Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is The Hunger Games Turning Students Off to STEM Education?

Are students turning away from pursuing careers in science and math because of books like The Hunger Games?  Popular author Neal Stephenson thinks so.  Stephenson argues that current science fiction writers depict such a dark and depressing picture of the future--like children being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the ruling elite and for the subjugation of the laboring masses--that students are not inspired to be part of making that future come to be.  If science, engineering, and math is going to create a future society like Panen in The Hunger Games, or the Realm in Incarceron, or post-apocalyptic Chicago in Divergent (gosh, haven't I written up that review?  I'll have to do that), or dozens of other popular YA books, movies, and TV shows, why would students want to participate in that?

To Stephenson's mind, it all contributes to our society overarching problem, which is an inability to, in his word, "get big things done."  So he has created an effort entitled the Hierarchy Project to convince science fiction writers to create some more optomistic visions of the future that would inspire students back into the world of science and math as a potential solution provider rather than a conveyor belt to our dystopic future.  To hear more about his views on this topic, read his article on Innovation Starvation.

Stephenson is not the first person to raise these concerns.  Indeed, my first-ever blog post, Are Bella and Edward LITERALLY Warping Your Adolescent's Brain, was about a conference at Cambridge that was examining whether dark themes in current YA literature were physically changing adolescent brains.  But I thought it was a good follow-on to my earlier post this week about Neil deGrasse Tyson's concern that we have forgotten how to dream.  I do think that perhaps the biggest problem is STEM education is our students lack of desire to pursue it, and I do think that these dark, science-enabled dystopias could be a part of the problem.

It also brings to mind a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. that I described inanother earlier post.  Nichelle Nicols, who played the African American communications officer Uhuru in the original television series of Star Trek, told of Dr. King telling her that Star Trek was the most important TV show at that time because it gave people a vision of the future world he was trying to create in his speeches--a place where people of all races (and even different planets) worked together in peace and respect to take on big challenges.

That was the time I was raised in.  Star Trek may seem to today's eyes to be cheesy and bombastic, but it was unfailing optomistic about human potential enhanced by technology.  Our children are growing up in times where it seems to be preferable to be vampires and werewolfs and zombies and such to becoming a scientist (unless you want to go into murder investigation, since I guess the numerous CSI shows require quite a number of scientist to analyze all that crime evidence the detective amass).

So I hope Stephenson and his Hierarchy Project help to encourage some writers to give our adolescent some less grim scenarios of their future.  It may not be the biggest part of the solution to STEM education, but it sure couldn't hurt.

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