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PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – No, Lev Fruchter isn’t an English teacher. The 17-year veteran of New York City public schools teaches computer science at NEST+m, a school for gifted and talented students on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

But most of his coding lessons focus on novels and short stories, and not only those chapters on whale anatomy in “Moby Dick.” He incorporates science fiction, but also classical literature and fables to show his students how computers work and even help them master HTML.

Fruchter says it has been easy to bring his love of fiction into his computer science classroom, and his efforts could be a model for other educators feeling conflicted about the new nonfiction-heavy Common Core standards, a set of grade-level expectations in math and English in place in more than 40 states.

Teaching STEM
Students work on computer programs tailored to their individual levels. Credit: Photo by Jackie Mader

The English major was reluctantly recruited to teach on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) side of the curriculum years ago, when the administration came to him in need of a math teacher. He agreed, under one condition – that his supervisors regularly check on him to make sure he was adjusting to the unfamiliar role.

“One month went by and no one checked on me, and then another month,” Fruchter told a group of educators at a session on teaching STEM with Fiction at Educon 2.7 – an “innovation conference” hosted by the Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia magnet school. “What I eventually realized was that if you teach math or science, you get left alone to do what you want, and that’s when I stopped turning down these classes.”

The Common Core’s English Language Arts standards put an emphasis on using nonfiction and having students use evidence from these texts in writing assignments and in classroom discussions. Unlike the math standards, the English standards explicitly speak to how history, social studies, science and technical classes are taught – by calling for students to read informational texts in those classes as well.

Related: In Florida, Common Core transforms science, social studies and even gym

Fruchter says fiction can be used in the same way.

“That’s one of the huge advantages of my approach,” said Fruchter about how his teaching matches the standards. “My argument is literary texts are informational texts. There is no textbook that can get across concepts better than stories. It’s the literature reinforcement that is most important.”

“The way I’ve always understood things was through stories and I’ve found that works for my students too,” he added. “Students now think they can be programmers, before it was turn to this page and enter this into your computer.”

“The power of STEM is in the deeper laws and relationships. We need kids to understand these and be impressed by them. That’s something you can do with literature.”

Fruchter, who took a year off from teaching to develop a computer science curriculum – STORYCODE – around his ideas, divides STEM appropriate fiction into three groups.

Explicit STEM fiction includes works where characters talk to each other about science. “Moby Dick” is a classic example of this.

“There is page after page about cetacean biology and ecology,” said Fruchter. “But these [books] aren’t always the way to tie the science into kids memory and understanding.”

The next is what he calls, “what if” fiction, which includes a lot of “first wave science fiction,” where “we take the universe but change one thing.” He says students find this more exciting than the explicit category.

Fruchter says the 1966 science fiction film, “Fantastic Voyage,” could work for this category.

The final category, and what he thinks is the most powerful, is implicit STEM fiction. Here teachers use fiction to draw models and metaphors for actual scientific laws.

Related: New York teachers excited and worried as Common Core standards launched in full

Fruchter likes to adapt Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in his computer programming classes.

In the original story, a king discovers that his daughter is having an affair. To punish the princess’s lover, the King puts him in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a woman the king thinks is an appropriate mate for the lover, behind the other is a tiger. Meanwhile, the princess learns from the tiger keeper which door is which, but the question is whether the jealous princess will lead her lover to his death or into the arms of another woman.

In coding terms, this is a 1-bit story, with the solution either being 0 if she chooses to send him to his death or 1 if she sends him to the other woman.

But Fruchter likes to add more layers. Fruchter adds that the lover knows about the princess’s jealousy and has to decide whether or not to trust her. It is now a 2-bit story with four possible versions. Fruchter then adds in that the tiger keeper is in love with the princess, thus introducing the possibility that the tiger keeper lies to the princess, making it a 3-bit story with eight possible outcomes.

He then sends the students home to write their version of the story.

“I’ve gotten everything from a sentence to eight pages,” said Fruchter.

Each student comes in and presents their story. Fruchter then asks them to retell the story in code.

110, for example, could translate to the tiger keeper telling the princess the truth, the princess telling her lover the truth, but her lover doesn’t believe her.

Fruchter’s STORYCODE curriculum is filled with examples of implicit STEM fiction.

“Take ‘A Wizard of Earthsea,’” says Fruchter referring to a 1968 young adult fantasy novel. “The magic happens to work in the same way that HTML and CSS work.”

“It’s in the way they access the knowledge in the spell book,” added Fruchter. “Just like with HTML and CSS, you can’t just cast a water spell, you have to know on which body of water you’re casting the spell.”*

Fruchter’s tips for finding fiction for STEM: read fiction widely, check online, and always think metaphorically.

“Somewhere there is a story that models the scientific principal you are trying to illuminate,” said Fruchter. “The power of STEM is in the deeper laws and relationships. We need kids to understand these and be impressed by them. That’s something you can do with literature.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to correct Lev Fruchter’s quote about water spells in the “Wizard of Earthsea.”

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