Teaching Tools and Strategies

SCIENCE/Fiction: Modular Template for Class Design

Author(s): Julie H. Simpson†*1, Maxwell Z. Wilson†*1

University of California, Santa Barbara

Editor: Amy Hark

Published online:

Courses: Anatomy-PhysiologyAnatomy-Physiology Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyBiochemistry and Molecular Biology Cell BiologyCell Biology EvolutionEvolution GeneticsGenetics Introductory BiologyIntroductory Biology NeurobiologyNeurobiology

Keywords: genetics cell biology neuroscience systems biology Science Fiction

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We present a modular scaffold for designing an introductory seminar using speculative fiction and science papers to welcome university undergraduates to the biology major. A list of twelve possible topics is included, such as Memory, Parasites, Aliens, Synthetic Life, and Immortality. We offer example research papers describing exciting discoveries in readable formats matched with science fiction short stories, novel excerpts, or videos that carry these themes to extremes to provoke discussion. These resources can be sub-sampled to inspire and aid other instructors in developing similar courses.

Primary Image: Human-Machine Interface: MidJourney Artificial Intelligence-generated image guided by the keywords DNA, helix, alien, neuron, gynandromorph, parasites, steampunk, and zombies. 


Simpson JH, Wilson MZ. 2023. SCIENCE/Fiction: Modular Template for Class Design. CourseSource 10. https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2023.49

Article Context


The art of combining speculative fiction and science to inspire and educate has its roots in the early days of literature, most notably with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1). Shelley's story was inspired by scientific debates and discoveries, especially those relating to electricity and life. The work of Luigi Galvani on bioelectricity, where frog legs twitched as if alive when struck by a spark of electricity, was a well-known scientific experiment during Shelley’s time.

The interplay between the fantastical world of imagination and the rigid structures of science offers an interesting platform to engage learners by motivating them through the entertaining stories of science fiction. Here we present a new course focused on introducing university undergraduates to the world of biology, building on this fascinating interplay by bridging the gap between what’s real and what's conceivable. Through an innovative pedagogical approach, we present a scaffold for creating an introductory seminar that intertwines speculative fiction and scientific papers to present foundational biological concepts.

Our approach addresses a number of problems encountered by undergraduates in a large university setting and incorporates active learning, community building, and cross-disciplinary exploration in hopes of enhancing student outcomes. Educational research underscores the significance of early engagement in a student's chosen field, fostering success and lowering dropout rates (2). Our seminar design welcomes undergraduates during their first semester of college, addressing a crucial educational gap. Using narrative pedagogy through the integration of speculative fiction in the course not only serves as an effective teaching tool via storytelling but also enriches students' comprehension. The seminar provides a conducive environment for students to interpret and connect with scientific literature, enhancing their overall learning experience and increasing the salience of presented content (3, 4). While many foundational courses focus heavily on content, they often overlook broader societal and ethical discussions critical for comprehensive understanding and ethical scientific practice; speculative fiction provides a medium for these reflections (5). Lastly, the course's modular design, diverse authorship, and wide-ranging topics cater to a varied student body, emphasizing the importance of inclusive education (6).

The article introduces an approach to immersing students in the vast and fascinating domain of biology by weaving together scientific texts and the creative dimensions of speculative fiction. This integration addresses not just the unique obstacles confronted by both biology students and educators, but also the significance of cultivating community bonds, igniting inquisitiveness, and extending dialogues beyond plain data. Here is why these solutions are pivotal:

Problem 1

Many incoming undergraduate students indicate interest in a biology major, but do not take any courses offered by their proposed home departments until late second year. Lack of community membership has been reported to contribute to disenchantment and attrition (7). Many introductory science classes at large universities have high enrollment (300+ students) and are often taught in lecture format, making students’ initial experience with both their peers and professors impersonal.

