Hot and STEAM-Y: Fantasy as a Vehicle for STEM

By Kim Likier, J.D., Media Production Associate 

Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to be grouped together as genres despite being different ideas. Conceptually, both genres take place in another world, but the worlds of these genres are based on different foundations. Sci-Fi brings to mind space travel, technological advances, and robots, while Fantasy conjures unicorns, magic, and hobbits. A rare book can accomplish both, such as The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but most stories are either/or. Using a Sci-Fi book to teach students about STEM-related concepts is a natural fit, given that the worlds are usually grounded in science. Using Fantasy to accomplish the same goal is not as innate.

However, that is not to say that we can’t.

Fantasy is in some ways more suited for teaching than Sci-Fi. There is no pseudo-scientific explanation to wade through and no ready answers. When something happens via magic in a Fantasy novel, a reader has the opportunity to exercise their creativity and engage their mind.

For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, all spells accomplish a specific task. Alohamora unlocks doors. In a classroom setting, this could be an opportunity to discuss a variety of interdisciplinary topics: learning the history of locks/locksmithing, discovering how locks function, or inventing a new locking mechanism. By explaining a magical concept with real-world science, technology, math, or engineering, students are encouraged to connect STEM in ways they may never have conceptualized before. Even a story about hobbits who just want to eat their elevenses can be used to teach physics.

Any vehicle that can connect students to STEM is important, as not all students think of themselves as naturally inclined toward the sciences. I grew up practically devouring Fantasy novels and barely scraping by in my science and math courses; I wonder now how I might have done in those classes if I could have connected my collection of Tamora Pierce books to what I was learning.

In the fantasy worlds she builds, Pierce never fails to bring in reality-based problems, many of which have STEM-related solutions. From creating a cure for a deadly pox to calculating the needs of a refugee camp, the content of her books encourage YA readers to think smart, even in worlds full of magic.

I definitely remember all the plot points in those books, but I can’t remember the Pythagorean theorem. I was the sort of student who wondered, like many others do, how I’d ever use math in the real world. The use of Fantasy as a teaching tool helps provide an answer to that question. STEM is everywhere, as long as we know how to look for it.