Science Fiction, LMC3214, Summer 2014: Exploring Cultural Connections Through Haptics and LEGO

The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.

The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.

Before closing out the last class that I would teach at Georgia Tech as a Brittain Fellow, I brought a great big container of LEGO bricks to class for my students to explore and enjoy thinking about science fiction with haptics. As I had done last year, I invited my students to think of something from their experience of science fiction that emblematized what science fiction means to them. Put another way, I asked them to build a model of the thing that first comes to mind when they think of science fiction. It could be a robot, blaster, rocket, cyborg, computer, spaceship, etc. Whatever it was, I wanted them to use the available bricks to build an approximation of the thing, present their model to the class, and explain its provenance. I would add to each presentation of a LEGO MOC (my own creation) with additional SF examples and historical relevances.

The challenge to this assignment was that 2/3 of the class were taking the course remotely online. While I invited students to build something and share it on Twitter, few did or were able to do so before class that day. One online student joined us for the on-campus class, which added one more student to the mix and was much appreciated by me and his peers.

After giving instructions and discussing haptics, I gave the students about 25 minutes to find bricks and build their models.

Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.

Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.

Building their science fiction models with LEGO.

Building their science fiction models with LEGO.

Then, students were invited to come to the front of the class, place their model under the document camera for the benefit of online students, and tell us about their creation and its inspiration to them.

Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

 

Jarad and his lightsaber from Star Wars.

Jarad and his Jedi lightsaber from Star Wars.

 

Aditya and his moon rover.

Aditya and his moon rover.

 

Lauren and her planetary rover.

Lauren and her planetary rover.

 

Tyler and his TARDIS.

Tyler and his TARDIS.

 

James and his spacecraft.

James and his spacecraft.

 

Peter and his flying car.

Peter and his flying car.

 

Roxanne and her spacecraft.

Roxanne and her spacecraft.

 

James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

 

Sang and his futuristic aircraft.

Sang and his futuristic aircraft.

I was proud of the creations and connections that my students made during this end-of-semester exercise. Despite a number of same types of SF emblems (air/spacecraft), each student assumed a different approach and had different points of origin for their inspiration. Also, no two models were alike. Each one is a expression of the individual using a three-dimensional modeling art and design form–LEGO.

Besides drawing on different kinds and ways of thinking for this exercise, I know from students comments that they appreciated having a creative outlet in the class beyond their analytical final papers, which are creative in other ways (argumentation, research, prose writing, professional formatting/design, etc.).

Some of them choose to keep their models while others let me keep their models to show future students.

LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.

LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.

Finally, my Science Fiction class would not have been possible without the technical support of Ted Skirvin, who worked with me to use the affordances of the room with my teaching style while accommodating the needs of online students.

Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech's Global Learning Center.

Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center.

 

Science Fiction, LMC3214: All Good Things: Last Day of Class, Haptic Perception, and Lego

The excellent group of students (and me in the back right) in my Science Fiction class. Photo by Carol Senf.

The excellent group of students (and me in the back right) in my Science Fiction class holding up their SF-inspired Lego creations. Photo by Carol Senf.

Today, unfortunately, was the last day of my Science Fiction class at Georgia Tech.

At the beginning of class, my students completed their third exam. Unlike the previous exams, it only covered the material discussed in class this week: cyberpunk and Taiwanese SF. And unlike the previous 1 hour long exams, it was 30 minutes long.

After the exam, we began what I called an SF debriefing with Lego. I framed this end of semester activity by having them think about WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal) modes of communication. Then, I discussed the importance of one aspect of nonverbal communication: haptics. In the haptic mode, we touch, we build, and we visualize objects. It is an insanely important and often overlooked way in which our brains think, learn, and communicate with others. I told them that this activity was meant to allow them to think about and express some image or object from SF–either discussed in the class or not–that they liked or thought significant. To facilitate their work with haptics, I brought two bins full of Legos–some acquired from the local Lego Store and some from my secret stash. I told them to use up to 40 bricks/elements to build their model. After completing it, they would have a chance to hold it up and tell the class about it, and if they choose to do so, they could take it home as a gift and a memento of the class.

I gave the students about 30 minutes to build, and I encouraged them to get out of their chairs, stand around the bins to dig for bricks, and talk with one another as they worked–talk about what they were building, trade bricks, help one another, etc. It didn’t take much encouragement on my part to get them going–they took off like a fleet of rockets!

When each student had a chance to tell us about their creation, I would offer other connections and background information on their creation to further integrate it into the broader history of SF.

After class, Professor Carol Senf, who was observing my class, was kind enough to take a group photo of the class (see above).

I left my students with the encourage to continue their exploration of SF. I told them that I believe SF to be the most important contemporary literature. It examines the human condition, critiques our social relationships, imagines the effects of science and technology, and energizes our sense of awe and wonder. It can inspire us and it can teach us. Of course, it also can be smashing entertainment.

When class was over, the conversation continued with those students who had other questions about SF (Was PKD really a drug fiend? Who are important/good contemporary SF writers? etc.) and kind words to say about the class.

All that is left for my students is to complete their final papers testing a work of SF against definitions of the genre by others and themselves. I have to grade their third exams and their papers before I can submit grades next week. I am looking forward to reading their papers, but I am sad that this amazing class with these talented students is virtually at an end.