George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Beyond Killer Robots: Encouraging Optimism and Innovation in Our Classrooms

April 28, 2015

What does our future hold? Is it bright and promising, or is it full of grim news? How do the stories we share with our students make them feel about the next 20 years? How does the media shape their feelings about the future?

Also, do we have a responsibility to help our young envision an optimistic future, not just for their own individual lives, but for everyone?

Current Sci-Fi Tales

Much of today's popular science fiction depicts a future plagued by war, totalitarian governments, and environmental disaster. Some stories are apocalyptic, depicting scary scenarios such as the rise of sentient machines that eventually enslave or kill us, or the misuse of genetic engineering that leads angry apes to become super clever and take revenge on humankind.

Post-apocalyptic stories are even more popular among young adults, and in some ways more dire. Books and movies such as The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent depict young adult characters facing a world in which the adults have messed up, big time. And while these stories give us hints as to what happened to lead to catastrophe, they never go into much detail.

Post-apocalyptic stories have an assumption built into their premises that humans will eventually mess up, so really, there is no need to explain that to the reader, as if it is entirely obvious that our violence and greed is bound to doom us.

Star Trek Optimism

The original Star Trek series was conceived and produced in the early 1960s, a period that some people see as a moment in our history that was more optimistic than our own. In Star Trek, humans have moved past the strife and violence of the past (our present), and have used their technology to "explore new worlds and new civilizations" and to "boldly go where no one has gone before."

The perception of that time as being a more optimistic period in our history is a popular notion, and to make their point, some will invoke the visionary ideals of John F. Kennedy, or the hopes of the Baby Boom generation that benefited from a newfound prosperity. One could also look at the triumphs of the civil rights movement, or at the fact that nations throughout the developing world were declaring their independence from the yoke of colonialism.

The current generation of young people faces a world that seems to be heading toward an inevitable global catastrophe of its own due to human impact on the environment and global climate change. Most adults would argue that this pessimism is warranted due to the undeniable evidence based on climate models as well as current and past weather patterns.

In the Classroom

Is there a way out of this? Do young people see the possibility that we can overcome this and other challenges? And what can we do to guide them toward feeling hopeful?

Promote Media Literacy

Understanding how the media shapes our perceptions of society is key. Very often, the media can distort the facts and make us believe that things are worse than they actually are. For example, while crime statistics have shown a remarkable decline in violent assaults and murder over the last 20 years, those who only watch the TV news might believe otherwise.

Popular media also often capitalizes on our fear while trivializing our better nature. It is easy and somewhat lazy to revisit clichés and techno-nightmares from science fiction's past (again, think, killer robots and zombies) than to take on the task of imagining something that has never before been imagined.

It is interesting to note that the most popular of young adult fictions are either reviving supernatural notions of the past (vampires and wizards), or telling futuristic stories that rely on technological and social constructs dating back to George Orwell's time. The most innovative technology that is imagined in these stories functions as tools for violence and social control.

Build Analytical Literacy Skills

While Orwell has long been the doomsayer and prophet assigned to the student reading list, most teachers take the time to make the connection between Orwell's era and the premise of his books, and that Orwell was merely extending the current circumstances of his time period into an imagined dystopia.

While Orwell was right in some respects, he was wrong in others. Why? What did he get wrong, and how is it worse or better than he imagined? It is also important to note that Orwell and other science fiction authors are not really trying to predict the future, but creating thought experiments and parables about many possible futures.

Share Real-Life Stories

Share stories about individuals who have made changes in their lives and the communities. Most educators are inspired to share these types of outcomes, but it is also important to remind students of how hard it was to achieve the outcomes that seem so simple in retrospect.

Discuss Ethics in Science Courses

Even though science teachers already have enough on their plate, it is important that real-world connections be made between scientific discoveries and how they often lead to social problems and ethical dilemmas.

While these challenging discussions can often open up the Pandora's Box of controversy, it is crucial that these questions be raised while sharing with students the cogent arguments and ideas that represent all sides.

Have Students Write Their Own Inspired Science Fiction

Science and technology are neutral in and of themselves, and it is how we choose to use what we know that shapes our future. What if we focus on the promise of technology to create new possibilities? This is not a matter of creating a perfect utopia, but a matter of taking on bigger challenges beyond the threat of killer robots and zombies.

One might say that all science fiction is really about the present, and so the stories that depict a future world beaten down by catastrophe are really about the challenges of today. Perhaps then, these stories in which the lone, courageous young adults liberate us from our own self-created nightmares might just be the stories that this generation needs.

The message might be that even though the world seems to be stuck and heading toward catastrophe, the spirit and imagination of our youth will help us overcome.

How do you encourage your students to be optimistic? I would love to hear your stories.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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