Using fiction to teach biology

I am by no means an outstanding teacher. Student evaluations are generally favourable, but my ranting, meandering style, and messy chalkboard use does require students to keep a higher level of concentration than ideally necessary. Plus, I make my exams extra-hard with only essay and “think for yourself” questions, leading to high rates of failure, ensuring every department and school would fire me pretty quickly, at least for PR reasons.

However, one aspect of my teaching that I am proud of is inclusion of fantasy and sci-fi elements. Most people think this is crazy and pointless, so here I will attempt to explain why it’s a good idea to teach using fictional examples, at least for zoology and evolutionary biology.

Teaching biology at any level is a big challenge. If you look at physics, a lot of the information and facts can be derived by playing around with equations, and consequently here are few hard facts that need to be taught. In biology, very little can be derived without relying on a pre-existing knowledge base. Take the ever-popular question of naming differences between animal and plant cells. There is no way to derive the answer to that question. You really have to have memorised that plants have chloroplasts and cell walls, or else you have to have memorised the history of endosymbiosis to derive the chloroplast answer.

This means that biology is necessarily full of teaching raw facts. I have the autapomorphies of the 30+ animal phyla drilled into my head, unforgettable since my first year at university. I can draw you the anatomy of any of them with my eyes closed, it’s practically muscle memory by now. Older colleagues can do the same with the structure of the 20 amino acids. I can recite the history of life on Earth in my sleep.

But teaching science should never be all about rote memorisation. If we are to let our students become biologists, we have to teach them how to think like scientists, how to think like biologists, and how to examine a novel problem without having to rely on a library of knowledge stored in their heads. In other words, we have to make them practice critical, imaginative thinking, and problem-solving.

This contrast between the need to teach base facts and the need to teach thought processes lies at the heart of the struggle of the biology teacher. If a good balance is not met, the student will fail. A student who knows all the facts will crumble when faced with a problem where those facts are inapplicable. An ingenious student will similarly crumble when faced with a new problem that needs a ton of background knowledge to solve. And facing such problems will be an inevitable occurrence once the student goes into research.

However, of these two hypothetical students, only one will have the largest problem. The student without the background knowledge can get a textbook, do a literature search, and consult colleagues, and thus get any information necessary. The other student, the one with all the facts but without the toolkit necessary to derive new knowledge, is the one who has the trickier problem.

And this is where teaching using fictional elements comes in. Teaching is a two-way street. The students will suffer with a bad teacher, but a brilliant teacher will fail if the students are purposely not receptive. In other words, it is often so that the problem lies not with the teacher, but with the student. The student chooses to only memorise facts, thinking that’s all that’s needed to pass a test and becoming a good biologist on paper.

Using fiction destroys any incentive to do that. There is often no way of knowing the biological facts about fictional animals, and absolutely no value in knowing them anyway. This forces the student to think about what is being taught and the logic behind whatever is being discussed. And this works excellently, at least from correlations I’ve seen in my students.

The trickiest thing about teaching using fiction is how to do it in practice. You obviously can’t afford to waste too much precious lesson time on this, when there is so much real life stuff to get through. In fact, I’ve settled on using very little lesson time on it, and instead force them to think about fictional organisms as homework or during an exam (the latter is cruel, but really separates the needles from the haystacks, or however that saying goes). Here are examples of bothmethods I have used in the past.

Teaching entomology, we reached metamorphosis at some point in the course. The lesson consisted of teaching them what happens in the pupation stage and how the adult form develops. For their homework, I had prepared datasheets about Caterpie and Weedle, and their adult forms. The students’ job was to write a full guide to how they turn into Metapod and Kakuna, and how they in turn metamorphose to Butterfree and Beedrill. Copying what happens in lepidopteran and hymenopteran metamorphosis was not possible, as the larval forms of the Pokemon differ in significant aspects, as do the adults (missing pair of legs!), so they really had to exercise their knowledge of developmental biology and entomology to come up with something really plausible. This is the true goal of such an exercise. These were then discussed in the next lesson to see where there are things that are impossible or very unrealistic, and the powers and limitations of metamorphosis were understood by all.

In one evolutionary biology exam, I prepared only 2 questions to deal with population biology. There was a short text explaining what the Diclonius are: the result of an ancient viral infection leaving a latent mutation in the human genome that comes up extremely rarely. A Diclonius is always an infertile female. Diclonii have the ability to infect a human male at will, giving a 75% chance for females born from their sperm to become Diclonii. Assuming an isolated population of 10 million humans with a 48:52 percent male:female ratio and one initial Diclonius, how many generations will it take for only Diclonius females to exist, and thus for the population to go extinct?

It seems like an evil question, but it is not as hard as it looks – the attentive student will have noticed that the scenario here is extremely similar to the previous population biology question that involved a sex ratio-skewing parasite, and the model from there can, with some modifications, be co-opted. If a student sees this, that means they have understood the thinking and logic behind the equation and aren’t being bogged down by rote memorisation. And that is the mark of the truly good biologist. [Note: Elfen Lied afficionados, I know that my description of the Diclonii isn’t full or completely accurate, sacrifices must be made though. And for those who are unfamiliar with Elfen Lied, you are truly missing out. Both the manga and anime come with my full recommendation!]

Of course, I’m not saying that you should stop teaching “real” biology. But do consider such off-ball activities and questions to test your students to see if they’re really digesting the material rather than just storing it as fat. (Is that how nutrition works?)

For those interested, besides Pokémon and Elfen Lied, I’ve also extensively used Evangelion, Xam’d, various kaijus, Higurashi, and Alien and Predator, and I have a range of examples from other anime series, movies, and video games. Not so much books, I admire directors and screenplays more than writers and books. Personal preferences.

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