Why sci-fi is important to innovation

October 16, 2014

“Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” is the first anthology from Arizona State University’s Project Hieroglyph, which aims to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for the future through the power of storytelling.

On Oct. 22, ASU and Changing Hands Bookstore will co-host a group of nine science fiction authors, scientists, engineers and experts who will share their visions of a better future and sign copies of “Hieroglyph.” The event begins at 7 p.m., at the Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. 2nd Ave. in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 480-730-0205 or by visiting changinghands.com/event/hieroglyph-oct2014. Ed Finn Download Full Image

The 532-page book, which was published in September by William Morrow, unites twenty of today’s leading thinkers, writers and visionaries – among them Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson – to contribute works of “techno-optimism” that challenge us to dream and do “Big Stuff.”

Ed Finn, who is the founding director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination, co-edited “Hieroglyph” along with New York-based writer and critic Kathryn Cramer. Finn spoke to ASU News about the book, why science fiction is important to innovation, and how storytelling leads to grand ambition and thinking.

Q: What’s the premise of how the Center for Science and Imagination, and more specifically, how “Hieroglyph” got started?

EF: In 2011, Neal Stephenson and (ASU President) Michael Crow were on a panel together at a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Future Tense. Neal was making the argument that we've lost the practical, hopeful ambition that drove our scientific and technological progress in the early and mid-20th century: the imaginative capacity and willingness to think big and take risks that drove the moon landing, large-scale infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system, and the development of the automobile, the airplane, the microchip and other transformative advances. Michael Crow responded by saying, "Maybe this is your fault!" Crow's perspective is that science fiction writers and filmmakers have filled our cultural imagination with gloomy, dystopian visions of the future, and failed to give today's scientists and engineers the inspiring, creative icons they need to design and build a better future.

Instead of just letting this conversation fade into memory, Crow and Stephenson decided to do something about it. They founded Project Hieroglyph, an effort to build collaborations and new conversations among science fiction authors, scientists, engineers and other researchers, as well as students and members of the public.

As we started developing Hieroglyph at the Center for Science and the Imagination, we immediately realized that this idea was much bigger than just a book project. We see this as an invitation to a conversation that is just getting started. Our digital community at hieroglyph.asu.edu is a portal for people all over the planet to contribute to big ideas, great stories and actual research projects, and a hub for Hieroglyph's growing collaborations with organizations like NASA, Google and the World Bank.

Q: Why do you think we stopped dreaming big as a nation after the space campaigns of the 1960s?

EF: What we've lost is a collective narrative that everyone can buy into about how the future should unfold. The future isn't just a fixed point we're hurtling toward uncontrollably, and it's not something that will be cooked up for us in a lab somewhere. The future is a spectrum of possibilities and choices, and to get everyone involved in that conversation, you need a compelling story that gives people a sense of purpose and agency, a sense that they have a voice and a role to play.

In the mid-20th century, the Cold War and dramatic episodes like the Space Race gave us a gripping story about a future shaped by clashing ideologies and politics. It wasn't always an uplifting story, and it often bred conflict, paranoia and divisiveness, but it did give people a sense of purpose and direction, and it was a story about the future where science and technology played a central and constructive role.

Today we're not as clear on what that compelling, unifying, collective narrative should be, or where it should come from. It's also a challenge to create such a compelling story without having a bogeyman like the USSR posing a military and political threat. My hope is that science fiction, especially projects like Hieroglyph that bring people from diverse backgrounds together, can help generate new visions for the future that will drive research, discovery and innovation.

Q: The idea of science fiction leading the way for scientists and engineers is an appealing one. Can you cite some specific examples of how science fiction can throw down the gauntlet for innovation?

EF: There are a lot of great examples out there. Right now Google is serious about building the Star Trek computer, for instance. Space travel was convincingly foreshadowed by Jules Verne, right down to the rough location of Cape Canaveral as an ideal American launch site. H. G. Wells’ novel about atomic warfare played an important role in the development of real nuclear weapons during World War II, especially through a scientist named Leo Szilard who pushed Einstein to propose the Manhattan Project to the United States.

Q: How did you come to choose the idea of a book to engage in public discourse?

EF: There is nothing like having a tangible, finished product to help anchor a conversation. Project Hieroglyph is about big, ambitious, creative ideas, and I think it was important to encapsulate some of our best conversations and collaborations in a digestible, recognizable format so we could bring people together at events and have public conversations through major national and global media outlets. Books also command attention in a powerful way. Books can create sustained attention and conversation, and at this moment in history, those are valuable and rare commodities.

Q: Once you had the idea of doing a book, how did “Hieroglyph” start taking shape?

EF: This initial book project was a great way to explore different ways to build and foster collaborations between authors, artists and researchers. One huge factor here was working with Kathryn Cramer, my co-editor on the project, who has wrote or edited almost 30 science fiction and fantasy books and anthologies, and has deep roots in the science fiction world. She helped us find and work with really talented writers who were fired up about this idea, and came in ready to try new things and collaborate.

Some of these collaborations, notably the one between Neal Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad, a professor of structural engineering at ASU who helped Neal design the 20 kilometer tall steel tower at the center of his story, involved face-to-face meetings, email exchanges, phone calls and other traditional methods. Some of the authors used our digital community to share their ideas, collaborate with experts and seek feedback and input from community members. Video conferencing tools like Skype were invaluable for some of the other teams.

I was pleasantly surprised at how motivated everyone was to truly collaborate and open up their creative and thought process. One big concern for us was making sure that the science fiction writers didn't employ the researchers and experts as just fact checkers or technical consultants, and that the researchers didn't see the writers as narrative illustrators for ideas that were already fully baked.

