To explore the genre of science fiction, through the books The Prometheus Project: Trapped and The Prometheus Project: Captured, by Douglas Richards to help students understand how scientific discovery can be used in ways people consider both beneficial and detrimental.
This four-activity lesson helps children in grades 6-8 to actively and critically identify and probe scientific ideas embodied in a prominent component of popular culture, science fiction literature. To do this, the class will read one or two books by Douglas E. Richards, searching for both the science—and the fiction—in them and considering how science and fiction can be used to help or harm society. At the end of each chapter, the class will discuss their thoughts about the helping/harming roles of science and fiction, and give examples, in student-led and teacher-supported discussions.
This evolving baseline understanding of the genre should help students define science fiction as a category of literature typified by a fast plot based on scientific evidence and principles, findings and/or practices, all of which are vivified by highly imaginative settings, action, and characters. Often science fiction stories raise important societal questions about the nature of science, technology, and engineering, and their role in human culture to create goodness—or ill, even evil. Because of its pace and use of engaging, creative ideas, science fiction is popular with many children and adults. And because it can convey human values so compellingly, science fiction is an excellent springboard for deep discussions among students engaged in the developmental task of identifying and living their values—amid a welter of competing cultural claims about the “cool” action to take at this age.
The big idea is this: science fiction does more than entertain. It teaches us to think in possibilities by enlisting—and manipulating—scientific and technical knowledge, in a context of moral human values about creating a public good. To explore the art of the possible embodied by science and technology, students read the author’s Web page, and complete the questions about it.
Once familiarized with some big ideas about science and science fiction, they will be assigned in class to small groups of 4-5 students whose task is to pick a scene from the book, and prepare a “live report” from SkyCam 1 Totally Sweet News—or SkyCam 2 Totally Terrible News; it’s up to each group to choose what scene or topic to pick from the book—and how to interpret its scientific roots and its fictional roots.
In the final summarizing activity, students will use the ideas from the reports to create an advertisement, in words and pictures, promoting the SkyCam report.
To support critical reading, provide one spiral notebook for each of the following five tasks with every chapter. Assign one student to be:
- Reporter who summarizes the chapter
- Word sleuth who selects an interesting word or phrase, defines it, reads the passage in context, and then writes a sentence of his or her own using it and reads it to the class
- Illustrator who draws a picture to help students visualize some aspect—any aspect—of the story (it could be the shoes of a child; map; the dad’s mouth yelling; sign at the zoo); the illustrator must present his/her work to the class
- Plot Prognosticator who writes a list of three possible paths the story could take at the end of the chapter; it could concern one or all characters, or require the introduction of new characters and plot lines
- Discussion Director writes down five thought-provoking questions for the purpose of group discussion based on that day’s reading assignment. It is also this student's job to direct the group discussion, keep track of student work, and rate the group's "Habits of Work" each day the group meets.
For small group discussion, structure an appropriate class arrangement in which students can be at small groupings of four students per table. After they’ve prepared, they will stand/sit/jump before the class to “report live.”
On their own, ask students to use The Science Behind Science Fiction student esheet to go to and read the Douglas E. Richards website and complete The Science Behind Science Fiction student sheet, thinking about how the definition of science fiction differs from non-fiction science books. You can find answers to the question on The Science Behind Science Fiction teacher sheet.
In class, warm up imaginations about how science fiction differs from non-fiction science books with a quick round of “Stump the Chump.” In this exercise, you or a designated student is the “Chump”— the person who may or may not be fooled by each student’s completion of this sentence: “Once I read a science fiction book in which xxxxx.” Each student relates a plot/memorable character, without saying the titles—it can be a real book, or entirely made up. The Chump has to decide if the book actually exists in print or digitally—or only in the imagination. If the Chump guesses correctly, he/she sits down and the new Chump takes over.
Once the class has finished this exercise, ask students these questions:
- As chumps, was there a pattern you looked for in deciding if the story was real or not?
- (Often there are patterns in science fiction. They have to do with physical laws familiar to us that in the science fiction world are not working as we expect—such as a reversal or absence of gravity, or humans not needing food to eat, but producing sugars from the sun’s energy, like plants, or kinds of travel not possible on earth, or of machines taking over—no longer obeying their human creators’ programming. In a non-fiction science book, the emphasis is on explanation of the topic being discussed, how it works in the world, and how scientists use their understanding to make predictions. There is no emotion, no threatened loss of control, no creation of fear. Non-science fiction science—call it straight science—consists of stories about observation, evidence, and rational conclusion based on those scientific processes.)
- These books are real page turners—hard to put down. Why is that?
- (The book’s structure drives it. The author ends each chapter with a predicament to which you want to know the outcome. As a class, suggest ways a chapter might end to set up the next one—create an intriguing predicament with elements of science: “When the door opened, the shadow that Josey glimpsed was big and winged—and on its bloody raptor’s claw, it wore his mother’s watch for a ring.”)
- One theme in science fiction that makes it suspenseful is the suggestion or threat of science losing control, or creating chaos. Does science itself have a nature: is it good or bad? Or how does it become good or bad—by the intentions of the people who practice science and create or apply technology? And when we say people, do we really mean ALL people or just men in America? Who can be a scientist?
