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Fiction & Fact - Sci-fi helps illustrate the realities of engineering. + By Jaimie N. Schock + Photo collage by Nicola Nittoli

In the movie Independence Day, alien spaceships larger than Manhattan hover above the world’s major cities, emitting giant blue beams that spread death and destruction. In Albert Segall’s estimation, the weapons are superfluous. Given the downward force exerted by the stationary spaceship—a force equal to the total weight of the craft – the inhabitants would be crushed anyway. If that sounds morbid, it gives first-year engineering students an unforgettable lesson in static equilibrium and pressure. Another scene from the 1996 film depicts terrorized earthlings finding shelter from aliens’ plasma guns. Again, Segall delivers bad news, this time by way of conductive and radiative heat-transfer concepts. The victims’ supposed refuge has a metal door, which the beams will heat to 1,900 degrees Centigrade in a few minutes. All inside will be “barbecued.”

Segall, an engineering science and mechanics professor at Penn State, has been using scenes from science fiction for more than a decade to teach basic engineering concepts. By pointing out—and then correcting—the scientific and engineering flaws in movies and TV episodes, he hopes to leave students with a lasting mental picture “of the way things function and the complexities of design.” Science fiction’s “potent combination of theory and imagery” not only serves the teaching of core topics but also helps illustrate engineering’s contributions to society and generates a positive image of the field, Segall argues.

In his first-year seminar, which combines both ethics and hard engineering and scientific principles, Segall starts with the concepts he wants students to learn and then selects the right science fiction to get the job done. A great deal of the engineering topics discussed come from dissecting Independence Day, which Segall says “has so many great examples on so many different levels.” The original series of Star Trek, shown on television in the 1960s and still popular as a Web franchise, is another rich source. Principles of dynamics and mass acceleration, for instance, would prevent the spaceship Enterprise from flying smoothly through space. Instead, its lopsided design would cause it to do somersaults.

“There’s no shortage of engineering and science content in these subjects.”  — Renata Engel, associate dean of engineering at Penn State

Segall’s seminar, one of a diverse assortment for freshmen, is popular. “From what I understand, the course is always filled,” says Renata Engel, Penn State’s associate dean of engineering for academic programs. “I think it’s a captivating topic.” She adds, “There’s no shortage of engineering and science content in these subjects."

In 2002, when Segall described his technique in the Journal of Engineering Education, he lamented that science fiction wasn’t widely used in engineering. If that was the case then, it’s not anymore. Across the country, sci-fi and fantasy, from Star Trek and the original Outer Limits to Doctor Who and Harry Potter, are helping to draw students into engineering and science classes and make the lessons stick.

Trekkies & Tweets

At Syracuse University, many students sign up for TrekClass, based on Star Trek, out of sheer curiosity. Of the class’s 45 to 80 students per semester, only a handful start out as Trekkies—fans—but information studies Prof. Anthony Rotolo tells them, “I can’t promise you won’t be one when it’s over.” Rotolo uses the episodes broadly to teach social media, ethics, and technology, but says, “This class is really designed to try and spark an interest in the STEM disciplines.”

TrekClass uses full episodes of The Original Series (TOS), which first ran between 1966 and 1969, The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-94), and Voyager (1995-2001) to spur discussion, which is accomplished in part by tweeting with each other while students watch. Teaching Assistant—“First Officer”—Meghan Dornbrock leads the conversation and keeps students on track.

In Star Trek, a race of computers called the Borg (short for “cybernetic organism”) takes over the bodies of humans and aliens alike in a quest for galactic domination. Attempts to resist “assimilation” by the Borg Collective can be compared to what some see as a very real struggle against technology and social media invading every aspect of our lives. Rotolo challenges students for their main project in the course to argue in favor of assimilation. This has inspired everything from in-house rap battles to video spoofs. Along the way, students begin to see how sharing thoughts and ideas in real time via Twitter or Facebook is not too different from being assimilated by the Borg.

Several students who took the course have gone on to major in information studies. One, Isaac Brennan Budmen, enjoyed it so much he entered graduate school in the field and now works with Rotolo as his graduate assistant. Computer engineering student Sergio Talavera, who is interested in robotics, says the class helped him better understand how society perceives the engineering profession.

Star Trek seems especially suited for aspiring engineers, providing grist for in-depth explanations of technological advances and the future of society. “Engineers and the people who make technology today were influenced by Star Trek,” says Dornbrock. It may help that there is at least one chief engineer character in each series, with Montgomery Scott from TOS being a favorite of Trekkies.

Technology & its Implications

The series presents an easy segue to teaching engineering ethics. Depictions of future worlds show us the implications for our technology, says Segall. By learning through sci-fi, students witness what could happen when engineers don’t behave ethically and how work done with good intentions can still be misused.

But sci-fi offers many other vehicles. George Plitnik at Frostburg State University in Maryland teaches physics and engineering concepts via the Harry Potter books and movies. Strange-tasting jelly beans—which exist both in the books themselves and as real, released products—become a lesson on engineering flavor and scent, with students asked to taste some and then guess what they are. Flying broomsticks provide a chance to discuss real levitation methods such as using diamagnetism, a magnetic field created by the moving electric charges present in all atoms. When an object is immersed in a strong enough magnetic field, the repulsion can overcome gravity, causing it to hover. Broomsticks also lead to discussions about the flights of hot air balloons (Archimedes’ principle), airplanes (Bernoulli’s principle), and rockets (momentum conservation).

Plitnik also frequently discusses genetic engineering. “Could you combine a human with an animal?” he asks, and, more important, “Would you want to do that?” Could a three-headed dog like Fluffy or a subservient house elf like Dobby be made in a lab? Plitnik says yes, in the near future if not now. But is it morally and ethically acceptable to try? Harry Potter acts as a “hook” to bring up these types of questions, engage students in conversation, and teach basic science concepts at the same time.

Genetic engineering and social implications of other technological advances are also major themes of an English class designed for technology students at DeVry-Pomona in California, in which literature Prof. David Layton is using the time-travelling cult classic Doctor Who.

The entertainment quotient in sci-fi courses deceives some students into thinking they’re easy, and some drop out when they discover otherwise. “I think it’s much more difficult than a number of students think it is when they sign up,” says Rotolo. Educators need to adjust as well. “It’s different than what they’re used to teaching,” Segall explains. Professors engaging students with sci-fi can’t just “shoot equations at them” and “chalk and talk,” conveying “no real understanding of the underlying concepts.” Complicated theories must be broken down, and applications shown clearly, so that students can get a distinct “visual image” of what’s going on. “You’re going to have to break from your traditional mode of engineering education” to teach with science fiction successfully, Segall says. “You have to be open to alternative points of view.”

But above all, “you have to make it fun.” He concludes: “Be yourself.”

Jaimie Schock is assistant editor of Prism.

Photo collage by Nicola Nittoli


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