Q: How do you think “Hieroglyph” worked out?

EF: It worked out great: people's assumptions and initial plans and ideas took shape as a result of the conversations, interactions and partnerships. For me, that is a great success and proof of concept: bringing people from very different backgrounds who speak different professional languages together and having them converge on an idea that they are both inspired by and want to learn more about. “Hieroglyph,” in this way, is as much a process as a product. Kathryn Cramer says that Hieroglyph is a verb, not a noun, and collaboration is a big part of the definition of that verb!

For more information on Project Hieroglyph, visit hieroglyph.asu.edu.

Reporter , ASU News


ASU education initiatives win high-impact grants

October 16, 2014

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University has been awarded four major grants from the Department of Education to expand on faculty and researchers' success in meeting the learning and access needs of students across Arizona.

With the support of $17 million in federal funds, college faculty are looking to improve educational outcomes for English Language Learners (ELLs) in Arizona; test innovative approaches for helping low-income ASU freshmen succeed; and prepare, graduate and support American Indian educators teaching students in the San Carlos Apache Nation. ASU graduate Lauren Edgar works with students Download Full Image

Funding will also support an in-depth evaluation of the college's much-lauded iTeachAZ student teaching program.

The grants confirm ASU's proven ability to improve learning outcomes and the lives of students, said Mari Koerner, Teachers College dean.

“These projects underscore not only the brilliance, but the passion of our educational researchers who won these competitively awarded grants in a concerted effort to move our mission forward,” said Koerner. “The entire college is focused on our goal of enabling all students to reach their potential, regardless of age, nationality or socioeconomic status."

English Language Learners

Approximately 30 percent of Arizona's population is Hispanic.

Addressing the acute need for highly qualified English Language Learner (ELL) teachers in state, Teachers College will expand its successful iTeachAZ senior-residency program to develop iTeach ELLs – the college's initial grant project, funded by $11.5 million.

Titled “Integrating STEM, Literacy, and Language to Prepare All Teachers to Teach ELLs,” the cross-disciplinary project calls for redesigning college math and science content courses to promote language and literacy development skills that future teachers can apply immediately in classrooms.

Currently, Teachers College graduates about 30 students annually certified to teach ELLs. This project will equip all undergraduate majors in elementary education, special education and early childhood/early childhood special education with ELL teaching expertise.

“This is not just for a special group of education majors,” explains Pamela Harris, assistant division director for teacher preparation at the college and lead author of the grant. “This is, instead, taking our elementary education majors and training all of them on how to use STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) content to successfully teach ELLs.

“The beauty of this project is that it will help all preK-8 students, even if they are not English Language Learners, because any student who struggles to read will benefit from some of the same strategies," she adds.

Additionally, the five-year grant will help ensure new teacher success by pairing Teachers College graduates with experienced mentor teachers on-site – including an intensive iTeach ELLs camp and coaching during the first year of teaching.

The project is on track to become a national model for boosting ELL learning outcomes.

College access, success

A second grant totaling $4 million is aimed at increasing college access and enhancing learning for low-income students.

“There is a lot of excitement around this grant,” said Jeanne Wilcox, professor and associate dean of research for Teachers College. “It supports ASU’s reputation for higher education innovation by allowing us to pilot a competency-based college education where students develop critical thinking and problem solving abilities needed in today’s workplace.”

The signature innovation includes a curriculum redesign, asking interdisciplinary faculty members across the university to collaborate in offering projects that are mapped to competencies students are expected to master. This allows students – many of them the first in their family to attend college – to achieve learning outcomes that meet requirements for multiple courses within a single project.

In addition, ASU and the Phoenix Union High School District are collaborating to implement an academic program that gives high school seniors a head start on college. The partnership will offer seniors and their parents support networks for academic advising, financial planning and transitioning to the ASU campus the student plans to attend.

“We want to begin to close the degree attainment gap for students from low-income backgrounds when compared to their more advantaged peers,” Wilcox said.

American Indian teachers

More than $1 million in federal funding will support Teachers College efforts to place American Indian teachers in schools serving the San Carlos Apache Nation.

Fifteen American Indian students from Eastern Arizona College majoring in early childhood education will transition from the community college into ASU’s undergraduate degree program to spend their junior and senior years in San Carlos, Arizona, where they will complete their ASU coursework, junior-year practicum and senior-year iTeachAZ residency assisted by an on-site coordinator.

The ASU education graduates will become dual-certified for early childhood and special education teaching, and will continue to receive on-site support in their first year of teaching.

“I feel as though there are 15 people out there who may not know how we are going to change their lives forever,” said Cory Hansen, Teachers College interim director of teacher preparation and associate professor. “And the impact on the children and their families in San Carlos is going to be amazing.”


Finally, a three-year grant for $550,000 will underwrite a longitudinal evaluation of the college’s teacher preparation program and senior-year residency known as iTeachAZ. The award enables the college to examine three significant areas: the effectiveness of iTeachAZ on college graduation rates; the contribution of previous iTeachAZ reforms to teacher preparedness; and the impact of iTeachAZ-trained teachers on the academic achievement of their students.

The new grant also follows the progress of all iTeachAZ graduates, not just a subgroup, increasing the number of participants from 2,000 to more than 3,000 with varying levels of iTeachAZ experience. In addition, it includes data-sharing with both the Arizona Department of Education and the college’s 30 school district partners to gain timely information about iTeachAZ graduates.

Written by Judy Crawford