Science fiction in the engineering classroom to help teach basic concepts and promote the profession

Science fiction in the engineering classroom to help teach basic concepts and promote the profession

Segall, Albert E


Although science fiction has appeared in science and physics education for many years, the genre has not been widely used to augment engineering education. Considering the potential for science fiction to help illustrate many common engineering concepts, while at the same time challenging the students to think about the many possibilities of design and technology, this exclusion represents a loss of a valuable resource. In order to begin utilizing this valuable resource, a new freshman-level course was developed that uses science fiction films and literature to illustrate and teach basic engineering concepts. Central to the course delivery is “poking fun” at the disobedience of the laws of nature and misuse of engineering while at the same time teaching the correct behaviors. By illustrating basic engineering concepts in this fashion, students can hopefully develop lasting mental pictures of the way things function and the complexities of design. These images can in turn, help the students with core mechanics classes such as statics and dynamics, as well as help the creative design process. Moreover, by highlighting the valuable role engineering plays in transferring science theory to usable technology, the discussions may also help create a positive image of the profession that could aid recruitment and retention. Finally, the genre can also be used to illustrate the implications of technology and society, along with the many ethical considerations of engineering.


The application of science fiction in education is not a new concept. In fact, science and physics education has long recognized “sci fi’s” intrinsic value for teaching basic principles at the undergraduate level [1-3]. Since physics is certainly the foundations for engineering, the obvious question becomes: why not use science fiction to enhance and illustrate engineering education as well? The answer is that “sci fi” can and should be used to convey a wide range of concepts from basic mechanics all the way up to advanced design and analysis. For a number of reasons, the importance of this potential enhancement cannot be overstated. First, “sci fi’s” creation of lasting mental images to the underlying theory can only help students through the seemingly abstract core classes of physics and mechanics. It is also hoped that a potent combination of theory and visual imagery may ultimately provide a critical nudge to help many students to “get it” [4]. Another advantage is that a visual and fun connection between concept and application may also help avoid the “disconnect” that often occurs as the curriculum initially plunges into math, physics and chemistry without a clear linkage to the vision that guided students towards engineering in the first place.

However, limiting the use of science fiction to just teaching basic mechanics may be an underutilization of the genre since other equally important opportunities also exist. For instance, a recent Harris Poll revealed that a majority of individuals equate most technological advances with scientists and not engineers [5]: “People do not think of engineers as researchers, inventors, and discoverers– they attribute these functions to scientists.”

Since this type of misperception about engineering can only reduce the number of prospective students, why not use science fiction to illustrate the vital role engineering plays in transferring science theory into practical applications? Moreover, by highlighting this crucial role and the many contributions of engineering, perhaps a more positive image of the profession can be created. With these ideas in-mind, the class can also be used to help recruit students by showing the many exciting aspects of the profession not usually seen in TV and movies. The same techniques can also be used to enlighten the often technologically less literate “masses” about the engineering concepts they encounter every day. Regardless of the audience, the class and subject matter can be made fun and interesting and at the same time, challenge the students to solve many of the technological and social problems presented.

Another important, albeit underused aspect of science fiction revolves around technology and societal issues [6, 7] and the underlying ethical considerations that go with them. Given our limited resources and the related global problems of food, energy, and the environment, these issues should be included in engineering education. In this regard, science fiction is a “natural” since it can easily (but not always accurately) depict a wide range of”what ifs” including the dark side of technology. By including this subject matter in the discussions, hopefully the next generation of engineers will at least have contemplated the ethical and societal implications of their actions.

Given the many possibilities of the genre for topics to be taught, virtually any combination of focus areas are possible for a course using science fiction to help teach engineering. This paper describes the usage of science fiction in a new course designated Engineering 280: Science Fiction and Engineering that was developed for Clark College (Vancouver, WA) that serves Washington State University as part of a 2 + 2 system. While many stories and aspects of Sci Fi were used in the course, only two stories (a movie and a TV series) will be used to illustrate the concept in this paper. It is hoped that the illustrations that follow will serve as a guide and spur many new innovations that can be used to help improve engineering education. Perhaps these ideas can also lead to required engineering courses for all college students to help balance a liberal arts education.


