Biology, Ecology & Jabberjays: Teaching Science with Science Fiction
Sci-Fi in Sci-Ed
The literary genre of science fiction offers a “human lens” to complex scientific ideas, providing readers and learners with a more comprehensive and accessible view into topics such as biology, chemistry and physics. Bringing this genre into the classroom offers an interdisciplinary approach to learning, integrating English-Language Arts (ELA) and History into science lessons, which is especially important with the implementation of the Common Core Standards and its focus on ELA skills across all content areas. Education initiatives such as the SciFiEd Project aim to provide educators with the tools, guidance and training necessary to enhance teaching practices and make science more attractive to students by connecting lessons to science fiction literature and real-life issues such as environmental control.
Other noteworthy initiatives include STEM Behind Hollywood, an education effort by Texas Instruments (TI) and the National Science Academy that teaches students about disease epidemiology using “zombie science.” Melendy Lovett, President of TI, stated “We are helping teachers draw young people into STEM by showing the ‘cool factor’ of real-life science and math behind the magic they see in movies and on TV.”
Julie Czerneda argues the importance of science fiction in the classroom in her article “Science Fiction & Science Literacy: Incorporating Science Fiction Reading in the Science Classroom.” Czerneda distinguishes science fiction from good science fiction, noting that good science fiction is “story, science and speculation all wrapped up in a package custom-made for improving literacy and critical thinking skills.” Her article explains why science fiction should be a crucial part of a class curriculum, and provides teachers with resources and classroom activities aimed at using science fiction to peak student interest, motivation and comprehension in an otherwise complex subject.
The Hunger Games & GMOs
Sci-fi is not limited to aliens and UFOs; author Suzanne Collins tackles issues of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), biology, ecology and environmental control in The Hunger Games. Set in a dystopian future society, The Hunger Games takes place on the ruins of what was once North America, a land now ravaged by environmental disaster. Mutated animals (or GMOs) roam the land, scientific side effects of a totalitarian government. While The Hunger Games is in fact fiction, the science of the novel has an air of credibility; we are faced with issues of global warming, and the DIY biology movement is on the rise. jabberjays and tracker-jackers (GMOs from the novels) may not exist, but we did have Dolly the Sheep. The Hunger Games metaphors make the novel useful for teachable moments in science.
The New York Times’ education blog The Learning Network created a lesson plan that utilizes jabberjays and other creatures in The Hunger Games as a template for teaching about GMOs and the DIY Biology movement. The lesson, ‘Hunger Games’ Science: Investigating Genetically Engineered Organisms, is based around the following prompt:
‘In the movie “The Hunger Games,” the Capitol (a term used to refer to what we would call the government) produced genetically enhanced birds called jabberjays to spy on rebels. Unexpectedly, these birds bred with mockingbirds, creating a new hybrid bird called the mockingjay. The Capitol did not intend for this to happen, and the bird became a symbol of rebellion. What lessons can we draw about genetic engineering from these examples? Could a scenario like this, where a genetically engineered organism hybridizes with a wild animal or plant, happen in the real world? Why or why not?’
A GMO or genetically modified organism is an organism whose genetic makeup is altered by science, engineering and technology. Examples of GMOS in The Hunger Games include jabberjays, mockingjays and tracker-jackers. The Hunger Games Wiki offers detailed explanations of these GMO creatures:
Jabberjays: A mutation of male birds that was created in Capitol labs to spy on the rebels and enemies. Jabberjays have the ability to memorize and repeat entire human conversations, and were used to gather information from the rebels. Once people of the districts realized their private conversations were being transmitted, they used the jabberjays to spread lies to the Capitol. Consequently, ceased the usage of jabberjays, and left them to die off in the wild. Contrary to what the Capitol believed, before the male jabberjays became extinct, they bred with female mockingbirds to create a new species, mockingjays.
Mockingjays: Birds created through the mating of jabberjays and female mockingbirds. While they lost the ability to memorize words, mockingjays can mimic any sounds from a ‘child's high-pitched warble to a man's deep tones,’ and even songs with multiple verses.
Tracker-jackers: Genetically engineered wasps, coded to attack anyone or anything that disturbs their nest. Once they make a person their target, they follow him or her far away from their nest. Tracker-jackers were used as weapons during the war and planted around the districts of Panem.
While tackling topics of genetics, biology and organic chemistry may be difficult for young students, framing this discussion through pop culture helps motivate and engage students in an otherwise ‘dull’ topic. Other examples of pop culture offering accurate portrayals of science can be found in programs such as The Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad and Mythbusters.
In a time where STEM initiatives, especially for girls/women, are at an all time high, teaching science with sci-fi material such as The Hunger Games kills two jabberjays with one stone. Bringing science fiction into the classroom provides students with meaningful and engaging access to seemingly impenetrable material. Understanding the ripple effect of global warming is a lot more tangible when seen from the perspective of Panem, just as disease epidemiology is easier to swallow when discussed through the lens of The Walking Dead. See below for a list of resources to help you bring sci-fi into your science classroom: