Middle Schoolers and Sci-Fi: Teaching Science Through Science Fiction

Teaching science is governed by rules and facts. Students learn about the world around them as defined through the scientific method and proven laws of energy, mass and physics.

However, there is an entirely overlooked aspect of science that is crucial to the formation of those laws: creativity.

Creativity makes people ask why certain things act a certain way. It challenges people to think outside of the box. One way to bring creativity to your science classroom is with the introduction of science fiction. These stories can fascinate students and encourage them to rethink how they approach science. Here’s how you can engage your students by teaching science through sci-fi.

Build Soft Skills Through Sci-Fi When Teaching Science

Scientists aren’t objective beings. They use a variety of soft skills and speculation to guide their research. You can use science fiction to build soft skills that will make your students better scientists and world learners.

“Sci-fi uses true or partially true theories of science in the story, and is usually time sensitive,” write Danell Haspel and Vicki Gerdes for the Detroit Lakes Public Library. “It speculates on how life would be different with a technological change generally in the future, but time travel is allowed.”

Reading sci-fi can help students build their problem-solving skills, along with creativity, analytical thinking and memory. These are all useful traits in the science classroom.

“Most readers enjoy reading science fiction books because of their imaginative settings,” writes Betty Bugle at Geek Girl Authority. “The best titles in this genre are those with well-fleshed-out, immersive world-building. Sometimes you might forget that the place doesn’t exist. Westeros, middle earth, Oasis, and more, each incredible place in a science fiction book, was created by a person through imagination.”

It’s this imagination that leads to the scientific method. A student might ask a question — like how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly — and generate theories and ideas. They can then use problem solving, observation and analysis to confirm their answer.

Science fiction allows students to use their imaginations and approach concepts with an open mind. This can make them more accepting when learning about the solar system, physics, energy and other essential topics you need to teach.

Group of students sitting together in classroom; teaching science concept

Tie Sci-Fi Into Social-Emotional Learning

Despite its name, science fiction books aren’t always about science. Instead, the authors use fictional environments to discuss common themes and ideas about humanity and society. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to discuss social issues like poverty, equality and racism when they are told in space or within a fictional world.

“Science fiction and fantasy do not need to provide a mirror image of reality in order to offer compelling stories about serious social and political issues,” writes Esther Jones, associate provost and faculty dean at Clark University, and author of “Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction.”

“The fact that the setting or characters are extraordinary may be precisely why they are powerful and where their value lies.”

Students can immerse themselves in other worlds in sci-fi. They can explore injustices and call out problems that might be harder to see in their current environment.

“Though SFF [science fiction and fantasy] stories don’t take place in our world, their conflicts and characters are rooted in reality—in the human experience,” writes Katarina Betterton at Luna Station Quarterly. “That’s the basis of all books; without reality, we wouldn’t have fantastical places to escape to.”

Through these fantastical worlds, students can identify solutions to problems and consider how similar options are possible in their own lives.

“Science fiction nudges us not just to imagine other worlds, but also to face up to the fact that the world as it exists today isn’t fixed,” writes Inc. columnist Jessica Stillman. “Alternatives are possible. Maybe even inevitable.”

Highlight Historic Sci-Fi Stories to Show the Power of Creativity

One of the best ways to highlight the possibilities of problem-solving and creativity in STEM is to look at the field of science fiction over the years. You can consider how today’s sci-fi writers are writing about the future — or turn back to sci-fi stories created in the past that speculated about today. What did people predict the 21st century would look like? Is 2023 living up to the hype?

When teaching science class, consider watching old clips from “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek” to see which devices seemed impossible at the time. A video call featured in an old sci-fi movie might be unimpressive and even laughable today with the adoption of Zoom and FaceTime. You can remind your students that 3D printers, driverless cars, and credit cards were all theoretical technology at one time, but commonplace today.

In an article at Space.com, Lee Cavendish, who has a degree in observational astronomy, lists fictional technology that has become real today. The universal translator from “Star Trek: The Original Series,” is a device used to translate alien languages across the galaxy. Today we have lots of actual choices including Skype’s voice translator and Google’s Translate app, which can be downloaded on your smartphone.