Problem 2

Decoding the complexities of science papers in biology is challenging but necessary for students to develop mastery and explore their own interests. Interaction with primary literature during a four-year biology degree typically occurs in upper-level courses. Thus, there are few low-stakes opportunities for first- and second-year students to read articles with the guidance of an instructor. This increases stress on students during their first interactions with science papers, disproportionally so for underrepresented minorities (8).

Problem 3

At large research universities, introductory classes are generally burdened with the need to survey a great number of scientific concepts, especially in biology when preparing pre-medical students. This leaves classes devoid of important discussions regarding ethics, race, gender, and morality of scientific frontiers, both experimental and applied. Thoughtful grappling with the implications of research is key for future scientists and non-scientists alike (5).

A Solution

Our department’s Freshman Seminar Program was developed to welcome first-year students to biology. Faculty select topics of interest and teach small classes to build community, generate excitement, and support skill development. These classes can provide a friendly environment for students to interact with primary literature and where students are free to explore the implications of research in much the same way that science fiction authors have been doing since Mary Shelley. Here, we describe a modular framework for a class using speculative fiction and science papers to grow and nurture biology students.

Course Design and Considerations

In Table 1: The Matrix, we provide a list of science topics and papers, stories, and videos that we have used in past classes. The number and order of topics can be customized. We have given several alternatives for each topic so selection can be modified based on an instructor’s interests or expertise and the educational experience of their intended audience. We include two sample syllabi (Supporting Files S1, S2), an example assignment (Supporting File S3), and a sample lesson plan (Supporting File S4) that demonstrates a detailed breakdown of how a single class is run, focusing on the topic of Synthetic Life and Genesis.

Table 1. The Matrix. A list of possible class topics with science paper and fiction options, suitable for mix and match to choose your own adventures. The italic story summaries and the tag-lines are memory aids that help suggest key themes. Full references (1948).

Story Choices Paper Options Class Design
Synthetic Life and Genesis

Are We Not Men? by T. C. Boyle


Pigeon-Rats: Why you should maybe not genetically modify your pets—or your kids.

Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome. Hutchison et al., 2016. Science.

QUESTION: What fraction of biology do you think is understood? Why can’t we build an organism from scratch/first principles?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Should humans be creating new life forms? What rules and regulations should govern this?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might synthetic life change our world, our ecosystems, and our society?

EXTENSIONS: Synthesizing eukaryotic chromosomes and cells. What do the 149 essential but unknown genes do? Why would anyone want to build a minimal genome?

TAG LINE: Playing God: The Ethics and Implications of Synthetic Life

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley


Chapters 3–4

QUESTION: How does our perception of creating life change when we move from fiction to reality?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the potential benefits and dangers of creating synthetic life?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: What might be the societal impacts of widespread synthetic life?

TAG LINE: From Frankenstein's Monster to Synthetic Bacteria: Ethics in Life Creation.

Nature vs. Nurture


1997 film by Andrew Niccol


Anyone can be an astronaut.

Gattaca as a lens on contemporary genetics: marking 25 years into the film’s “not-too-distant” future. Ogbunugafor & Edge, 2022. Genetics.


Ancestry-inclusive dog genomics challenges popular breed stereotypes. Morrill et al., 2022. Science.

QUESTION: What does the science of dog genomics tell us about the complexities of genetic determinism in humans?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical implications of testing or selecting for certain genetic traits?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might our understanding of genetics shape the future of human society and the choices we make about our own genes?

EXTENSIONS: Many genes contribute to behavior, often with small effect sizes and complicated combinations. Other GWAS papers for educational attainment or same sex experiences are thought-provoking.

TAG LINE: The Myths and Realities of Genetic Determinism.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley


Chapter 1

Genome-edited baby claim provokes international outcry. Cryanoski & Ledford, 2018. Nature.

QUESTION: To what extent should we control human genetics and development?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Are we playing God by manipulating human genetics, and where do we draw the line?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How will advances in gene editing shape the future of human evolution and society? TAG LINE: "Controlled evolution, for a perfect world."