- (Science as knowledge can cause feelings in us that are sad: for example, all things die. Guns embody a technology that can be used to murder innocent people—or kill animals for meat used to feed starving people. But whether science is good or bad rests on how it affects an individual or society, and is controlled by people. Think about this: Might it be possible that science fiction is evidence for how powerful scientific knowledge is considered in our culture? People are drawn to power. So maybe they like science fiction as a way to come to terms with the awesome power of science. Knowing this might inspire us to master that power ourselves, but how? By becoming not mad scientists, but marvelous scientists, people who posses the power of knowledge of nature and use it to improve lives. As to who can be a scientist—anyone of any age in any culture capable of following universally agreed-upon traits of science, such as structure, methods, and principles, can be a scientist. One great thing about these books is they show that kids can be highly valued as scientists. They are especially good at observing and posing “What if?” questions.)
In this part of the lesson, assign students to read one of the two Prometheus Projectbooks. Students should work together in small groups, based on the book they read. Assign a critical comprehension task to each of the students in the groups. As explained in the Planning Ahead section, the tasks/roles include:
- Word Sleuth
- Plot Prognosticator
- Discussion Director
Provide each student with a notebook for recording observations and to help them fulfill their assigned role (i.e., the Reporter would be responsible for writing a summary of the chapter in the notebook and presenting it to his/her group). At the end of each chapter, the groups should discuss their thoughts about the helping/harming roles of science and fiction, in student-led and teacher-supported discussions. To record the discussions, you should keep a two-column white board/black board tally of observations the class makes about elements, ideas, and techniques that are either science fiction or non-fiction. Of course, they may be both. For example, both fiction and science have characters—fictional characters are made up; players in scientific developments are historical.
Once students have finished the books, keep them in their small groups. Their task now is to pick a scene from the book and prepare a “live report” from SkyCam 1 Totally Sweet News or SkyCam 2 Totally Terrible News. In their small groups, students should prepare for the kind of SkyCam report they want to give by drawing a scene (a mural if they want to work together or individual pictures from each member) from inside Prometheus. That way “viewers” can see what the SkyCam team is reporting on when the reporters hold up their pictures during the Live Report in front of the class. It could be a map; it could be control panels of the security system; it could be an explanation of the code pattern the kids used to figure out the security system.
Students then prepare the “live report” from SkyCam 1 Totally Sweet News or SkyCam 2 Totally Terrible News. It’s up to each group to choose what scene or topic to pick from the book and how to interpret its scientific roots and its fictional roots. They can use the SkyCam Report student sheet to help them draft their report. There must be two pieces to every report:
- Identify a concept/scene/event in the book as Science or Not Science, and state evidence for this position. Use this sentence as a guide: “Today in Prometheus, the SkyCam Team has learned________________(happened/appeared/went wrong). This is major news in Science Land (Fiction Land) because ___________________. We’re taking you live there now.”
- Interpret the event reported on, asking the audience, “Is the message terrible or sweet?” Then they should report their opinion and reason for it. If it’s terrible, what’s terrible? The science/technology? The scientists? How is the science/technology applied to individuals? To society? The unintended outcomes? If it’s sweet, how and why? Does science fiction contribute to actual science? How or how not?
Optional Teacher Example: You can help model how this works by going first and presenting the scene as a SkyCam reporter from the book about how the characters determine the fluid on Prometheus is water. You should emphasize the kinds of thinking involved in devising a scientific solution in the fictional setting of a book, asking the class: “What science do we know about water? That it occurs in three temperature-dependent states: gas, liquid, and solid. How can we use that knowledge to test if this substance is really water? We could see if we can freeze it at 32 degrees F. What would we need to do that? How did the kids in the book approach that? What was the fiction in this? How about the way they accessed the freezer: do you know of any evidence that supports finding a freezer that way?” Each reporting group should take a 30-60 second turn. Then it’s time for viewers to “call in”. Kids in the class can “phone in" with questions about science, fiction, and the reporter’s opinions.
To reinforce learning about what is science and what is fiction in science fiction, you should cover the ongoing white board/black board tally of Science/Fiction so it is not visible to copy. Then hand out a manila folder to each child (old and recycled is fine). The folder is their "Passport to Prometheus." To get it stamped—by you—so they can leave Earth—they must each create a character for themselves: name, place of origin, family situation, and x category (could be anything they want: special powers, language, and blood type). They should write it neatly on the front of the passport. Encourage design! Drawings are fine. Decorating is great!
Then each student must take a sheet of paper; divide it in half to create a two-column tally of their own. One column is headlined Science and the other is headlined Fiction. Under each headline, they must write at least three elements distinctive to each, and two shared by each, and place the sheet inside the folder. When they are finished, they should make an appointment with you—or a partner whom you designate—to have their passport reviewed. They can progress to Prometheus only if they win an approval stamp by convincing you they know what they are talking about!
Review the Science Is…Fiction Is… teacher sheet to see the elements students should be able to suggest.
Students could read the Star Trek link, The Science of Star Trek and select five vocabulary words they like. They should include these words in the book they write, Mars on $5 a Day: The Illustrated Intergalactic Travelers’ Phrase Book. The book is intended to prepare children for travel to other galaxies. Each student should write the word of their choice, summarize the definition, and use it in a scientific sentence and then a fictional sentence. They also must illustrate its meaning, or something associated with it. Students should then present their books in class and talk about what shared traits science and fiction have—and how they differ.
- Alien: noun or adjective. Any being or thing from outside the main character’s experience. Science use: “With the recent findings on Mars, scientists hope to find evidence of alien life forms.” Fictional use: “No one ever ate lunch with Rio. He felt like an alien in his own school!”