Connections for the STEM Classroom

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Connecting Science and Science Fiction in the Classroom

By Dr. Karen Gipson, Department of Physics, GVSU

There’s nothing like a good story to pique the imagination, perhaps no genre does so more effectively than Science Fiction (SF). This fall, in conjunction with an upcoming campus visit by Cal-Tech physicist Kip Thorne (a renowned cosmologist and the technical advisor to the movie Interstellar), an experimental course on Science and Science Fiction is being offered at Grand Valley. This course is a collaborative effort of the Physics and English departments, and co-instructors for the course are Rachel Anderson (ENG) and Karen Gipson (PHY).  

The science in this course focuses on physics concepts, especially relativity and quantum theory. These 20th century topics are often not covered except in mathematically-intensive upper level physics courses. Some of the students are science majors, while others hail from arts or humanities disciplines. A course like this offers a unique and exciting potential for integrating science and humanities, as long as care is taken to treat the science at a conceptual level that’s equally accessible to everyone. 

The course began with an overview of classical physics concepts such as Newton’s Laws, conservation laws, and the basics of electromagnetism. Students were subsequently assigned SF short stories to read for each class meeting. Each story was selected based on the science it contained, with one significant science concept being covered each class meeting. The Astronomy Society of the Pacific maintains a good resource list of SF stories organized by content that was extremely useful in preparing the course syllabus.

Class time has been spent doing hands-on exercises to learn the relevant science, as well as discussing literary aspects of the stories. Physics topics covered include special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. For example, after doing an exercise on time dilation and discussing the Twin Paradox, students read a story where the author attempted to circumvent Einstein’s predictions using biology. The subsequent class discussion of the story was remarkable – almost every student made significant contributions to the dialogue. It is gratifying to see humanities majors so animated in discussing science!

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