Genetic Modification

Horse by Amy Bonnaffons


I can be a unicorn if I want to.

Emergence of novel color vision in mice engineered to express a human cone photopigment. Jacobs et al., 2007. Science.

QUESTION: We modify other organisms all the time by old and new techniques, from agricultural hybrids and animal breeding to cloning and CRISPR. Is it the outcome or the methods that trouble people about GMO food?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: How can we promote equitable access? Whose insurance pays for that? Is biohacking a victimless crime or an individual right?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: What traits would you add? I would like to photosynthesize. Or maybe purr.

TAG LINE: Whose medical decision is it anyway?

The Evening and the Morning and the Night by Octavia E. Butler


Your disease has advantages.

CRISPR-Cas9 editing of the arginine-vasopressin V1a receptor produces paradoxical changes in social behavior in Syrian hamsters. Taylor et al., 2022. PNAS.

QUESTION: What is CRISPR and how does it work?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Why is there an ethical difference between somatic and germline editing? What’s a treatable disease vs. a desirable trait?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Unintended consequences abound… How might gene therapy shape our future healthcare?

TAG LINE: Genes as Medicine: The Potential and Ethical Dilemmas of Gene Therapy.


A Lion Roars in Longyearbyen by Margrét Helgadóttir


Will the real lion please stand up?

Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven. Begg et al., 2023. Current Biology.

QUESTION: What can genomic analysis tell us about historical figures? What would you actually want to know about Beethoven?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical considerations of analyzing the genomes of the deceased?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might such genomic analysis shape our understanding of history and genetics?

EXTENSIONS: Sequencing ancient DNA got a Nobel Prize recently and opens many interesting areas of research.

TAG LINE: Listening to the Past: The Ethics and Insights of Historical Genomics.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton


Chapter 19: The Tour

Elephantid genomes reveal the molecular bases of woolly mammoth adaptations to the arctic. Lynch et al., 2017. Cell Reports.

QUESTION: What are the scientific realities and challenges of de-extinction, as revealed by the study of the wooly mammoth genome?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical implications of de-extinction and the potential effects on current ecosystems?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might de-extinction technologies change our approach to conservation and our relationship with extinct species?

TAG LINE: From Jurassic Park to the Arctic: The Realities and Ethics of De-Extinction.


Sandkings by George R. R. Martin


Do NOT forget to feed the fish.

Genome editing retraces the evolution of toxin resistance in the monarch butterfly. Karageorgi et al., 2019. Nature.

QUESTION: Is evolution fast or slow? Do mutations accumulate sequentially—does the order matter—or can you get “Hopeful Monsters?”

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are our responsibilities towards species creation?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: What would you evolve toward?

TAG LINE: Made in whose image?


Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang


I can see what you’re thinking.


We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick


I HAVE been to Mars.


Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson


Funes the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges

Creating a false memory in the hippocampus. Ramirez et al., 2013. Science.


Reactivating hippocampal-mediated memories during reconsolidation to disrupt fear. Grella et al., 2022. Nature Communications.

QUESTION: How do you think memory works? (Biological or computer). How close are we scientifically to the possibility of implanting, altering, or erasing memories?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical implications of altering human memories, and how do we balance the potential benefits with the risks of misuse?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: What could the ability to create false memories mean for our understanding of personal identity and reality?

EXTENSIONS: Christopher Nolan’s movies Inception and Memento are great additions.

TAG LINE: Navigating the Maze of Memory: Why bother with reality when you can manipulate Memory?

Brain Augmentation

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes


It was good while it lasted.


Understand by Ted Chiang


What are you going to do with that big brain?

Genetic enhancement of learning and memory in mice. Tang et al., 1999. Nature.

QUESTION: What does the research on genetic enhancement of learning and memory in mice suggest about the potential to increase human intelligence?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical dilemmas surrounding consent, equity, and the possible societal impacts of intelligence enhancement?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might advances in genetic modifications impacting intelligence change society, education, and how we define human potential?

