6 Ways Fiction can Boost STEM Learning

July 7, 2016

 

The following article was published in STEAM Ed Magazine, July 2016 edition.

 

Who among us has never doubted something that we’ve been told? As children, we needed to TOUCH the stove to truly know that it was hot. We let our tongues stick to frozen metal so we could see for ourselves.

 

 Likewise, for learning to stick, it needs something to stick to. The experiences afforded by genuine engagement, whether that be from real life OR the arts, provide us with the glue necessary for deep learning.

 

As STEM educators, we can use any of the arts, including fiction, to teach beyond pure science and math. In addition to biographies and creative non-fiction, fictional texts that relate to our subject matter can be an asset in our classrooms.

 

 “Fiction?” you ask. “For STEM?”

 

Fiction is often used to enrich student understanding of cultures and of historic events. But what about for math and science? Good fiction has a place in our STEM classrooms, even if limited to the supplementary bookshelves and recommended movies.

 

Ruminate on these ways fiction can boost STEM learning in our classrooms.

  1. Fiction can show the process of discovery and model scientific and mathematical thinking for our students. After witnessing, thought by thought, how a mathematician may have developed a theory, our students can set their own path of exploration.

  2. Fiction can bring readers inside a scientific experience, feeding imaginations as it shares the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical experiences of a character.

  3. Emotions, a vital part of fiction, can broaden perspective and foster deeper learning. Emotions are central to the learning process. In her book, Emotions, Learning and the Brain, neuroscientist Dr. Immordino-Yang states, “Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering and math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.” Furthermore, she says “When students are emotionally engaged, we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory, and meaning-making…”

  4. “STEM” historical fiction can place a scientist’s or mathematician’s experiences in the cultural context in when they lived. The reader considers the challenges of the characters and the views of their contemporaries.

  5. Context fosters an understanding of how and when a new technology might be used. Did a new invention honor the humanity of its users? Or did it simply make lives more convenient? This opens up a worthy debate for our students.

  6. Additionally, who has not been inspired to act after reading fiction? Dr. Suess’s The Lorax is but one example of a book that entertains, educates, and inspires our students to make a positive difference and take action.

 

Imagine how Christiaan Huygens felt when he realized there were rings around Saturn! Or how Archimedes felt when he walked into the overflowing bath and realized how he could measure the volume of irregular objects! If only we could be there to follow their thoughts and feel their excitement.

With Disney Company planning to make a movie about the adventures of Charles Darwin, we can all hope to be captivated and inspired by the life and achievements of this STEM pioneer.

 

Science fiction clearly contains elements of mathematics and science, with varying degrees of accuracy and fantasy. Consider The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir. Following the recent release of the movie, none other than Neil de Grasse Tyson tweeted that “they got the crucial science right.” There is a wide range of other movies that can also be of value in our STEM classrooms.

 

Admittedly, we are talking about fiction, which by definition is untrue. In using it to boost our STEM concepts, authors must maintain a standard of truth in their representations, just as historical fiction should accurately represent the history of any event or culture. Authenticity is essential. But keep in mind, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,” Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” There is much we can teach and learn.

 

Elana Reiser, who teaches math at St. Joseph’s College on Long Island, agrees that popular media can be used to engage students. Her recent book, Teaching Mathematics Using Popular Culture (2015, McFarland & Company) honors the subject strands of Common Core, and offers educators examples from current fictional media that students will find meaningful.

 

Participation in the arts fosters creativity, which is a key to innovation. With our STEAM education movement gaining in momentum, more of us are realizing that the arts can boost engagement in science, technology, engineering and math.

 

As blunt as this may sound, the success of our future economy relies on having more young people choose careers in the sciences. Supported by our current administration’s Educate to Innovate program which brings together private and public leaders, we must prepare for the demands of tomorrow’s work force.

 

Since fiction has always served as a portal to other worlds, we must also let it excite our students about the domains of science, technology, engineering and math. By experiencing the arts, our students will believe in their learning.

 

 

 

As a music educator, Josette Abruzzini participated in several Arts Genesis Catalyst Symposiums during the mid-1990’s and learned the value of using the arts to access and develop multiple intelligences. She then became a classroom teacher in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she often used the arts to provide more engaging academic experiences for her fifth graders. Along the way, Josette became intrigued by the 17th century scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Since her recent retirement from teaching she has been writing a novel inspired by van Leeuwenhoek’s life and the animalcules he discovered with his magnifiers. She currently lives with her husband in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania.

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