A Science-oriented Micro-module

I have been distracted from the main “Writing an ERWC Module” project by the “mini-mini modules,” which I am now calling “micro-modules.”  This new science-oriented module is written around a short blog post by Phil Plait who writes the “Bad Astronomy” blog on Slate.  The post, called The Last Days of MESSENGER, is about a NASA space probe on a mission to Mercury.  The probe has been a great success, but it is out of fuel and will soon crash into the planet.

In the short pre-reading, the students learn to convert kilometers to miles and think about the concept of “orbit.”  While reading, they are thinking about Messenger’s navigational capabilities and why it is difficult for it to maintain its orbit (Answer: Because of the immense gravitational pull and close proximity of the Sun).  They are also asked to think about the audience and purpose of the article, and whether it focuses on the scientists in charge of the mission or the probe itself.

The writing assignment was the tough part.  At first, I wanted to ask for something objective and scientific, and I considered a cost/benefit analysis.  The mission cost $280 million.  However, I saw this module as something for 9th graders or thereabouts, and I thought that both the sum, and the benefits of the science, would be hard for students to conceptualize or evaluate.

I decided that I wanted to put the students right into the situation.  At first, I thought of having them imagine that they were on board the probe.  However, this would involve dying.  I decided instead to have them imagine that the probe was a character with thoughts, feelings, and senses.

The prompt is set up like this:

Science is supposed to be objective, logical and rational.  Science writing is mostly facts and reasoning.  However, most people respond to stories and characters more than facts and arguments.  When writing for non-scientists, writers often “humanize” non-human objects to make the science more like a story.

Let’s take that humanizing tendency to its logical extreme. Let’s imagine that Messenger is a character who can think, see and feel.   Write a paragraph or two describing what Messenger sees and feels as it approaches its doom.  Does it remember its long voyage?  Does it respect its controllers, or is it angry?  Does it respond to what it sees, the enormous Sun, the stars, and the cratered planet? Is it afraid?  Is it sad?  Does it feel proud?

This defines two genres of writing–professional science writing and popular science writing–two styles for two different audiences.  However, the assignment pushes the students into a third genre, science fiction. The pre-writing consists of a series of questions:

  • What kind of personality does Messenger have? (This is completely up to your imagination.)
  • What does Messenger see? (This part should be based on the factual information in the text and the images from the NASA site.)
  • What does Messenger do? (This should be based on Messenger’s capabilities as described in the article.)
  • What does Messenger feel? (This is completely up to you.)
  • What does Messenger want? What is its purpose? (This is up to you, but should reflect the answers to the previous questions.)

Three of these questions involve the imagination, but two of them, “What does Messenger see?” and “What does Messenger do?” are based on facts from the article and the NASA website.  This combination of scientific fact and imaginative extrapolation is the essence of science fiction.

Still, I was a little worried about moving from scientific discourse to creative writing.  I shared this module with my graduate students. They actually liked the writing prompt.  The ones who had been with me in other seminars saw elements of Burke, Lacan, and Latour in it, but I think they were over interpreting a bit.  Several of them are teaching or tutoring in different schools and academies with students at varying levels.  One told me that she was provided with a series of science readings set up in a similar way (ERWC seems to be infecting everything), but without writing assignments.  She had to create her own.  She said she could use this with 9th graders right away.

They noted that some students like creative assignments, but hate expository assignments.  Others are afraid of creative assignments.  This prompt, with its combination of factual elements and imaginative ones, draws both groups in.

The next step might be to write a module about the New Horizons probe, which is about to arrive at Pluto.  The combined modules would then go from the closest planet to the Sun to the farthest, although Pluto has been degraded to the status of “dwarf planet.”


3 thoughts on “A Science-oriented Micro-module

  1. Matt B.

    Dr. Edlund,

    I think this micro-module sounds pretty amazing. I have a deep interest in space and astrophysics, but I know next to nothing about the science behind it all. I hope to take some basic physics and astronomy courses after grad school. I say this only to highlight how the module appeals to my background in the humanities and my undeveloped interest in the sciences. I feel like the perfect audience for this module!

    It seems to me that in an educational system that leads students to believe that they are rigidly defined as either STEM-minded or humanities-minded, this micro-module could be used to engage students all across the board. I can’t think of a single example in all my years of education where assignments were cross-disciplinary – not even like this module where the content is scientific while the assignment requires creative writing. Very cool.

    While I agree that the grad students who weighed in on the writing prompt seem to be reading into it pretty heavily, I can definitely see where they’re going with it (especially with Burke – there’s always room for Burke).

  2. guitarsophist

    Matt, thanks again for commenting. My students were saying that the assignment caused students to inhabit Messenger’s subject position: controlled by distant unseen others. They were also interested in the Lacanian implications of seeing the scientists as parents, and the Latourian concept of the inanimate machine as part of the Actor-Network.

    My real intention, however, was for the student to imagine him or herself in the scene, as a participant, rather than simply reading about someone else’s actions and discoveries. Perhaps this is an important pedagogical move. In that sense, this is not cross-disciplinary. Most scientists I know are also readers of science fiction. We may strive to analyze data objectively, but imagination motivates the scientist to plan, promote and engage in the mission.

    1. Matt B.

      After leaving my previous comment, I knew cross-disciplinary wasn’t quite the right term for what I was trying to describe. Maybe holistic would be more accurate?

      I think your point about imagination in the sciences is really important. Perhaps things have changed, but when I was in high school the sciences were never presented as creative endeavors. They were seen as logical fields grounded in empirical studies and hard math. Likewise, my English courses never presented anything remotely scientific, not even science fiction. It seems absurd to act as though the Humanities and STEM operate in different worlds without any possible overlap.

      I also wanted to note that once you’ve read Latour’s ANT theory, it’s almost impossible not to see examples of it everywhere you look.

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