Science and Fiction Goes Virtual

At Parker, our faculty strives to create transformational opportunities that stretch students beyond their current understandings and points of view. For Upper School teachers Mike Mahany (English) and Xiao Zhang (science), this goal led them to create the Science and Fiction course, a unique cross-curricular class that asks students to explore how influences such as societal context and literature often drive the scientific discovery process. The course combines deep analysis and discussion of passages in literature with scientific process work on prevalent issues in society. Speaking on this course previously, Zhang said, “We both have electives in our primary fields that we love to teach, but we also recognize the value of different viewpoints, so we built a bridge to reach out and develop a course that integrates multiple perspectives.” This year, as Mahany and Zhang were working on how to elevate this course, they teamed up with the Integrated Learning and Information Sciences (ILIS) Department to take the idea of creating new viewpoints quite literally.

Recently, students finished reading the short story “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor, which takes place in a future Nigeria where Big Oil dominates the landscape and protects its pipelines with violent spider-like Artificial Intelligences (AI) known as Zombies. The story follows Eme and her growing relationship with one of the murderous machines, which was attracted by her guitar-playing. After completing the story, Mahany and Zhang, leveraging the technological assistance and support of the ILIS team, tasked their students with creating an interactive scene from the story on CoSpaces, an educational site for students to build and code 3D spaces. These scenes had to involve an environmental element, a character and a minimum of three “events” or interactions. Each of the events included a “trigger” and at least one “response.” For example, a trigger could be an action, proximity to an object, speech or even the user’s gaze, and a response could be dialogue, an action or a musical reply. On the final day, students explored their classmates’ hard work and creativity using VR Oculus headsets.

“The technology was cool,” Zhang said when speaking on this unit. “But more importantly the platform gave our students the opportunity to be creative in interpreting the short story.” Mahany similarly had positive things to say, “This project was a perfect culminating activity for the end of the semester, and it made the story come alive for all of us as we visited each other’s virtual worlds.”

As Mahany and Zhang strive to teach students to be open to different perspectives and new ways of thinking, unique lessons like this in Science and Fiction help students engage with their learning in new and engaging ways. We are very proud of the work of Mahany, Zhang and the ILIS team on this lesson and are excited to hear more from this class in the future!

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.