TAG LINE: Unleashing Intelligence: The Ethical Maze of Genetic Enhancements.

Movement by Nancy Fulda


There are different kinds of smart.

Experimentally induced visual projections into auditory thalamus and cortex. Sur et al., 1988. Science.

QUESTION: How might inducing different sensory perceptions, like synesthesia, broaden our understanding of intelligence?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical implications of altering our sensory perceptions and cognition, and how might this impact our understanding of typical cognitive functioning?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Could intentionally induced changes in sensory perception lead to novel forms of intelligence or understanding?

TAG LINE: Sensory Symphony: Exploring the Boundaries of Perception and Intelligence.

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson


Chapter 1: A thete visits a mod parlor; noteworthy features of modern armaments

An integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels. Musk & Neuralink, 2019. Journal of Medical Internet Research.

QUESTION: How close are we to creating a seamless interface between the human brain and technology, as depicted in The Diamond Age?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the ethical concerns surrounding brain-machine interfaces, especially in terms of privacy, autonomy, and equity?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might brain-machine interfaces change the way we learn, communicate, and experience the world?

TAG LINE: Merging Minds and Machines: The Brave New World of Learning.


Covehithe by China Miéville


Anthropomorphizing oil rigs.


Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky or Ezra Klein’s podcast about the book

Grow smart and die young: Why did cephalopods evolve intelligence? Amodio et al., 2018. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.


Alternative octopus papers:

Neural control of dynamic 3-dimensional skin papillae for cuttlefish camouflage. Gonzalez-Bellido et al., 2018. iScience.


A conserved role for serotonergic neurotransmission in mediating social behavior in octopus. Edsinger & Dölen, 2018. Current Biology.


Octopus arms exhibit exceptional flexibility. Kennedy et al., 2020. Scientific Reports.


Multiple nerve cords connect the arms of octopuses, providing alternative paths for inter-arm signaling. Kuuspalu et al., 2022. Current Biology.

QUESTION: We have aliens on earth. Beyond human measures of intelligence, what unique cognitive abilities do cephalopods exhibit, and what can we learn from them?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: As we discover non-human intelligence, what ethical responsibilities do we have towards these creatures and their habitats?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might our understanding of cephalopod intelligence influence AI development or our approach to preserving marine ecosystems?

TAG LINE: Diving Deep into Intelligence: Lessons from the Octopus's Garden.

3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke


Prologue, Chapter 1: Comet Cowboy, and Chapter 2: Awakening

Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit. Jönsson et al., 2008. Current Biology.


Tardigrades use intrinsically disordered proteins to survive desiccation. Boothby et al., 2017. Molecular Cell.

QUESTION: What implications do the extraordinary survival abilities of tardigrades have for our understanding of life in extreme environments, particularly in relation to space exploration?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: As we explore further into space and potentially encounter or bring life forms like tardigrades, what ethical concerns should we consider in terms of planetary protection and interplanetary contamination?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Could the study of tardigrades and their survival mechanisms lead to breakthroughs in areas like medicine, materials science, or astrobiology?

TAG LINE: Space Bear Necessities: The Tardigrade's Guide to the Galaxy

Parasites and Zombies

Walking Awake by N.K. Jemisin


Are we the Puppet Masters?

Parasitoid wasp venom manipulates host innate behavior via subtype-specific dopamine receptor activation. Nordio et al., 2022. Journal of Experimental Biology.


A caste differentiation mutant elucidates the evolution of socially parasitic ants. Trible et al., 2023. Current Biology.

QUESTION: How do parasitic organisms manipulate their host's behavior to their own advantage? And how does THAT evolve? Why is parasitism such a successful lifestyle?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Considering the complex interactions between parasites and their hosts, what are the ethical implications of attempting to disrupt these interactions for the benefit of the host?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: As we understand more about parasitism and behavioral manipulation, how might this knowledge be used in the future, perhaps in pest control or even therapeutics?