The 1997 movie “Independence Day” (ID4, Paramount Pictures) was chosen to be an integral part of an introductory class for freshmen/sophomores of all majors. ID4 was chosen in part, because of its “looseness” with the laws of nature and stunning visual effects that create a great opportunity to leave a lasting and hopefully educational impression. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous topics and sub-topics that can be explored using science fiction; “Independence Day” hits on many of the major themes. For instance, as the aliens’ evil plot unfolds, a number of extremely large ships descend to the surface and ominously hover over earth’s major cities as shown in Figure 1. Based on estimates of the mass of each ship to be approximately 9 X 10^sup 3^ kg and the diameter to be 24 km, the concepts of both static equilibrium and pressure can be explained [8, 9]. Using the great special effects as a starter, it can be explained that for the ship to remain stationary, it must exert a downward force on the ground (and the ground back up on to the ship) equal to the total weight of the craft. By using this image and free body diagrams (FBD) drawn on the board, the basic concept of static equilibrium can be taught (see Section IV).

While static equilibrium may represent a rudimentary concept that is easily understood by most sophomores, the distribution of this force and the consequences might go unexplored until upper division classes. Given the force required for equilibrium and the diameter of the ship, the resulting pressure (if assumed uniform) would be a staggering 21 times our normal atmospheric pressure and would easily crush the hapless inhabitants below. As discussed in Section IV, an instructor can easily use this example to discuss pressure and the concept of distribution of force over an area. Once these concepts are understood by the students, the discussion can be further expanded to include stress as a measure of the intensity of a force over a given area or cross-section for a solid.

More advanced concepts such as heat transfer can also be explored by reviewing key scenes of the movie. One such exhilarating sequence involves the residents of Los Angeles attempting a quick (and therefore unlikely) escape from the city using the freeways. Some are trapped in a tunnel and find refuge from the devastating plasma weapon in a utility room with a metal door. Under the assumptions that the plasma is at least 2200 deg C and the steel door is 50 mm thick, classroom calculations using a basic solution for transient conduction in a slab can show that the door will reach at least 1900 deg C within 2-3 minutes. Given the door’s temperature and a conservative estimate that approximately one-half of the total radiative flux will reach anyone inside, the unfortunate inhabitants would quickly receive lethal doses of thermal radiation. Discussion can also be held about the differences between a solid steel door where thermal conduction governs and a more likely hollow door scenario where radiation between the panels could ultimately allow a faster heat-up.

There are many other facets of engineering and physics that can be discussed in class. Topics such as the aerodynamics of the behemoth battleships and the staggering energy required to levitate and propel them are engineering realities glossed-over in the movie. Other discussions can delve into the structural aspects of ship construction all the way to the tremendous impact energy sustained by the earth and its falsely victorious inhabitants when the aliens are finally defeated. Along these lines, the universally reviled, sophomore dynamics class can also benefit from the use of science fiction. Concepts such as force, acceleration, and inertia can be discussed and visually explored using many science fiction stories^. In this regard, Star Trek (Paramount Home Video) and the Starship Enterprise shown in Figure 2 can be used to teach dynamics and concept of a mass acceleration diagram (MAD) since the ship should be doing somersaults as it travels through space. Lasers, stress, and the engineering of complex mechanisms are additional topics that can be discussed in class.


While creating lasting links between engineering theory and practice is the main goal of the course, equally interesting concepts of technology and society can also be explored. In this respect, both ID4 and Star Trek present a number of useful seeds for insightful discussions. For instance, analogies between the aliens’ locust-like behavior of moving from planet to planet and using all resources and our own use-and-discard behavior can be drawn. What are the ethics of stimulating an ever-increasing consumer demand when the result is increased pollution, possible long-term or irreversible environmental changes, and eventually exhausted resources? How can engineering help create a balance between economic prosperity and the limited resources of the earth? Can science and engineering ultimately solve all problems as many erroneously assume? As illustrated by our inability to cure the AIDS virus or harness fusion for power after years of research and billions of dollars, we are a long way off from the one-hour “miracle” fixes of Scotty and Dr. McCoy. Compelling stories such as the Hugo winning StarTrek episode “The Menagerie” can also be used to highlight the pitfalls of a society overly dependent on technology they do not understand or know how to repair.


