Five Ways to Teach Science With Star Trek

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Model of USS Enterprise from The Star Trek Experience, by Flickr user El Miali

When I was in tenth grade, my interest in astronomy collided with a boyfriend who was into Star Trek, just as The Next Generation was ending and Voyager was beginning. Two years later, I decided that I’d taken all the calculus any person needed, but I felt a little guilty not taking any math at all. So I made things even on the cosmic scales of STEM education by signing up for an astronomy class.

That class was taught by a man with a magical cabinet. Behind its doors were rows and rows of VHS tapes holding every episode of every season of every Star Trek series that had aired to date. And they weren’t just for rewards after a tough test or days we had a substitute–he used them to teach science.

At the time, this technique astounded me. A teacher using a TV show to actually teach? But the first half of science fiction is science, and many scientists today point to Star Trek as having inspired them to go into their fields. If I were to list technologies from the show that don’t actually exist, this post would be instantly out of date when somebody invented them tomorrow.

This is not to say, by any stretch, that Star Trek always got the science right. For the most recent movie’s rights and wrongs, read Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s play-by-play. And NASA has a section of their site devoted to Star Trek. You can read up on technologies from the show and to what extent they exist in reality.

You can pick just about any episode and look for the science on your own. But here are a few to get you started.

  1. Medicine: “Angel One” (TNG)
    If someone asked me the one Star Trek invention I’d like to see in real life, it would probably be the replicator. But easily in second place is the hypospray–I really hate needles. Six years ago, I thought I got my wish when geek news was abuzz with the SonoPrep. Unfortunately, despite that FDA approval, my flu shot this year still came the old-fashioned way. Read more about jet injectors, which are actually older than Star Trek.
  2. Botany: “Parallax” (VOY)
    You’ll sometimes hear someone refer to the hydroponics lab on one of the ships. Deep Space 9 had its own hydroponic garden and an episode that mentioned a conference on the topic. Try building your own hydroponics system.
  3. Stellar cartography: “Lessons” (TNG) or just about any episode of Voyager
    The real-world word for what Star Trek calls “stellar cartography” is “uranography.” Unfortunately, most of us now live in areas with too much light pollution to see the stars well. But even if you can’t see much at night, you have other options. Use SKY-MAP.ORG to find sky objects that you would see, or that someone on the other side of the world is seeing. You can also help astronomers at Zooniverse by identifying galaxies, spotting solar explosions, exploring the moon, and looking for supernovae.
  4. Chemistry: “Rascals” (TNG) and “Cardassians” (DS9)
    Star Trek, like many shows and movies, was full of in-jokes and side humor. One of the best examples is the periodic table visible in these two episodes. They differ slightly from one another but quite a bit from the periodic table we learn about in real-world science class. Scroll through the elements in the Star Trek version of the periodic table and identify the fake elements. It’s also fun to try to guess the joke that led to the name. (Click any in that list to read more about them.) If your budding chemist has already memorized the real periodic table, see if she can spot the different atomic weights on the real elements.
  5. Nanotechnology: “Evolution” (TNG)
    Nanotech has come a long way since Wesley Crusher accidentally terrorized the Enterprise with his lost nanites. At the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies, you can browse a list of where you’re encountering nanotech every day, from your sunscreen to your washing machine. If you aren’t lucky enough to be a student in Danville, IL classes experimenting with nanotech, try one of these experiments from Science in School.