Effect of writing science fiction on understanding of geological concepts—preliminary results of a study in progress.

by Russ Colson, Jan 2020

Abstract: Students in an introductory college geology course engaged in one of two exercises to learn more about the concept of cross cutting relationships, a major principle in stratigraphy. One exercise involved writing a report on the concept, the other involved writing a science fiction story based on the concept. Preliminary results suggest that students who engaged with the material within the context of science fiction writing gained a deeper understanding.

As a professor of geology and a science fiction writer, I became curious this past academic term about how science fiction writing might influence students’ perceptions of science or their understanding of science ideas. Science fiction is fiction of course, and not intended to be real science. However I thought that science fiction writing might engage students in thinking about science concepts and perhaps provide an educational tool comparable to other science learning methods.

I developed a small study in which volunteer students in an introductory college geology course (who received incentive in the form of extra credit improvement of grades) investigated the concept of crosscutting relationships. The concept of cross cutting relationships is a key principle in the geological field of stratigraphy and one of the main tools by which geologists inferred the story of Earth’s past. Cross cutting relationships should not be confused with the Next Generation Science Standards’ concept of cross cutting concepts which is something different entirely.

Students had already learned about cross cutting relationships in the course within the context of understanding the story of the Great Unconformity at the Grand Canyon.  After this introduction to the idea, volunteers were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group investigated cross cutting relationships independently online (I offered a few search words and phrases to help get them started) and were assigned to write a summary report of the key ideas of cross cutting relationships. The second group also investigated cross cutting relationships independently online (given the same search words and phrases) and were then assigned to write a flash science fiction story in which a cross cutting relationship was a key plot turning point.

Both groups took a pre-test before being assigned to a group, and then a post-test after completing the assignment. The pre and post tests included four multiple choice questions and two short essay questions. All questions dealt with identifying and interpreting cross cutting relationships and inferring sequential events based on various types of cross cutting relationships. Each multiple choice question had two correct answers out of five possible answers with each correct answer scoring five points. The essay questions were scored on a strict rubric that awarded points for correctness, creativity, and completeness of answers, with one essay scoring up to seven points and the other up to eight points. The post test was the same as the pre test with the exception that two of the four multiple choice questions were rewritten to address the same concept but with slightly different question stem and answers. To limit bias during scoring, I did not know while scoring whether a participant was in group 1 or 2.

Total points possible on both pre and post-test was 55 with an expected random guessing score of 16. The average pre-test score was 31.75. The average post-test score was 41.75. The difference indicates an overall improvement in understanding due to completion of the exercise.

Comparison between the two groups is made in the graph below. Circles show individual changes from pre- to post-test; squares show average changes for each group. Uncertainty bars show 1-sigma standard deviation from the mean value.

The improvement in scores of the group that wrote the science fiction stories is actually higher than the group that wrote a report specifically addressing cross cutting relationships.  Although the number of participants is small, the difference between the two groups is significant at the 95% confidence level. This difference cannot be attributed to only one or two participants skewing the results one way or another since three of the four participants who wrote the science fiction stories show more improvement than any of those who wrote the report and half of those who wrote the report are lower than any of those who wrote a short story. At the very least, it seems likely that the science fiction writing exercise works better than report writing for some students in some instances.

This project is ongoing since the present participant number is quite low, but these initial results are intriguing. What might account for a difference between the group that wrote a report and the group that wrote a short story? One possibility is that when students write reports they are often focused on moving information and ideas they find online into their own report and therefore can potentially write a report with very little engagement with the ideas. In contrast, writing a science fiction story based on science ideas requires students to engage with the ideas and translate those ideas into a different context. Engaging with the material and figuring out a way to apply it in a new context requires that students make the ideas their own, which is the real objective of a learning assignment.

These initial results offer something to think about as we try to design better learning experiences for students. Teaching science involves not only exposing students to ideas, but finding ways to engage students in the process of making those ideas their own. Sometimes, and for some students, focusing specifically on the science may be less beneficial than encouraging students to apply their understanding in a different context.

Russ Colson is a professor of geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead, a former national professor of the year (2010), coauthor of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky (an exploration the nature of earth science and how it can be included as an investigative practice in the classroom), and author of the science fiction novel The Arasmith Certainty Principle. He edits the website Issues in Earth Science, which publishes essays on fiction and science education and short stories that address ideas in earth science along with teacher resources.

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Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Even though there are some aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) that I care for less (mainly the overly vague earth science performance expectations/disciplinary core ideas and their overemphasis on current hot-button topics), I am generally a supporter, especially of the idea that students should be engaged in the practices of sciences.  However, as I’ve listened to other folks extol the virtues of the NGSS over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the NGSS mean different things to different people.  The NGSS come to us in the form of a complex document, and it’s to be expected that people will tease out different points that resonate most with them.  But sometimes the differences are not only in emphasis, but in kind and meaning.  Not everyone sees the practices of science in the same way that I do.

I see that the purpose of practicing science is to learn how to do science, to understand how science has been done in the past, and to become able to connect the ideas derived through science to the underlying observations on which they are based.  However, there is a tendency among some people to see the practices of science as a teaching methodology, an approach to instruction that helps students understand and remember the concepts better.

This is not unlike the turn-of-interpretation that undermined the precursor to the NGSS, the National Science Education Standards (1996).  That document emphasized the importance of inquiry in the classroom, a goal not unlike the practices of science in the NGSS.  In 1996, I was a relatively new faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and had recently spent seven years doing postdoctoral research into the chemistry of magma.  The idea of learning science through doing science—inquiry—resonated with me.  One of my colleagues agreed with me, but then proceeded to explain his belief that inquiry helps students remember the ideas better because we all remember what we do better than what we are merely told.  I realized that his interpretation of ‘inquiry’ was that it was a hands-on, brains-on way of making the concepts more memorable—a teaching methodology.  Its purpose was to aid learning of the same ideas that he had taught previously, not to shift the focus of learning onto the sometimes-messy and confusing practice of science itself.

I think that there is some risk that the central new idea of the NGSS—the importance of the practices of science—will be ‘interpreted away’ in a similar fashion.

Here are a couple of questions to chew on:  What does it mean to do an investigation as a practice of science?  Does following a well-tested experiment from a lab book count as engaging students in the practice of science or are students merely copying the science that someone else has practiced for them?

These are not simple questions to answer.  Allowing students to pursue an investigation without any structured guidance will not likely go well (unless you allow them a few centuries, which is how long it’s taken scientists to figure things out).  On the other hand, if students have no room for scientifically-creative contribution, then it can be reasonably argued that they aren’t practicing science.

In real science practice, inventing the experiment and then figuring out what the results mean are the main challenges—quite different from following a recipe lab and then comparing results to the ‘right’ answer from the book.  How can we engage students in an investigation where they have meaningful input into the experimental design and learn how to interpret their results on the basis of the results themselves rather than by comparison to a teacher answer key?

One example of my efforts to do this is given in the teacher resources recently published at http://earthscienceissues.net/Fiction/Breaking_the_Ice_Teacher_Resourses.htm.  Check it out!

While you are there, you might also read the short story for the classroom on which the resources are based, found at http://earthscienceissues.net/fiction_for_the_classroom.

So, what are your thoughts?  What do you think it means to practice science, and how can we engage students in doing it? What activities have you developed or found to use?

Dr. C.

Russ Colson, coauthor of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

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New Story and Essay Published and ‘Theory’ in the Science Classroom

We have a new short story published!  Can Marie’s knowledge of geology solve a mystery and get her big brother out of trouble?  Check it out at Fiction for the Classroom. 

To accompany the story, we offer some suggested activities and labs for teachers of middle and high school. 

We also have a new Topic for Debate essay.  Read about Comic Book Science and its impact of science literacy!   at Topics for Debate

The topic for our next issue is ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’. You are invited to respond to the seed-essay below. Please feel free to submit your essay for consideration for publication in our next issue.  We pay!  Submission guidelines.


Seed Thesis for ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’, by Russ Colson

Most of us are aware that the word ‘theory’ is used differently in common conversation than it is in science.  For example, as we approach the highly-anticipated release of Star Wars VII, one might say “My theory is that Yoda will come back from the dead and save the day!”  On the other hand, in science, the word ‘theory’ refers to a conceptual synthesis of observational data that has been extensively tested in the lab and field.  It is not someone’s idle speculation subject to casual challenge with limited data.

The misunderstanding of the meaning of scientific theory has led some people to think that alternative ‘theories’ should be presented in the science classroom, such as ideas arising from religious beliefs.  Although religious ideas are an essential part of the human experience and should be included in a well-rounded education (in the view of this writer!), most scientists and science teachers don’t believe those ideas belong in the science classroom because they do not arise from the methods and practices of science, nor do they meet the scientific criteria to be considered a theory.

However, do we teachers, in our eagerness to emphasize the well-tested nature of scientific theories, present theories as the goal of learning?  Instead of teaching the processes of questioning, testing, and reasoning that provide the foundation for theories—what the Next Generation Science Standards (2013) call the ‘Practices of Science and Engineering’—do we jump to the theories themselves as the end product of education?  Do we sometimes even treat the theories as ‘facts’ to be memorized instead of a synthesis of observations derived through the practices of science?

It seems to me that even the Next Generation Science Standards–despite their goal of encouraging more practice of science in the classroom–emphasize theories a bit much, especially theories that are politically controversial.  Consider for example the importance placed on teaching the theory of evolution in the life sciences or the importance placed on telling students that climate change is real in the earth sciences.

In placing so much emphasis on the theories that have been derived by the practices of science, we short-shrift the practices of science.  Students then arrive in my college classroom without the ability to distinguish between theory and the evidence for it.  In fact, sometimes students even get confused on which is more foundational, the theory or the observation that supports it.  One student wrote “Some people don’t understand that (an observation) can’t be true if it goes against scientific theory.”


 So what are your thoughts?  What is the best balance in the classroom for teaching theories versus teaching the methodologies by which we have figured out and tested those theories?

 Dr. C.



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About Teacher’s Corner

Teacher’s Corner is a place to consider Earth Science topics of particular interest to teachers, like how to develop lab activities, or what’s going on in a student’s head when they ask a question, or how the new Next Generation Science Standards can be implemented in the classroom.

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  She develops almost all of her own activities and curricula, and is always eager to hear other people’s ideas!

Guest Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ teaches college geology and planetary science.  He established the Earth Science Teaching major at Minnesota State University Moorhead

Russ and Mary are coauthors of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

This blog is hosted on http//earthscienceissues.net, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.

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