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Perspectives on Technology through Science Fiction

Steven H. VanderLeest
Calvin College


It is important for engineering students to consider the effect technology has on society, yet standard engineering courses are usually purely technical in nature and do not grapple with difficult issues such as questions of resource use, side effects, ultimate goals, and purpose. While engineering courses sometimes ask broader questions concerning how technology affects society, students often do not get an adequate understanding of the “big picture.” In order to fully address such questions, engineering students need more than just technical skills. They
must understand concepts relating to the fields of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and economics to name just a few. They must also be able to make appropriate value judgements concerning the technology they design.

Science fiction considers the most important questions about technology. A course based on science fiction readings and films can direct the students towards a considered approach to engineering design and development of technology. Such a course provides multiple advantages. First, it can give the students leverage on their own culture. An effective way to understand one’s own culture is to first look at a very different culture. Science fiction places the student in another world to examine important human conflicts, issues, questions, and desires. Second, science fiction provides a mental laboratory in which students can perform thought experiments with new technology. Third, a science fiction course can allow engineering students to interact with students in less technical disciplines. This cross-fertilization is often very helpful in working through issues of technology and its interaction with the human society within which it is embedded.

Steven H. VanderLeest, "Perspectives on Technology through Science Fiction," Proceedings of the 2000 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference, St. Louis, MO, June, 2000.

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