TAG LINE: "Puppet Masters of Nature: The Unsettling Success of Parasites"

Severance by Ling Ma


Chapters 1 and 2

Zombie ant death grip due to hypercontracted mandibular muscles. Mangold et al., 2019. Journal of Experimental Biology.

QUESTION: How did evolution result in such a bizarre interaction between a fungus and an ant, leading to the "zombie" phenomenon?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: As we uncover more about these complex evolutionary processes, how do we navigate the ethical boundaries of using this knowledge, especially when it involves manipulating life forms?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: What might the study of such extreme examples of parasitism and evolution reveal about the potential future of biological interactions and adaptations?

TAG LINE: "Zombified by Nature: The Unsettling Evolution of Parasitism"

Human-Animal Hybrids

Exotic Pets by Ken Liu


Hybrid vigor? Terrifying.


The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer


It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It is NOT lunch.

Interspecies chimerism with mammalian pluripotent stem cells. Wu et al., 2017. Cell.

QUESTION: What are the potential consequences and implications of creating interspecies hybrids, particularly for use as pets and livestock?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: As scientific advancements allow for the creation of interspecies chimeras, how do we balance the potential benefits against ethical considerations related to the welfare of these animals and potential impacts on ecosystems?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Could the creation of such hybrids lead to new insights in biology and medicine or might it pave the way for unforeseen ecological challenges?

TAG LINE: "Beyond the Pet Store: The Brave New World of Bioengineered Exotic Pets"


Sleep by Haruki Murakami


The sleeper has (not) awakened.

A rare mutation of β1-adrenergic receptor affects sleep/wake behaviors. Shi et al., 2018. Neuron.

QUESTION: What happens when we sleep? What do we need sleep for?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Can we own our genes? Should companies patent them?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Can I have a pill for that? As our understanding of sleep and genetics evolves, what could the future hold for our relationship with rest? Could we see a world where sleep becomes optional, and what would that mean for our health, society, and overall way of life?

TAG LINE: "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream... Or Not: A New Dawn in Genetic Sleep Science"

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress


I resent you for that.

Physiological and genetic adaptations to diving in sea nomads. Ilardo et al., 2018. Cell.

QUESTION: How much can human physiology adapt to extreme conditions through genetic evolution?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: In a world where genetic adaptations are feasible, who gets to decide who adapts and how? What about the potential for creating divisions or resentment among those who are adapted versus those who are not?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: As we uncover more about our genetic adaptability, could we see a future where humans evolve or are modified to live in previously inhospitable environments, like under the sea or even in space?

TAG LINE: "Dive into the Deep: The Uncharted Waters of Human Adaptability."

Immortality and Rejuvenation

Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte


Math after death.

In vivo partial reprogramming alters age-associated molecular changes during physiological aging in mice. Browder et al., 2022. Nature Aging.

QUESTION: Can we reverse or slow down the aging process at a cellular level?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: If we develop the ability to halt or reverse aging, who would have access to such treatments? Would this deepen the divide between the rich and the poor?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: If we unlock the ability to reverse aging, how might this redefine societal norms, lifespan expectations, and our approach to healthcare?

TAG LINE: "Rewinding Life's Clock: The New Age of Aging."

Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson


There’s nothing new in the universe.

Base editor treats progeria in mice. Koblan et al., 2021. Nature.

QUESTION: Is innovation finite, or can we continue to create indefinitely?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: What are the implications of extending copyright forever? What effects could this have on innovation and creativity?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How will the concept of intellectual property evolve in the future as we continue to advance technologically?

TAG LINE: "In the Symphony of Creation, Originality is Eternal."

Learning To Be Me by Greg Egan


Upload your Altered Carbon reference here.

In vivo amelioration of age-associated hallmarks by partial reprogramming. Ocampo et al., 2016. Cell.

QUESTION: Can consciousness be separated from the physical body and what implications does this have for our understanding of identity?

