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Using science fiction to teach science, fiction, and communications skills Daniel W. Koon, Jonathan Gottschall St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617, USA [email protected]

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Using science fiction to teachscience, fiction, and communications skillsDaniel W. Koon, Jonathan GottschallSt. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617, [email protected]

The two courses “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “To Boldly Go” form a year-long sequence of a science-fiction-based section of St. Lawrence University’s First-Year Program [FYP]. The FYP is a yearlong course required of all entering students, which teaches communications skills in a team-taught, multidisciplinary setting. The course allows the instructor to teach science -- from paleoanthropology to astronomy -- and fiction -- from Robert Heinlein to Philip K. Dick -- in the context of a general education course in formal written composition, oral presentation and academic research.

  • Composition (rhetoric) instruction in North American colleges & universities
  • St. Lawrence Univ.’s First Year Program [the FYP]
  • Using science fiction in the FYP
  • Feedback

M. Bos and B. Ladd

(whose idea I stole)

B. Ladd, J. Weeks, J. Barthelme, M. Wenner

(guest lecturers)

J. Simon, Eli S. Koon, T. Gottschall

(patient family members)

S. Horwitz


the first year in north american colleges and universities
The First Year in North American Colleges and Universities

Freshman Composition [“Freshman Comp”]:

  • 2 semester course
  • Focus: short essays through research paper
  • Required of all incoming students at many/most North American institutions
  • Required for most graduate programs (medical school, etc.)
  • 130 year history
st lawrence university s first year program fyp
St. Lawrence University’sFirst Year Program [FYP]
  • Instituted 1988
  • Equivalent to 1.5 courses per semester for two semesters
  • Required of all first year students
  • Class size: 15 students / instructor
  • Has a residential component

Semester 1:

  • Team taught, thematic, interdisciplinary

Semester 2:

  • Single instructor, more focused (often more specialized) theme
st lawrence university s first year program fyp1
St. Lawrence University’sFirst Year Program [FYP]

Skills component requirements (minimum):

Semester 1:

  • 2 oral presentations
  • 3 short written essays (2-3 pages, ca. 1000 words)

Semester 2:

  • 2 oral presentations
  • 1 research paper (10-12 pages, ca. 5000 words) or its equivalent
why would a science instructor want to teach communications skills
Why would a science instructor want to teach communications skills?
  • True interdisciplinary exchange with a colleague from outside the sciences
  • Pedagogical development opportunity
  • Insight into what skills students bring into upper level courses (lab reports, etc.)
  • Develop non-conventional course outside department
  • Recruit students to science
  • Teach science to non-majors
  • Meet new students one would otherwise never meet
  • Familiarize yourself more closely with student life (residential component)
sf in the fyp science fiction in the first year program
SF in the FYP:Science Fiction in the First Year Program

Challenges and questions:

  • [How] can physicist teach writing?
  • Less content than regular course
  • Minimal content makes a true SF survey course unworkable. So how do you structure the course?
  • Broad audience (from diehard “Trekkies” to the unwilling)
  • Can one use the sf to inspire writing?
  • Can one convey a sense of science as a process?
  • Can one convey a sense of the speculative nature of science?
  • Should one include scientific lab projects? How?
do androids dream of electric sheep first semester
Do androids dream of electric sheep?(First semester)
  • Instructors’ backgrounds: experimental solid state physics; interdisciplinary background in humanities and evolutionary biology
  • Divided into 5 thematic units, including one for students’ favorites, one to concentrate on final project.
  • Three local expert guest lectures
  • Use of popular films, short stories, two novels (Brave New World by Huxley and The Inheritors by Golding), technical readings
do androids dream of electric sheep first semester2
Do androids dream of electric sheep?(First semester)

Syllabus: classes/FYP/androids.html

To Boldly Go: The science and fiction of space travel, time travel, and extraterrestrials(Second semester)
  • Course has three thematic units: space travel, time travel, extraterrestrials.
  • Students write a research paper on one technical aspect from one of these three thematic units.
  • Students make three oral presentations: one on the topic of their research paper, one on a piece of fiction, and one debate.
  • Each presentation also includes a short essay.
  • Each presentation comes from a separate thematic unit of course.
  • Students bear the principal responsibility for teaching content
to boldly go the science and fiction of space travel time travel and extraterrestrials
To Boldly Go: The science and fiction of space travel, time travel, and extraterrestrials

Space travel:

Time travel:

to boldly go the science and fiction of space travel time travel and extraterrestrials1
To Boldly Go: The science and fiction of space travel, time travel, and extraterrestrials


Syllabus: FYS/ToBoldlyGo.pdf

student responses
Student responses:
  • Material seen as engaging (mostly).
  • Residential/social component very successful. “Nerds” found each other.
  • Guest lectures, films popular.
  • 5 of the 13 students enrolled in upcoming second-year physics course were in either the FYP or FYS.
  • Instructor team seen as separate monodisciplinarians (e.g. The scientist couldn’t teach us how to write, or grade our writing)
  • Students report less sense of progress in their writing than those in other FYP sections
looking ahead
Looking ahead:
  • Better incorporate writing instruction
  • Publish Web guide to teaching composition for newcomers: classes/FYP/TeachingCommunications. html
  • Continue to rely on students to teach content in Spring, but reduce content, focus more on research skills

For more information:

E-mail: [email protected]