How Fictional is Science Fiction? the 7th grade study of literature and brains


For years, the 7th graders have read "The House of the Scorpion" in their humanities class. It's a science fiction story set in a future where extraordinary long life, cloning, and environmental destruction is the norm. The 7th grade Humanities and Science teachers teamed up to have their students investigate the question: How fictional is science fiction? They invited student questions about the things they wondered about as they read.

After they shared their questions, the students went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to meet with researchers who study the branches of science represented both in the book and in the questions students asked. They met with biologists and environmental scientists to learn just how fictional the science in "House of the Scorpion" really is.

A researcher shared concepts of cloning

They also worked with biologists to do an experiment with DNA.

Students worked in small teams to conduct the experiment
They were amazed at the results!

While this was happening in their Science/Math class, in their humanities class, the Four Rivers 7th grade went to work on writing essays about "House of the Scorpion". They learned about literary elements and devices and applied their understanding to analyzing the novel, had mini-lessons on qualities of good writing, engaged in writing workshops and produced their final essays. They went through a rigorous editing process, that included self-edits, targeted peer edits and teacher feedback, and a series of revisions.Back in science class, they followed some of their questions from the book into an intensive study of the brain. The following are the learning targets they were aiming for:

  • I can identify the general functions of the major systems of the human body and describe ways that these systems interact with each other. (MS-LS1-3, MS-LS1-7 )
  • I can describe how specialized cells operate as a part of an organ and organ system.
  • I can pose a testable question and design a single variable controlled experiment to answer that question
  • I can ask useful questions of experts on fieldwork.
  • I can describe at least 2 study strategies and exactly how they make my brain physically grow and change.

Experts from UMass came in to share some of the research they were doing in neurology. Student thank-you notes following that visit served as a check-for-understanding formative assessment. This was really helpful for their teacher!

They did a lab on memory and studied the nervous system.

Time for more experts! A professor from Amherst College came in to share expertise related to the brain's role in the nervous system,. Students were able to examine real brains - several from sheep and one human brain. They drew the brains, took extensive notes in a note catcher and asked their visiting expert lots of questions! After his visit, their thank-you notes again served as an assessment. They did one more lab and then, using the information from their research and learning, developed an anchor chart on which to gather study tips to help them study for the last assessment of their study: a test.

They used what they knew about the brain to help themselves study for a test on the brain! The 7th graders learned a lot about both literature and science while also developing skills in inquiry, analysis, and research. They had to think critically about the "House of the Scorpion"; make connections from what they read to what they knew or wondered about the real world; share their ideas in writing; develop writing and editing skills. They learned to conduct labs, use their data to make inferences, and follow an investigation from start to finish. In the end, they also learned just how fictional (or not) science fiction can be!

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