ETHICAL DILEMMA: Who gets to decide who lives forever? What are the socio-economic implications of such technologies?

FUTURE OUTLOOK: How might society change if we can effectively become immortal through technology?

TAG LINE: "Eternity is just a state of mind."



We teach this class for 50 minutes, once a week, for a 10-week quarter. We assign a science paper and a fiction piece each week. By combining our partially overlapping classes and the best selections from several years, The Matrix now includes enough material to build a longer course or extend to 90-minute meetings. Enrollment is first-come, first served. We advertise to incoming biology majors to ensure everyone knows they are equally eligible.

Instructor Goals

  • Welcome new biology students to a community of scientists.

  • Encourage creativity and knowledgeable decision making.

  • Introduce students to a range of landmark and new science.

  • Teach students to read primary scientific literature and summarize key ideas efficiently in writing and speaking.

Example Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to read primary scientific literature to extract the major findings.

  • Students will be comfortable using Wikipedia, PubMed, and publication databases to find references and reviews on a new topic.

  • Students will practice asking and answering questions about scientific findings.

  • Students will explore science and science fiction topics that interest them.

  • Students will connect real research to the extremes presented in the science fiction examples.

  • Students will respectfully consider some of the ethical implications of science experiments.

Example Grade Breakdown

We give 50% credit for attendance and participation, 25% for weekly reading responses, and 25% for the final project, with full credit for plausible attempts. Late work is accepted but discounted. Grading is Pass/Fail, and >70% is required for passing. We weigh participation highly to ensure that students cannot pass the class if they do not attend most weekly meetings because we feel that group discussion is the most critical aspect of the class. This class is worth one credit unit in our standard 12-unit load. Students report spending 1–3 hours/week outside of class on the reading and written responses.

Approach to Reading the Scientific Literature

Beginning students may not have much experience reading primary literature. Unpacking a journal article is a learned skill. We provide an infographic about how to read a paper (9) and we do several short example journal club style presentations to model literature analysis (10, 11). Resources with advice for absorbing primary literature often suggest that writing summaries improves retention (12). Our weekly reading response assignment (Supporting File S3) is a template for students to write primary literature article summaries. While we do not provide detailed feedback on all of their submissions, or require students to lead oral presentations, these would be optional extensions. We try to minimize the workload and rigorous assessment because our primary goal for this seminar is to welcome and excite students.

To scaffold students' abilities to dissect scientific literature, our course embeds methodical stages of guided reading and discussion. Initially, we introduce students to the structure and layout of scientific papers, emphasizing the significance of each section. Utilizing seminal papers from the course content, we walk through the papers collectively, pinpointing how to interpret graphs, infer key findings, and understand nuanced terminologies. Concurrently, when analyzing speculative fiction, we draw parallels to scientific papers, encouraging students to discern underlying themes and narratives. To fortify this synergy, paired class sessions are dedicated to comparing speculative fiction pieces with their complementary scientific papers, fostering dialogues that illuminate the interplay of facts and fiction. By weaving these two strands, we not only equip students to grasp scientific literature with proficiency but also to appreciate its broader societal and ethical implications as mirrored in fiction.


We assign a one-page reading response (see Supporting File S3) with a standardized set of questions due the day before each class to ensure that all students have read the material before discussion. Instructors read them before the class meets to identify questions or misconceptions that should be addressed. We do a project midway through the course that allows students an opportunity to follow their interests. Students either write a Nature Futures story (fiction) or News & Views paper (fact). This can be peer-reviewed through software such as Eli Review if desired, or shared with the class if students give permission. Another cumulative assessment option is the Concept Map, a graphical way to describe the links between topics (13); these allow students to identify their own connections and may appeal to diverse learners. These assignments consolidate knowledge, leave a record, and reinforce clear science writing skills.

