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Sci Fab-tastic!

End of semester reflections for Sci Fab 2019

Published onJan 28, 2020
Sci Fab-tastic!

Sci Fab 2019 ~ Science Fiction-Inspired Envisioneering and Futurecrafting has come and gone with another fabulous cohort of students learning how to use science fiction as inspiration to bring new creations from idea to reality.

This year was an experimental evolution of previous Sci Fab incarnations. While normally the class involves reading classic and contemporary science fiction, then prototyping technologies found therein, this year was a little different. We split the semester into two halves, with the first section requiring students to create and fill out their own science fiction universes. While “worldbuilding” may be familiar to writers and fans of science fiction, it rarely appears in an engineering course. Science fiction readings and viewings were still assigned, but most of the properties chosen were those that had iconic and vigorous worldbuilding, supported by many secondary sources about the creation of the world, such as documentaries and special features, published world or “show” bibles, or coffee table books of production design and schedules—anything that would show students how to conceptualize and populate a science fiction universe, from galactic trade rights down to the level of kitchen cutlery design. Assignments included everything from Blade Runner to Black Panther, African Futurism to South Seas Steampunk, Diamond Age to Dune. One assignment was to build themselves a Marvel-esque superpower!

While we didn’t specifically say that we were teaching the skills of product development and project management, we helped students learn how to conceive, rough-out, storyboard, prototype, iterate, and polish a conceptual or speculative technology; how to break down all of the inputs, outputs, steps, and needs of the product into small achievable tasks; how to document the completion of those tasks; and how to pitch and present their project to a room of critical decision makers—all useful skills in industries outside of academia.

In the second part of the course, students refined, clarified, and built an operational device that could be demonstrated in front of a live audience of peers and guests. The synthetic rubber hit the road. While many students were alumni of digital fabrication classes such as Neil Gershenfeld “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” or were members of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, science fiction prototyping pushes students well out of their comfort zones and beyond traditional fabrication skills.

Many students needed to learn new skills they’d never encountered before, and students with more advanced skills acted as resources for others. For example, one student with no marine biology or oceanographic engineering skills taught himself how to grow “bio-rock” and propagate fast-growing coral species in an attempt to rejuvenate endangered reef species. The instructors provided materials and resources, introductions to experts, critiques, and feedback to help students pull together, robustify, and polish the “artifact from their future.”

We required the prototype to be nominally functional a week before final presentations, so that the last week could be used to create and refine a compelling demo, as opposed to presenting bleary-eyed demonstration of a hot-glued and duct-taped version completed in the wee hours of that morning. Tangled webs of wires and faulty breadboard connections are not what you want the audience to focus on when you’re helping them envision the future!

But more important than the list of practical skills, we hoped students attained exposure to bold new ideas. Reading fiction helps build empathy, and science fiction, particularly, helps people think about about how to think. Throughout the course, we always began with the question, “Why? Why does the world need this?” Whether speaking about our world, the worlds they had invented, or the worlds they had read, the ethics and motivations behind the creation, production, and use of their “artifact from the future” were discussed and debated.

Science fiction prototyping offers a perfect balance between engineering skills and creative design opportunities. It allows students to take a project from dream to reality, while teaching them skills such as project management, the iterative process, and futurecasting. Many of our students came straight from undergrad, having never had the opportunity to be creative using their engineering background, or, conversely, to apply their creative design skills to physical prototyping.

This is the fourth iteration of this class, and every time, we are surprised by something new. This year was no exception, beginning with the sheer number of applicants. While normally we limit registration, over 50 people attended the first lecture, resulting in 30 registered students, including graduate students, undergraduate students, students cross-registered from Harvard and Wellesley, and even alumni and MFA Museum School auditors. We assumed many would drop the course given the workload, but only one did!

While this left us with an enormous number of students, we figured that if they were willing to stick out the crowded conditions, we were willing to support them. “Office hours” took more than 15 hours to complete for all students and needed to be done multiple times during the semester. We were particularly proud of the number of students who told us they’d never read any science fiction coming into the class but now feel it’s their favorite genre. One student even confided that he’d been following the class from Asia and it was one of the reasons he decided to apply to the Media Lab in the first place. Several other students said they’d never read any science fiction in which they felt represented and were excited by the works of N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the wide variety of other authors we exposed them to during the semester. Having the UI/UX visual effects designer for Black Panther join us remotely and hearing how much of the Wakanda-tech was inspired by Media Lab projects was also a high point of the semester for many of the students.

Final projects can be seen here:

as well as the students’ unique science fiction universes, from which their future artifacts came:

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