normal.

Support has also come from the National Science Foundation (NSF) which has helped develop a series of textbooks that use the scheme, though not all lecturers are convinced of the benefit of such methods. “Some colleagues like the technique while others consider it too gimmicky” said Dubeck.

In the UK, Jon Ogborn, director of the 16-19 physics initiative at the Institute of Physics, believes that the use of science fiction could help reverse the fall in the number of students studying physics. “Setting science within interesting narratives is crucial to keeping students involved” he says.

Other lecturers are equally surprised at the level of interest generated by talks based on the science of films. At a recent meeting of the Bristol Astronomical Society, nearly 100 people turned up to hear a talk on The Astrophysics of Star Trek given by Tino Canosa, a postgraduate student at Bristol University. “I can’t remember the last time members of an audience actually asked for a lecture to be extended” said Canosa.

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