BOLKER, J.A.*; GANNETT, C.; University of New Hampshire; Loyola College in Maryland: Using fictional species to teach real science

Science students spend much time and energy learning facts. But scientists know that facts are only the beginning: the deeper understanding that comes from integrating data with general principles, and from generating new questions, is the most exciting part of the scientific process. Since this integration requires prior mastery of the relevant data, it can be hard to get to the fun part in introductory-level courses. Students struggling to memorize facts often lack the time, energy, or opportunity to think about principles – to generate science rather than receive it. We here describe a writing assignment that addresses this issue. This assignment is one of two major papers prepared by undergraduates in a writing-intensive evolutionary biology course at the University of New Hampshire. The stated assignment is simple: invent a species and describe its evolutionary history and adaptations. Although students are free (indeed compelled) to invent most of the “facts,” papers must contain serious and accurate evolutionary discussion, demonstrating knowledge of the principles discussed in the course. The results are remarkable: students engage in creative, subtle, and collaborative scientific thought; spontaneously integrate knowledge and ideas from other courses; explore the nature and limitations of different genres, from field notebooks to research papers to TV news scripts; and take enthusiastic ownership of (and pride in) their work and their own learning process. Thus, students engage actively in the creative yet disciplined thinking that is at the heart of real science, and experience for themselves both its challenges and its intellectual rewards.