Washington State University Vancouver is restricted to upper division undergraduate and graduate level courses and must therefore rely on a 2 + 2 system. As a result, the lower division science fiction course was taught at Clark College (Vancouver, WA) where many students take their freshman and sophomore classes. Engineering 280: Science Fiction in Engineering was open to all majors and had no prerequisites or minimum term standing requirements [10]. Because of the inclusion of all majors, the class format consisted of viewing movies, some lecture including limited use of equations and diagrams, and frequent discussion. Using a two-hour class period, a brief introduction to a movie combined with a listing of key points to observe was used to prime the students. The class was then allowed to watch the movie without any interruptions unless a particularly salient point needed to be made. Following the inclass presentation, the students’ were then given an assignment to describe and explain at least five events where they believed that the laws of physics/engineering were observed and/or violated. The students were sometimes also asked to discuss the design ramifications of the major technology (spaceships, power generation, lasers etc.) employed in the movie. Finally, the students were also asked to highlight and discuss any technology and society and/or ethical issues that were raised by the story. The one- to two-page essays were collected the following class and were primarily intended to help spur thought and discussions. This was especially true during the early classes when few concepts had been introduced and the students were only beginning to get a “feel” for the class. However, as the class proceeded, the essays were also checked to see if the important concepts discussed in earlier classes were retained and successfully used by the students in their analysis.

As discussed earlier, numerous topics were explored after each movie or book was watched or read. For example, during the two semesters that the course was taught, the movie ID4 and the concept of equilibrium was explored. As the post-movie discussions were started, a partial FBD was drawn on the blackboard and the students asked what force might be required to allow it to hover above the surface of the earth. Some, but not all, were able to correctly surmise that the weight must be balanced by the levitation force of the ship as shown in Figure 1. Interestingly, many thought that any force equal to or greater than the weight would suffice. The concept of a balancing force (equal and opposite) was then discussed and FBD was completed. The students were then asked to ponder the consequences of these balancing forces. This question usually perplexed the students since they did not consider what the effect would be on the ground below and anyone unfortunate enough to be there. At this point, the reaction forces were shown and the effect of distributing them over a finite area discussed. In this fashion, the concept of pressure as a force distributed over an area under the ship was highlighted and reviewed. The FBD was then modified to reflect the distribution of the levitating force acting under the ship (pressure zone shown by the dotted line in Figure 1).

Since the concept of static equilibrium had been taught to the students, they were expected to highlight this concept in the movies and literature reviewed later in the course. Hence, when viewing other movies or discussing books where large loads and equilibrium were a major component, the correct or incorrect usage had to be noted in their essay if they were to receive full credit. However, it should be noted that while the essays accounted for 50 percent of the student’s grade, the accuracy of their review of the physics and engineering before class discussions covering a specific topic was not used as a basis for their score. This is an important point since the purpose of the course is to help teach basic engineering concepts and not to grade on existing knowledge.

Class participation accounted for another 10 percent of the grade with the remaining 40 percent of the grade awarded for a final paper collected during the final class. For the final paper, the students were expected to choose a science fiction story (movie or book) not covered in class and analyze its accuracy and any pertinent technology versus society issues raised. As mentioned earlier, the students were always expected to incorporate the concepts and issues raised in the classes so the technical accuracy of their paper and the discussions contained within could be evaluated. To ensure that the movie or book contained sufficient depth and concepts to be explored, instructor permission was required for all final topics.

While the class has been designed to teach engineering concepts and the underlying physics, it has also been used to highlight the implications and challenges of design. In this sense, the course differs from earlier efforts in that the students can be asked to contemplate what would be required to design some of the technology used in a particular story [1-3]. For example, the Starship Enterprise can be analyzed from a design perspective given the need for shielding from the intense radiation encountered in space or to avoid spin (see Figure 2). Additional design topics that can be explored using ID4 include ships capable of sustaining an entire civilization in space, as well as the possibilities of different computer systems communicating. However, in all exercises involving design and/or an analysis, it is recommended that the potential difficulties always be treated as positive “challenges” for the next generation of engineers. In this way, a positive “spin” can be given to the profession and many challenges that lie ahead.


The class has been taught for two semesters and has served twenty students pursuing a variety of majors. Based on an “exit” discussion held on the last day of the course, the following feedback has been received. In general, the students felt that the class was worthwhile in terms of illuminating the important role of engineering and basic concepts. While the class did not necessarily convince any students to change their major, all of the students did report a greater appreciation of the role of engineers.

