What Science Fiction Can Teach Us

In the spring of my sophomore year of high school my art teacher assigned an oil-painting project that had to feature a made-up creature. The creature could be anything we could dream up--a combination of existing animals, something made up entirely, something extraterrestrial. My bookshelf at home was crammed full of science fiction and fantasy, so there was a veritable kingdom of made-up creatures living in my head. After fretting over the choice for days, I finally decided on a serpentine daemon from Wit'ch Fire, an epic tale of good versus evil staring a fierce young woman of magical lineage.

The weekend before the project was due I brought the painting home with me, spending hours perfecting the creature's curling red tongue and talon-tipped wings. In class that Monday we hung our finished projects on the wall to observe and critique. My eyes scanned my classmates' paintings, humorous images filled with pastel colors and gently grazing cow-giraffes. My painting, by comparison, looked like something off the walls of Hot Topic--a demonic flying reptile pictured among the tops of darkened skyscrapers. After a moment of silence an older student, a junior or senior, pointed at my painting, scrunched up her face and said, "What is that?" None of the other comments were much kinder.

After that, I kept my fan fic art and my reading preferences to myself. I was still deeply invested in the imagined worlds I read about, but aside from my painstaking art project, my love of science fiction and fantasy was always something that came after my schoolwork--something I did on weekends, far away from the papers I was writing for English or the problem sets I was solving for math.

There's another reason why sci-fi was so appealing to me growing up. Science fiction is used to imagine alternatives to how we live today. Science fiction allows us to ask what a world without racism would look like. What would a world without sexism look like? What would a world without police violence, without mass surveillance, without systemic poverty look like? How would we build these communities, and what is our role? Marge Piercy asks these questions in Woman on the Edge of Time when she writes of a society that has completely erased gender disparity. Octavia E. Butler does this in her Lilith's Brood trilogy when she imagines what recreating a society would feel like hundreds of years after a global nuclear holocaust.

In high school I was also good at science and math. For a time I thought I would major in math in undergrad. I did well in physics and took extra science classes, more than required. But something didn't stick. Science and math felt too far away from my true passions and interests, which had grown to include feminism, activism, and community organizing. So I left STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) behind when I left high school.

It is from this disconnect that I first started dreaming of a project that somehow combined girls' passions with science and tech. When I moved to New York I directed programs at Girls Write Now, an incredible writing and mentoring program for NYC teen girls. At Girls Write Now I saw firsthand how skill-building and risk-taking came naturally to girls when they were invested in practicing their craft and telling their stories.

How could we reach this same level of passion and dedication with girls for science and tech? Research published in 2010 by the American Association of University Women reported that over 20% of male freshmen planned to major in engineering, computer science, or the physical sciences, while only 5% of female freshman planned to major in these same fields.

Then a friend of mine, science fiction author Chana Porter, invited me to observe a workshop she was leading for teen girls. The workshop was part of a series she had developed that focused on world-building in science fiction and fantasy stories the girls were producing. I was blown away by the quality of the writing produced and by the deep and critical discussions that took place in the workshop. When Chana and I talked afterwards, Chana told me that this dynamic had been developing since the first day of the workshops. She wanted to grow the series into something bigger. It seemed obvious to combine our ideas, creating a program that used science fiction to blend learning in writing and art with learning in science and tech. And so, the Octavia Project was conceived.

The Octavia Project is a free summer program that gives teen girls from Brooklyn the space to explore science and tech through art and writing. We use science fiction and fantasy to encourage girls to dream big and we empower them with skills to design their own futures. Through writing and reading science fiction and fantasy, young people are able to envision different possible futures for their communities. It gives them an opportunity to see beyond the barriers they live with today and ask important questions about where we go from here. The Octavia Project gives Brooklyn girls the space to do this and the platform and confidence to share their vision.

Our inspiration and namesake is Octavia E. Butler, who broke barriers in writing and science fiction as a Black woman in a white and male dominated field and become an award-winning and internationally recognized author.

Our goal at the Octavia Project is to invite passion into the learning process. Our workshops will build skills in science, tech, art, and writing through emotional connection and personal expression. What if I had applied the same level of interest and passion that I put into to my fan fic painting to my physics projects? My English papers? My anatomy homework? School would have been a completely different experience.

It's been proven that learning is deeper and sticks more when it's connected with personal interests--this is the idea behind the popularized connected learning movement. While there are a lot of programs aimed at engaging students in STEM, students--and specifically girls of color--are going to continue to leave STEM behind if these skills aren't connected to what they are passionate about.

We're not trying to create a new generation of programmers and scientists. We're empowering a generation of women with the skills they need to make their own futures and the confidence to dream big and see alternatives to the way we live today. It's taken me a while to learn this. Now it's time I passed that on.