Fostering Discussion

Good prompts are key. We include examples with each topic in Table 1, but thinking ahead about how you will begin each class helps. We typically discuss the short story first to get people talking. One of the benefits of having working scientists covering science fiction is that none of us are experts and there are no right answers: we are all part of a community of learners. Our classes are typically 25–30 students and we teach in a classroom with six table groups—the table configurations help first-year students get to know a set of their peers. This also works in Zoom breakout rooms: we asked each student their favorite animal and then made groups accordingly (although the phylogenetic choices were questionable in the case of the capybara axolotl flamingo clade). Selecting one student to report for the table each week by some random criteria (birthday closest to 4th of July, favorite color closest to green on the spectrum) also helped students get to know each other by finding common interests. Starting with 5 minutes for the students to discuss the prompt with their table before opening discussion for the whole class helped overcome participation barriers: students realized others did not understand a topic either and so were less inhibited about asking questions. Beginning with a request for students to Google for a video or information about a topic was an ice-breaker and helped reinforce how to select reputable sources. An example lesson plan, showing in detail how one class unfolded, is included (Supporting File S4).

Final Project Selection Process

The primary goal of the final project is for students to interweave their grasp of speculative fiction with scientific literature. To initiate topic selection, students first partake in a brainstorming session, helping them identify key areas of interest. They then submit preliminary proposals, which are reviewed by instructors for feedback. Students have the option to collaborate in groups of 2–3, integrating individual topics or choosing a mutual one. After topic confirmation, an online repository is available to assist in project development, complemented by mentoring sessions for any challenges encountered. The project culminates in a detailed report, essay, or podcast, assessed on depth of analysis, originality, and the synergy between fiction and science. This structured approach ensures students delve into genuine areas of interest with ample guidance.


Based on anonymous feedback surveys during the course, as well as the standard teaching evaluation forms, students enjoy the class and format. They also report that they feel more comfortable exploring science papers and can identify new areas of interest.


Start From the Science

When developing or adapting this course, we recommend picking the science topics and papers first. Breakthroughs in your field, articles you or your colleagues have discussed enthusiastically, and results that reached the popular press are good sources. For timely topics and science descriptions readable by newcomers, Science News, the New York Times Science section, NPR’s Science Friday, Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year (AAAS), the Eppendorf Prize, Wired Magazine, and Quanta are valuable sources. You may as well read and discuss science you are also excited about. We tend to emphasize all we don’t know yet about biology to make clear that there is plenty of space for new students to make important contributions. Although it is tempting to do the entire course on one topic (e.g., memory or genome modification), we recommend including different ones to expose students to a range of areas of biology that might appeal to them. Many students may not yet know that developmental biology is a field, or that people do research on octopi, for example. You could also leave the last topic open to accommodate requests.

Pick Readable Papers

This is often the students’ first time reading primary literature. Demonstrate how to unpack paper figures and find related citations in PubMed. It is tempting to pick the newest paper on a topic—but sometimes the students lack the context to know why it is a big deal and choosing the original breakthrough paper serves students better. And consider the journal choices. Big advances often come out in Science and Nature, but sometimes the space constraints mean that the background is too abbreviated for newcomers to grasp the significance, and specialty publications can be off-putting or intimidating. Current Biology is ideal: exciting, rigorous science of broad appeal in a readable format, and the Graphical Abstracts are a plus. An alternative is to assign the Insight, Preview, or News & Views associated with the paper—or a Review instead, or in addition, which is what we do for Honors classes—but this risks overload.

Don’t Overload

For us, this is a one-unit class, and the students are often simultaneously enrolled in challenging, required foundational courses. It is tempting to cover a story and a paper each week—and to provide background reviews or additional context resources, just in case students get interested in the topic—but doing so is an academic indulgence/rabbit hole that may be more suited for professors than first-year students. Be really clear about what is optional and what is required, and how much time/text you expect. Follow this advice as an instructor: as you develop your version of the class, change one or two papers/stories each year, but not all of them. Evolving a class is easier than rebuilding it from scratch each time.

