SCOM2003/6003 Science in Popular Fiction is a bootcamp for learning professional research practices and methods through the fun topic of science-themed fiction, with an opportunity to attempt to publish original research in a peer-reviewed journal. It is offered to undergraduates (SCOM2003) and, since 2014, to postgraduates (SCOM6003).

The readings provide the backbone of the course and all are current or foundational academic publications (mostly journal papers) that examine the nexus between science, fiction and the public, where ‘fiction’ may mean novels, films, television dramas and comedies, comics, and so on. Each week students have set readings which they critique and reflect upon in a ‘learning journal’ for assessment and discuss in class ‘unlectures’, facilitated discussions in which we collectively synthesise this literature and draw conclusions.

Classes routinely involve hands-on training and fun activities, and we also spend time watching films and television fiction and analysing their science-related content with respect to what I call the “5 ‘I’s”: scientist identities, science institutions, scientific information, science-related issues, and ideologies that have bearing on or are produced by science.

In past iterations of the course, students have had a free choice assessment item in which they investigated more deeply the aspect of the course they were most interested in, the only requirement being that their assignment include 3000 words of scholarly writing. Some used this opportunity to design a lesson plan for using fiction to teach science. Some created works of fiction and used the ‘scholarly words’ to justify their creative decisions with respect to the literature. Some devised an original essay topic, and others analysed a fiction text through the lens of the 5 ‘I’s.

In the current iteration of the course, that free choice assignment has been incorporated into a wiki assignment and the major assessment item.

In the wiki assignment, students write 500 scholarly words about a well-defined topic within the science and popular fiction domain in the form of a wiki entry. They then post that entry on a wiki set up especially for this course in 2015. The SCOM6003 students also curate the wiki entries. As well as being a platform for student assessment, the wiki was established as a kind of journal paper database for this field of research, to assist students, researchers and interested members of the public to find scholarly literature about popular fiction relevant to science communication. It was funded by a Teaching Enhancement Grant from the Australian National University.

The major assessment item is an original research project devised by students to investigate some aspect of the science-public-fiction nexus. The only requirement is that a focus group must be incorporated into the project at some point. The project is marked in three assignments. The first is a critical content analysis of one or more fiction texts which must end with some research questions or hypotheses that suggest the relevance of the text for science communication, e.g. for teaching and learning science, for shaping public attitudes towards science, for encouraging particular health or environmental behaviours, etc. In the remainder of the major assessment item students devise a human participant research project to answer their research questions or test their hypotheses. They must then recruit participants for one focus group and run it, and analyse the results, and have the option of adding other steps like a survey or classroom activity, etc. Students are trained extensively in how to do focus group research and how to construct effective and academically robust research reports drawing on the academic literature. SCOM6003 students’ project takes the form of a proposal for a science communication product that draws on popular fiction, and they evaluate the proposal via a focus group of science communicators.

Uniquely, SCOM2003 students can choose whether to complete their research project assignment alone just for assessment (Option A), or in a group for both assessment and an attempt at academic publication (Option B). In Option B, the group devises a methods and focus group protocol together, then each student recruits for and conducts their own focus group as in Option A, and is assessed individually on this. Once semester is over, students then pool their data (multiple replicate focus groups, plus any other data) and write up the results for a publication attempt under my supervision and with my assistance if required. The 2010 Option B group published their work in a top journal and the 2011 group published their work online in a formal research report format (see undergraduate publishing).

For more detailed information on SCOM2003/6003 see the online handbook description or the latest version of the course manual:

The 2010 Option B paper, which looked at people’s responses to science in an episode of The Simpsons, can be downloaded here:

The paper also garnered some media attention:

Some SCOM2003 ‘free choice’ assignments are posted online:

In 2011 student Rami Ibo published a lengthy letter to the editor in the magazine Chemistry in Australia about lesson plans he designed in SCOM2003 for teaching chemistry using the movies Flubber and Erin Brockovich. See undergraduate publishing for article text.

Students’ comments about SCOM2003 have included:

“GO LINDY! Favourite class I’ve ever taken – will be hard to beat!”

“this was a terrific course, difficult to pick one thing that I enjoyed most”

“a wonderfully enjoyable course and an all around excellent experience

“Lindy’s presence in every step of the journey is the most notable strength. The course wouldn’t be the way it is without Lindy” 

“Lindy Orthia is an amazing teacher, because she actively engages her students during lectures. I would describe her lectures not even as lectures, but rather as interactive discussion sessions, which enhance students’ learning much more than to sit passively in a lecture theatre. […SCOM2003] was my favourite course this semester, because I was constantly engaged, challenged intellectually and lovingly encouraged.”

In particular, the ‘unlectures’ and learning journals she used in SCOM2003, helped me to actively engage with the reading material, and encouraged my critical thinking and reflection. […] All of the learning activities in SCOM2003 were developed to encourage student participation in and engagement with science communication, and demonstrate her superior teaching ability.”

“I can honestly say that I’ve really enjoyed this course. It’s gotten me to think about and consider research (both mine and others) in ways which I had not really thought of previously. The opportunity to do real worl[d] research was both fun and challenging, and the freedom we had in the essay/folio assignment really allowed me to look more deeply into something I was interested in. Class discussion was at times difficult, but challenged me to think more critically about issues in the readings, as well as the ideas covered that week. This kind of class doesn’t really happen in my other more technical courses, so it was a novel experience for me – and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I look forward to being more involved in science communication in the future.”

“The unique opportunity provided for undergraduates in this course to publish work improved my confidence, assisted with the development of my writing style, and above all, enabled me to visualise my future applying the knowledge I gained in the field of science communication.”

“best thing was definitely being treated like an adult by a supervisor who clearly appreciated us and acknowledged our maturity”

makes the whole idea of doing postgraduate research less scary”

“writing that lesson plan was one of the most exciting and rewarding assignments I have ever done. […] Thank you for convincing me to do it!”

“I’ve had to think about things I have never thought of before. I have also learned new things”

“I like the readings. Now, I am no longer afraid of reading long journal articles”

“Group discussion in a comfortable environment made much of the course extremely beneficial”

“projects such as designing a lesson and running a focus group study are amazing tools and ways to apply knowledge”

“The lecturer persuaded and made me further understand the need for studying fiction as important for science communication”