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Information design in "No limits: developing scientific literacy using science fiction"

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2005. Information design in "No limits: developing scientific literacy using science fiction".

Though there is much to be said for living in modern times, few of us enjoy the challenges raised by an increasingly rapid pace of technological change. Indeed, many of us now lack the knowledge to make informed decisions on issues such as cloning that arise from these changes. Communicators refer to the knowledge and thinking skills required for such decisions as scientific literacy because they resemble the more familiar literacy required to read and understand generalized information. In both cases, literacy requires more than simply the ability to read the words; it requires the ability to think about and understand the words. In their 1996 National Education Standards, the United States National Academy defined scientific literacy as "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity".

Declining scientific literacy

Adult readers often lack the time, energy, or resources to educate themselves about scientific issues. Moreover, many feel unable to make the effort because a lack of training in school undermined confidence in their ability to obtain the knowledge and skills required for scientific literacy. This common complaint suggests a need to provide the missing training in school, so that students can acquire the basic intellectual tools they will need to deal with modern life by the time they graduate. Unfortunately, science courses often emphasize rote learning at the expense of teaching students critical thinking and the desire to explore, two essential components of science. As a result, many students lose interest in science before they acquire the tools to become scientifically literate. Educators facing unmotivated students confront an additional challenge: with no desire to learn, little learning occurs even in an otherwise supportive classroom environment. Left unchallenged, this situation could produce a generation of adults ill-equipped to face the complexity of modern issues.

Recognizing this problem, Julie Czerneda, a Canadian author who lives north of Toronto (Ontario), set out to create a resource for science teachers. Her goal was to help teachers stimulate student enthusiasm to master the skills that lead to scientific literacy. The result was No limits: developing scientific literacy using science fiction. Science fiction, increasingly being recognized as a valid literary genre that goes far beyond B-grade monster movies, offers an attractive tool for motivating students. The continuing popularity of the television series Star Trek and its several spinoffs after nearly 40 years, combined with specialty cable channels and bookstores devoted solely to science fiction, shows that large numbers of children and adults remain excited and challenged by the issues raised in science fiction. Science fiction novels and short stories go far beyond Star Trek in their discussion of challenging issues and can thus stimulate interest in those (myself included) who find typical Hollywood science fiction facile, shallow, and often outright stupid. As any teacher will tell you, getting students interested in a subject is the first step in motivating them to learn the subject.

A challenge in information design

The target audience for No Limits (teenaged students) is difficult for authors to reach. School is only one challenge these students face during adolescence, and often the least important one in their eyes, so catching and maintaining their interest in the classroom becomes even more difficult than overcoming the audience apathy technical communicators often face. Yet adolescents, more so than many of us, have a keen need to understand science and an interest in doing so. They are undergoing radical, frightening changes in their own bodies and emotions during adolescence, and thus have direct experience with the problems posed by biology. They interact with technology every day of their lives, and many deal with it better than we do; indeed, it's proverbial that you should consult the local 14-year-old wizard to solve your computer or VCR problems before you attempt to read the manual. A third, particularly significant, problem is that adolescent women commonly feel excluded from the sciences and gradually drift into other fields; as the parent of a pre-teen daughter, I have encountered this disturbing attitude firsthand.

Czerneda's experience with this audience comes from years as an author and editor of high school science textbooks and educational resources, supplemented by ongoing participation in workshops on the teaching of science. As a gifted communicator and editor, and the author of more than a dozen science fiction novels and many short stories, she brought her own experience with and passion for science fiction to bear on the problem of creating a resource that would excite students into taking a more active role in the science classroom.

No Limits, a resource for teachers and their students, arose from a series of successful classroom workshops. The book and its companion volumes of short stories (including Packing Fraction and Other Tales of Science and Imagination) contain detailed lesson plans and abundant support materials. The book is explicitly designed based on Czerneda's understanding of the needs of teachers to complement a typical high school science curriculum, and provides abundant, annotated science fiction resources to help teachers tailor courses to the needs of various other subjects. For example, the program has been used in literature class to vary the type of stories being read and in remedial reading classes with students uninterested in traditional literature. Although the project was originally designed for teens, some teachers have used it successfully in introductory university courses in "science for nonscientists," and as an introduction to more technical science writing such that in Scientific American.