In terms of understanding and visualizing basic engineering concepts, the engineering students stated that they believed they were better equipped to take their courses. More importantly, the students indicated that they could to some extent, see a link between their original vision of engineering and their current course– work. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to track the success and grades of the students since they will go to a variety of engineering schools to complete their degrees. Not surprisingly, a majority of the students (especially non-engineering majors) preferred that the use of equations be kept to a minimum with an emphasis placed on more physical demonstrations. For example, after discussing MAD diagrams and force-mass-acceleration concepts, the true somersaulting motion of the enterprise was quickly (and clearly) illustrated by simply pushing a book on a table with the force applied off of the CG.


A new course using science fiction found in the literature and movies was created for all majors. While there are many facets to this course, the primary reasons behind its inception were to help illustrate basic engineering principles and create a positive image of engineering. The course also served a useful purpose in that it can highlight many important, albeit neglected, issues of technology and society. The 2 + 2 system used by Washington State University Vancouver with Clark College precludes a thorough evaluation and tracking of student success at this point in time. Nevertheless, feedback from the students indicates that the science fiction course is capable of reaching and teaching a wide spectrum of students. Given the critical need to maintain an innovative and technically capable engineering force, the use of science fiction in engineering education should be studied further.


While the 2 + 2 system of WSU and the inclusion of all majors limited the ability to track the success of the course in terms of teaching engineering theory and student recruitment/retention, traditional 4-years programs have far greater latitude to do so. A new freshman seminar using science fiction in the manor discussed in this paper is currently being developed at Pennsylvania State University. When taught during the 2003/2004 AY (estimated), the students will be tracked and a methodology developed to determine the effectiveness of the course in meeting its stated objectives.

In addition to tracking student success and opinions, a basic questionnaire is currently being developed that will be given to the students at the beginning and end of the class. The purpose of the questionnaire will be to assess changes in the students understanding of basic engineering principles and their perceptions of the profession. When crafting the questions and developing the course, great care must be taken to avoid teaching to the evaluation or directly covering any given question. Moreover, when asking these questions at the beginning and end of the course, it will be emphasized that the answers will not influence grades. Furthermore, each answer will be followed by a brief explanation to help frame the mind and intent of the student. Efforts will also be made to augment/animate portions of the films using computer graphics to help illustrate the concepts such as the Starship Enterprise doing somersaults.

^Cartoons such as the roadrunner are also great ways to illustrate basic concepts of dynamics.


[1] Dubeck, L.W., S.E. Moshier, and J.E. Boss. 1995. Using science fiction films to teach science at the college level. Journal of College Science Teaching. 25(Sep./Oct.): 46-50.

[2] Dubeck, L.W., M.H. Bruce, J.S. Schmuckler, S.E. Moshier, and J.E. Boss. 1990. Science fiction aids science teaching. The Physics Teacher (Stony Brook, NY). 28(May): 316-318.

[3] Dubeck, L.W., S.E. Moshier, and J.E. Boss. 1993. Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films. Springer Verlag.

[4] Campbell, M.E. 1999. Oh, now I get it! Journal of Engineering Education. 88(4): 381-383.

[5] Harris Poll quoted in ASME News Vol. 17, No. 10.

[6] Dick, K.J., and B. Stimpson. 1999. A course in technology and society for engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education. 88(1): 113-117.

[7] Wilson, R. 1973. Bridging the gap between technology and the humanities. Engineering Education. 63(5): 349-351.

[8] Krauss, L.M. 1996. The Physics of Star Trek. Harperperennial Library.

[9] Krauss, L.M. 1998. Beyond Star Trek-Physics from Alien Invasions to the End of Time. Harperperennial Library.

[10] Segall, A.E. 2002. Science fiction in engineering instruction: To boldly go where no educator has gone before. Proceedings, 2002 ASEE Annual Conference. American Society for Engineering Education.


Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics

Pennsylvania State University


Albert E. Segall is Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics at the Pennsylvania State University. He was previously Director of Engineering Programs and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Washington State University Vancouver. He received is his Ph.D. in Engineering Science and Mechanics from the Pennsylvania State University in 1992.

Address: Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, 212 Earth and Engineering Science Building, University Park, PA, 16802; telephone: 814-865-7829; fax: 814-865-9974; e-mail:

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Oct 2002

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