Include Diversity

Science fiction has captivated many cultures and impressive works have been produced around the globe. For an overview of the evolution of science fiction, see (1416). An artistic graphic from Ward Shelley is available (17). While a sizable portion of the classical collection of science fiction has been dominated by American and British male authors, one of the very first Sci Fi stories was written by Mary Shelley when she was 18 years old. In this same spirit, we have tried to find authors that represent experiences of our diverse student body. There are wonderful story examples from AfroFuturism and Asian Sci Fi. Anthologies of LGBTQ, Native peoples, and LatinX authors contain vibrant ideas. We find that deliberately scouting for new stories from different demographics enriches the class. The Hugo and Nebula award nominees, new collections from favorite authors, and lots of advice from friends, rejuvenate the reading lists. The Atlantic and The New Yorker magazine, as well as Nature Futures, often publish short speculative fiction pieces. We also find interesting articles, discussions about the implications of new technology, and ideas for short stories in online resources (18). Keep the value of diversity in mind for the author lists and lead researchers on the science papers you choose, too.

Addressing Course Interest and Selection

Historically, our Freshman Seminars witnessed overwhelming interest, often resulting in over-enrollment with significant waitlists. While our current approach is 'first come, first serve', we have observed that often, it is the more advantaged students who are in the know about such offerings. To bridge this gap, we have engaged our department advisors to disseminate course information to prospective students and ensure that all students know everyone is eligible to enroll in the course. Yet, a challenge persists as many first-year students are still unfamiliar with their advisors and about our course. We hypothesize that additional forms of outreach may further attract a diverse and inclusive cohort thereby reaching a broader spectrum of eager learners.

Enjoy It

So far, our students have been willing to engage with difficult or controversial topics. Sometimes we pick a short story that makes us uncomfortable or sad. These can certainly initiate discussions, but there are other options that are beautifully written as well as provocative starting points, too. We happily pick science papers we want an excuse to read—even outside of our research areas and comfort zones. Growing and learning with the students model some of the best aspects of academic science. There is no reason not to do the same with the stories and choose ones we enjoy.

Future Directions

We have only anecdotal feedback that our Science and Fiction Freshman Seminars contribute to our goal of retaining students who intend to major in biology through to graduation. Contemporaneous reviews and feedback on anonymous surveys suggest that we are on the right track for welcoming new students to biology, but hard data waits for the future. We plan to request the tracking information, anonymized, on students who took our classes in their first year to see if they continued in biology at higher rates than the departmental average, but the appropriate control group is not obvious: there may be a self-selection bias. Perhaps comparing against other first-year seminar classes would be relevant. In the interim, as we venture into this frontier of pedagogical exploration, may our course design be the droid you're looking for. Remember, fear is the mind killer, and don’t panic.

Supporting Materials

  • S1. SCIENCE/Fiction – Example Course Syllabus (Simpson)

  • S2. SCIENCE/Fiction – Example Course Syllabus (Wilson)

  • S3. SCIENCE/Fiction – Reading Response Template

  • S4. SCIENCE/Fiction – Example Lesson Plan


We thank Dr. Rolf Christoffersen, Vice Chair Extraordinaire, for the call to develop freshmen seminars and the UCSB MCDB department for their commitment to creativity in teaching biology. Dr. Michael Goard suggested the Reading Response assignment before class and CITRAL workshops introduced us to the Concept Maps. Dr. Mike Wilton gave critical feedback on the concept and its implementation. JHS thanks many friends for paper and story suggestions, especially Roian Egnor and Don Olbris.


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Article Files

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Author(s): Julie H. Simpson†*1, Maxwell Z. Wilson†*1

University of California, Santa Barbara

About the Authors

*Correspondence to: jhsimpson@ucsb.edu and mzw@ucsb.edu

Competing Interests

None of the authors have a financial, personal, or professional conflict of interest related to this work.

Author Contributions

†Equal contribution



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