These lessons highlight how the impossible can become possible. From here, you can challenge your students to look at fictional technology that could someday be real.

The team at Try Engineering share a few lesson plans that tie STEM activities to sci-fi theories. If students are captivated by the idea of flying cars or invisibility cloaks, they can research different concepts related to inventing these items. When will students and teachers fly to school on jet packs? How far off are we from teleportation anyway? The future might be closer than we realize.

Child reading book; teaching science concept

Introduce Climate Change Concepts With Sci-Fi

Many science fiction stories are speculative. What will space travel look like in 100 years? Are interactions with aliens peaceful? Characters often have to navigate these situations with a variety of tools and resources to overcome challenges.

As the world population starts to experience the effects of climate change, some people might feel like they are living in a science fiction world. For your classroom, look into books that discuss climate science through a fictional lens.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson, who is regarded as one of the best modern-day science fiction writers, often places his characters in future worlds affected by climate change. He compares the genre to wearing a pair of 3D glasses (where one eye has a red film and the other has a blue one). This allows readers to speculate about the future while also looking at society today. “It’s a feeling of participating in history,” he says. How can the actions we take today create the world of tomorrow?

Robinson isn’t the only author who uses science fiction to discuss climate change. This format allows people to approach the concept of a changing planet and guides discussions about what needs to be done to protect future generations.

“Many of us have been saying for years that science fiction has an important role to play in helping us understand the dangers of climate change,” says sci-fi writer Charlie Jane Anders. “To survive what’s coming, we’ll need more than ingenuity — we’ll need imagination and a willingness to face scary developments with our eyes open.”

There’s even a whole genre called cli-fi, or climate fiction, which explores themes about climate change through the lens of science fiction. The King County Library System curated a list of cli-fi novels you can read and pull from for your lesson plans. This is a good place to start if you want to introduce the potential effects of climate change to your classroom.

STEM and Sci-Fi Teaching Resources

There is good news if you still need ideas for connecting sci-fi to your science classroom. You can turn to existing resources to build out your lesson plans.

Lisa Storm Fink, an instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and project manager at Read Write Think, has a paired readings lesson plan. You can choose from suggested sci-fi texts and activities based on these readings. For example, your students can fill out a Venn diagram of factual science versus fictional elements. Students can also learn how to make persuasive arguments related to the reading.

STEM Read is a program by Northern Illinois University. The group selects books that are rooted in science and breaks down the concepts discussed in the writing. This means you can pair a science-focused book with almost any topic you need to cover in the classroom. Their books range from kids’ selections (like “Rosie Revere, Engineer” by children’s author Andrea Beaty) to books appropriate for middle school readers. There’s also a STEM Read podcast you can check out.

These resources can guide your lesson planning and help you find age-appropriate resources for your students. The book recommendations, in particular, are useful for guiding students who want to read even more sci-fi outside of the classroom.

Close-up of person's hands, using ruler to draw a graph on paper; teaching science concept

Inspire Future Scientists Through Sci-Fi

Finally, science fiction answers the all-important question: When are we going to use this?

Students can read about characters that use scientific theories to solve problems or tap into creative inventions that make life easier. The foundational lessons kids learn in middle school can help them enter scientific fields when they are older. They can become the inventors, engineers and even space cowboys of literature.

“Not every child who hears a science fiction story will become a scientist, but science fiction is an opportunity for children to find that sense of wondrous possibility and to think critically about science,” says Emily Midkiff, a teaching and leadership instructor in children’s literature, fantasy and science fiction at the University of North Dakota. “These are benefits that you can incorporate into elementary and middle school science classrooms.”

Developing a love of sci-fi can help students become lifelong learners. It can foster a curiosity about the world they live in — and the potential for change now and in the future. And it’s OK if sci-fi is impractical or illogical. The goal is to ignite a passion in students to understand why something might or might not work.

Science fiction can be used to engage students in a variety of ways. You can use a vintage sci-fi comic or clip to discuss video call technology or challenge students to come up with theories — based purely in science fiction — to answer questions about air travel and nature. Sci-fi is a valuable tool when you’re teaching science that can be used to excite students about science and the possibilities of a brighter future through innovation and creativity.

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