Issues in Earth Science 

“Eww, There’s Some Geology in my Fiction!”

Issue 15, Dec 2021

 

Teacher Resources

Suggestions for Activities and Discussions to accompany Readings of

A Diet of Worms by Stephen S. Power

and

The Last Tangerine by Anthony W. Eichenlaub

 

Often, in a science class, our focus is on the practice of science, on what we understand and how we came to understand it.  That is probably appropriate for a science class.  However, science practice does not proceed in a social vacuum. It takes place in a society where scientific discoveries have real consequences for real people.  Thus, there are moral and ethical aspects to science that should be addressed in the classroom.  These two stories give us a chance to explore how society might respond to far-reaching scientific discoveries.  The discussion activities here offer thoughts and prompt questions for a class discussion on the moral and personal implications of pursuing science, relating to questions brought up in the two stories.

 

A Diet of Worms

Background for the Teacher

For most readers, there is something unsettling, perhaps even chilling, about the story "A Diet of Worms."  Is that true for you?  If so, what is it that makes it unsettling?

 

One possibility for what makes it chilling is the scientists' choice to expose the entire world to the worm without any consent on the part of the exposed.  What do you think of this choice?  Was it ethical?  Was it moral?  How important is free will compared to human compassion?  Within the context of the story, one has to wonder if the scientists exposed themselves to the worm—either intentional or not--prior to exposing the rest of the world.  If that's the case, then their decision to expose everyone might be motivated by the worm, and so would the scientists truly guilty of anything?  If so, what?  What kind of risk do you think is acceptable to take in the pursuit of scientific discovery?  What moral obligations do scientists have about how their work or discoveries are used?

 

There have been many scientific advances that led to concerns about their moral or ethical implications.  The development of nuclear power for example, leading to its use in bombs.  More recently, concerns have been put forward about the development of artificial intelligence which might lead to consequences for privacy and possibly propagandistic manipulation of people.  Are these concerns justified?  Do the concerns outweigh the benefits of scientific progress?  Are such scientific developments justified?  Can you think of any other scientific advances, either from the past or ongoing today, that might have negative consequences?  What might those negative consequences be?  What about consequences that we don't even imagine—should we simply do nothing for fear it might have negative consequences?

 

Suggestions for moderating discussion among students

The questions raised in the preceding section are ones that students can grapple with too. To promote productive discourse, you might follow a pattern of 1) propose a question for students to think about (and write about) on their own; 2) allow time for pairs of students, or small groups of students (no more than 4), to share their ideas with one another; and 3) in the whole-class setting, have groups and/or individuals share ideas and respond to classmate ideas.

 

A suggested order of questions to pose for students follows:

1) For most readers, there is something unsettling, perhaps even chilling, about the story "A Diet of Worms."  Is that true for you?  If so, what is it that makes it unsettling?

 

2) What do you think of the scientists' choice to expose the entire world to the worm without those people having any say in the matter?  Explain why you think the choice was bad or good.

 

3) There have been many scientific advances that led to concerns about whether the use of the discovery is right or wrong. For example, the smart phone revolution with microchips and round-the-clock connectivity allows data scientists and the companies they work for to learn a lot about people! Some people are concerned about data privacy and the potential that the data could be used to manipulate people to think certain ideas. Do you think these concerns outweigh the benefits of scientific and technological progress? Yes or no and why do you think this?

 

 

 

The Last Tangerine

Background for the Teacher

In the story "The Last Tangerine," saving the tangerine tree sometimes seemed to have a higher priority than family relationships.  What do you think of this choice?  Many people of the past have devoted their lives to science, leading to many important discoveries that benefit humanity.  What if those people had shifted their devotion a little more toward their own families for friends—would that have been good or bad in the end?  How do you weigh your own choices for what to spend your life doing?  In the end, do you think that Alejandro comes up with a good balance or not?  Why do you think that?

 

When I (Russ Colson) was a young man, a well-known geologist, John Rodgers, came to speak at the University of Tennessee where I was attending graduate school.  He was in the latter part of his long and illustrious career in research, and he told us that, when he was a young man, he made the conscious choice to never marry so that he could devote himself entirely to science.  At the time, that sounded like a terrible idea to me!  Do you think this is like what Alejandro did, or different?  What do you think of his choice?

 

There is another idea present in the story "The Last Tangerine" that might be worth talking about.  When Alejandro notices that his brother is a firefighter, his brother comments "Yeah. It’s not using my degree, but it’s good work."  This brings up an idea that is a real part of our current society—do college degrees guarantee us better jobs?  Over the past half a century, the "common knowledge" has been that if you get a college degree you get a better job and make more money.  This mantra was used to encourage everyone to go to college.  It seems reasonable to claim that a college degree can be of benefit to a person or society in many ways, but one thing it can't do—and couldn't do any time in history-- was magically create a new college-job for every extra person who goes to college.  Thus, encouraging everyone to attend college had the effect of increasing competition for the limited college-jobs and leaving some people to find other jobs despite their college degree.  This has resulted in some backlash against college, since it didn't seem to deliver what was promised.  What do you think about Alejandro's brother getting a college degree, but then finding work that didn't require that degree?  Was the college degree still valuable? 

 

Suggestions for moderating discussion among students

The questions raised in the preceding section are ones that students can grapple with too. As before, to promote productive discourse you might follow a pattern of 1) propose a question for students to think about (and write about) on their own; 2) allow time for pairs of students, or small groups of students (no more than 4), to share their ideas with one another; and 3) in the whole-class setting, have groups and/or individuals share ideas and respond to classmate ideas.

 

A suggested order of questions to pose for students follows:

1) In the story "The Last Tangerine," saving the tangerine tree sometimes seemed to have a higher priority that family relationships.  What do you think of this choice?  How do you weigh your own choices for what to spend your life doing?  In the end, do you think that Alejandro comes up with a good balance or not?  Why do you think that?

 

2) In the story when Alejandro notices that his brother is a firefighter, his brother comments "Yeah. It’s not using my degree, but it’s good work."  What do you think about Alejandro's brother getting a college degree, but then finding work that didn't require that degree?  Was the college degree still valuable?  Why or why not? What are your hopes and plans for after high school?

 

———————————————————————————

The Teacher Resources for A Diet of Worms and The Last Tangerine are written by Russ and Mary Colson, authors of Learning to Read the Earth and Sky.

 

Return to A Diet of Worms by Stephen S. Power

Return to The Last Tangerine by Anthony W. Eichenlaub

 

 

Return to “Eww, There’s Some Geology in My Fiction.”

 

Find more essays, games, and stories at

Issues in Earth Science.

 

©2021 Issues in Earth Science