Interdisciplinary Learning – Science Fiction: Future Now

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Not too long ago at my school, Western Academy of Beijing, our grade 10 students delivered a series of talks on how literature and science can work together to provide a deeper understanding of issues of scientific ethics. The day-long event, which we called Science Fiction: Future Now, served as the culmination of an interdisciplinary unit combining MYP Language & Literature and MYP Sciences.

The idea began in an MYP workshop a few years ago, germinated, and then evolved through a series of informal conversations over craft beers at Fella’s, the pub next to our school. Eventually, the English and science teachers settled a unit where students choose a work of science fiction–Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Atwood’s Oryx & Crake plus a selection of science journalism and short science fiction–to supplement their studies of cloning and gene editing in their science course.

The goal was not just for students to notice that English and science are, in fact, two great tastes that taste great together but also to become aware of how studying literature and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and lived experience complements the detailed, factual knowledge constructed through the study of science.

And, in a moment of serendipity, a journalist from the BBC visited to our school partway through the unit to give a talk to our students on covering that designer babies scandal here in China last year. Here’s my English department colleague tweeting about it.

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In truth, not everything worked perfectly. As with most schools, our days are full and our timetable…well, labyrinthine seems like best adjective here, so much of the instruction in the unit happened asynchronously and in separate classrooms. For the three English and three science teachers, though, we collaborated during common planning blocks and, of course, after school in the pub.

Planning a formal summative assessment using the MYP Interdisciplinary Unit criteria also proved a challenge at first too. Soon enough, we decided to stop worrying about planning a perfect assessment and all the work students needed to do and focused instead on whether or not the students had engaged in interdisciplinary thinking. We then scheduled a day-long symposium of small-group talks happening around the school in which students would talk through how they’d constructed knowledge using literature and science. As for grading, here’s the low-stakes single-criterion rubric we used in English as we spent the day listening to some of our own and some of each other’s students. 

In the end, six teachers got together, let go of control issues and fear of uncertainty, and trusted each other enough to allow something kind of messy happen and work itself out. Next year, we’ll refine the unit and do it even better. I’d call that a success. Best of all, the students–I mean, most of them anyway–were motivated and engaged in some complex, conceptual learning. I’ll close here with a a few quotes from our grade 10 students on the process.

My understanding in science, helped me realize the ethical, science factors that go into cloning, in never let me go, and I realized that these books, are trying to show us the potential effects of cloning, and how humans will interpret, these kinds of things.

Learning in one of the subjects did help me understand the other better. By learning about how literature portrays the conflicts in our society through science fiction, I was able to understand the consequences of genetic engineering in real life and through science.

Looking at how both scientific and literary disciplines approach these ethical issues, I learned how literature can pose ethical questions that we as human beings relate to in a way that science does not. I also learned the different elements of both subjects and how they look at issues in different ways that give us different pictures.

Special thanks to our science teachers Tanya Nizam, Stephen Taylor and Kevin Leck and my English department colleagues David Jordan and Steve Thomas. The above drawing is by Stephen Taylor.

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