Short stories written specifically to illustrate key scientific concepts in an interesting manner help teachers take advantage of the creativity of science fiction authors to excite students and thereby stimulate their interest. At the same time, students learn how the analytic skills taught in literature class can help them to critically assess scientific information. No Limits provides practical, classroom-tested guidance on how to lead students along this path. Unusually, the lessons explicitly encourage students to think beyond explicit facts and consider some of the implicit factors that shape the presentation of those facts, including the nationality and origins of the authors, the era in which they wrote their stories, and their motives in writing each story. Each factor has obvious echoes in the audience analysis most of us perform before beginning a technical writing project. By accompanying the science with entertaining, thought-provoking stories, and challenging the students to think critically about what they have read, No Limits surreptitiously makes learning fun.

Information design considerations

No Limits has two primary audiences: the teachers who will use the book to develop lesson plans, and the students who will participate in these lessons. In some ways, this resembles the dichotomy between the expert and neophyte readers we encounter in technical writing, but the two audiences for No Limits have more dramatically different needs: teachers must prepare and deliver the lessons, while students must receive and actively participate in learning the lessons. Meeting these very different needs required Czerneda to accomplish the following goals:

Providing a framework

No Limits begins with a discussion of scientific literacy and its relevance to students and society, expressed in terms that highlight the relevance of this literacy to the students and suggest how to reveal this relevance in class. The text explains, with clear reference to the process a teacher goes through in preparing a lesson, how to think about the program in the context of an existing curriculum, how teachers can approach its use in the classroom, where they can find resources to support lessons, how to select or propose student projects, and the experience of the author with how classroom dynamics influence these factors.

As a rule, the lessons focus on developing creativity, critical thinking, and an understanding of the role of science in modern society. The lessons are designed so they can be used "as is", but Czerneda also suggests how each lesson can serve as a starting point for the development of customized or additional lessons. For example, the first lesson suggests having students scan newspaper headlines, including those in tabloids such as the National Enquirer for lurid headlines that relate, however loosely, to scientific issues. Choosing such juicy materials begins the exercise with a sense of fun and reveals how science is expressed in a societal context. From here, the lesson can expand to encompass discussions of the science (if any) behind the headlines, the misperceptions involved, the ties to everyday life, and the possibilities for creative writing projects based on the headlines.

Providing resources to develop the framework

The worksheets that accompany each lesson can be photocopied and distributed for use by the students. As shown in Figure 1 (A sample worksheet), these sheets provide a ready-made means of structuring classroom and homework assignments, and thus serve as a starting point for integrating each lesson directly into the classroom. Within the lessons themselves, key vocabulary is highlighted so teachers can explain sometimes complex concepts to the students. In one case, Czerneda uses the short story in the lesson to show how jargon works for those "in the know" but not for others; this is, of course, a matter near and dear to the heart of any technical communicator, and provides an effective illustration of how we could more effectively explain jargon in our own writing.

Example of a worksheet used in No Limits.

Figure 1. A sample worksheet.

Czerneda has also provided annotated versions of the stories and poems compiled in Packing Fraction to help teachers identify the key scientific concepts raised in each story and to suggest typical questions teachers could ask to stimulate discussion. Unannotated versions are available separately for the students. Resource tips accompany each lesson to help teachers locate additional support materials, and an annotated resource list at the end of the book provides a cornucopia of fiction and nonfiction resources, both in print and online, to help them expand on lessons or develop new lessons.

Because the guide for teachers was developed based on the classroom experience, it is packed full of relevant tips that guide teachers on how class exercises are likely to proceed; these tips include suggested time limits, a discussion of likely student responses, and suggestions on how to keep a discussion going without letting it get out of hand. For example, Czerneda recommends using short stories because these are more manageable in scope than novels (which often frustrate students with their length and complexity) and are more likely to fit neatly into a course curriculum in which No Limits serves as a resource rather than as the core teaching material.

Motivating student receptiveness

Most activities emphasize direct student participation rather than one-way communication (teacher-delivered lectures), an approach that demonstrates a clear understanding of both the instructors and the students in the audience. The emphasis on creative and independent thinking represents an interesting change from some traditional science teaching I have endured, in which the intellectual and laboratory exploration that lie at the heart of science were de-emphasized. Encouraging this active participation rather than permitting passive reception of information is an important teaching tool.

Another effective example of applied audience analysis involved the recognition that adolescents are highly sensitive to peer pressure and the judgments of authorities such as their teachers, and are often very critical of others who differ. Recognizing this, Czerneda urges teachers to introduce the topic of science fiction gently and supportively. This is particularly important given that "sci-fi" has acquired such a strong stigma based on the poor quality of much TV and film science fiction, and a lack of exposure of critics to high-quality literary science fiction. For this reason, she encourages group participation and an emphasis on mutual respect during class exercises. For example, following the approach used for brainstorming sessions, she reminds teachers that neither they nor their students should ever censor creative suggestions, no matter how seemingly wild or silly; sometimes the wildest notions stimulate the most productive discussions. To choose among alternatives and reinforce the collaborative nature of the learning activities, Czerneda recommends building consensus or voting on where to explore next.

Another example of applied audience analysis recognizes that scientists have often been stereotyped as nerdy, "uncool" characters (a less common stereotype now than when I was growing up), and that scientists work as dully and predictably as windmills grinding grain. Such images will not capture student interest, so one goal of the book is to dispel these stereotypes (Figure 2). By providing biographical information on the authors in an interview format, Czerneda humanizes the authors and shows the various paths people have taken to learning about science or becoming working scientists, and the approaches people take to their work. For example, the illustrator of the book, Larry Stewart, reports (p. 67–68) that he read the short stories in Packing Fraction before illustrating them, and discusses how he chose an illustration style and content to suit both the text and the goal of the author. This recapitulates many issues information designers face in choosing graphics to accompany text, but also provides deep insights into a creative professional's thought processes, thereby turning Stewart into a person, rather than "just an artist". Czerneda builds on this example by proposing that students examine how illustration styles have changed over the years and what this implies about the influence of audience perceptions and the sociological and cultural aspects of the era on the publisher and the artist. Understanding such context is of obvious importance to technical communicators.

Text from the exercise on stereotypes.

Figure 2. Text from the exercise on stereotypes.

Exercises designed to stimulate critical thinking and creative problem-solving parallel the creativity used by scientists in seeking new insights and new ways to evaluate problems. The short stories in Packing Fraction support both goals, and provide concrete examples of how students can think about scientific problems. Taken together, these factors capture much of the excitement that drives real, working scientists. No Limits also encourages students to develop story ideas and explore them in the form of stories with teen protagonists, an approach that makes the science directly relevant to their lives. Without overtly preaching, these stories undermine the stereotype that science is irrelevant to most of our lives; in particular, the stories and workbook raise the ethical implications of science and technology using examples from real life and from literature. The book introduces one such exercise as follows:

After reading and summarizing [the short story in Packing Fraction] you may wish to hold a class debate on the pros and cons of this statement: "If a person allows an idea, such as a potentially dangerous technology, to be shared by other people, that person is responsible for any harm that might result."

Engaging active learning

Of course, none of this effort would have much impact if it did not interest the students. Much of what I have already discussed makes the material directly relevant to their lives and thus more interesting than more traditional lessons. Czerneda suggests (p. 70) that teachers can increase the relevance of the lessons by using movies and computer games as resources; these media are inherently interesting to adolescents, and evaluating the scientific validity and cultural context of each game or movie enlists this interest in learning. For example, teachers might consider how the villains in movies have changed from the nuclear bombs and cold war spies of early James Bond films to computers and biological terrorists in films such as The Matrix and Seven Monkeys. This approach stems from a simple but powerful result of audience analysis: choosing media that interest your audience.

Layout considerations

Czerneda uses marginal annotations efficiently (Figure 2). Although many of us use icons and text boxes in our documentation, few of us use this marginalia to document and explain its own use. The first annotations in No Limits both define their own use and serve as examples of that use in subsequent sections of the book. The clean, simple, traditional typographic presentation (sans serif headings, serif body text, judicious use of boldface and italics for emphasis) mimics our own design efforts, in which the goal is efficient use and clear chunking of text rather than drawing attention to the design itself.


The workshops that gave rise to No Limits have been run successfully with students from grades 8 to 12 and at universities. The success of the program has resulted from the efforts of the author to clearly understand her audience and to design materials based on that understanding, supplemented by testing the product in the classroom and revising it accordingly. Moreover, the approach remains sufficiently flexible that teachers can meet a variety of classroom needs beyond those that Czerneda foresaw. This approach is one that each of us could integrate in our daily writing; the potential payback from doing so has "no limits".


Visit Czerneda's Web site for more information on her approach:

Czerneda, J. 1999. No limits. developing scientific literacy using science fiction. Trifolium Books, Toronto. 122 p.

Czerneda, J. [Ed.] 1999. Packing fraction and other tales of science and imagination. Trifolium Books, Toronto. 122 p.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved