Teaching Climate Facts Through Climate Fiction (Cli-fi)

William A. Liggett — Oct 18, 2017

Climate science currently suffers from a toxic political environment. A percentage of the population discounts the validity of the information due to widespread criticism and inaccurate assertions by some media and politicians.

So how can teachers of climate science approach their subject in a way that invites students to consider the facts and concepts and make judgments for themselves?

One method that has been tried on a small scale is to teach science facts through science fiction, which contains an engaging story about the lives of interesting characters. But, while fiction can open the door to science, some educators point out that “fiction text should not BE science education”—it can’t be a mere replacement.

Just as science fiction has been used to teach science facts more broadly, perhaps climate fiction can be used in the same way. Climate fiction (cli-fi) is a new genre of science fiction that is usually set in the present or the near future and portrays a radically different environment due to advancing global warming. To survive, the characters must adapt and cope with this new world.

Can reading climate fiction help students and their teachers get past barriers that might otherwise block them from learning? From a student’s perspective, this approach harnesses the imagination so the factual and scientific basis for the story can be absorbed without triggering what is frequently a spontaneous rejection of climate science.

In this way, cli-fi can “engage” students in the learning process—an education buzzword in recent years. Student engagement is defined as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught.”

Motivation has always been a goal of educators, but I maintain that engagement conveys motivation to learn plus something greater—students’ active interaction with the subject matter, leading to its application and subsequent impact on their lives.

What has been the experience of educators who have employed science fiction in the past to enhance learning? Although little empirical evidence has been published, I found two documents providing detailed discussions of the potential advantages of using science fiction to teach science.

The first is a master’s thesis by Stephanie Putt, who listed these advantages (paraphrased):

  • Involves unique characteristics—intermingles fact with fiction for compelling story line
  • Offers an effective vehicle for science communication
  • Has relevance to today’s issues
  • Provides a cautionary balance to science and technology
  • Contains great learning potential
  • Fosters critical thinking, analytical research, and technical writing
  • Stimulates careers in science

Another resource was a proposal written by a veteran high school science teacher, Stuart Surrey, for using science fiction to teach science in the Philadelphia Public Schools. He itemized the potential benefits (again, paraphrased):

  • Represents a pedagogical tool that is gaining acceptance
  • Conforms with teaching strategies, including cooperative learning
  • Introduces topics and stimulates discussions
  • Reverses negative attitudes toward science and fosters openness to new ideas
  • Leads to improved note taking, comprehension, and scientific literacy
  • Helps students distinguish hard science, soft science, and pseudoscience
  • Fosters interdisciplinary education

Surrey acknowledges that such an approach requires teachers to identify relevant science fiction works and integrate them into their lessons, presenting a barrier for some whose schedules are already full.

Because climate fiction is a new genre, little has been written about its use as a teaching tool. A noteworthy exception is Ted Howell, who describes his experience with having college students read and discuss cli-fi novels in his class. He makes an important informal observation that these typically dystopian novels cause some students to become discouraged and fatalistic because these dark futures are seen as unavoidable.

My recently published cli-fi novel, Watermelon Snow, attempts to counter the dark, dystopian futures found in the majority of cli-fi novels. I call my approach “realistic utopian,” because the main characters grapple with the challenges of global warming, but are passionately determined to help people cope as well as make a difference themselves.

I’m working with two teachers from a local high school to develop and pilot test instructional modules that prompt students to read and discuss the themes and scientific concepts they derive from Watermelon Snow. We plan to incorporate the novel into a team-teaching, cross-disciplinary approach, combining literary analysis with the science of climate change.

We’ll evaluate outcomes of this pilot study with assessment instruments, and then present the results to other environmental educators.

I’m thrilled to be part of this project, and I’ll keep you posted on our progress in future articles on my website and elsewhere.

Have you, or someone you know, taught science through science fiction?

Bill Liggett writes fiction that blends behavioral and earth sciences in the new literary genre “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow, his first novel, a long-frozen virus melts from a glacier, threatening a pandemic. His second novel, Panic Peak, (in process) entails a plot to geoengineer the earth’s climate. The planned third novel in the trilogy paints a hopeful future, based on solutions to global warming.

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October 18, 2017 10:46 pm

Great blog post, Bill!