Voices of the next generation

Last year, I received an email from Marieclaire Apuli, a Language Arts teacher at Emerson Middle School, serving students from Park Ridge and Niles, Illinois USA. She explained that she had recently started a unit with her 8th grade “Channels of Challenge” students devoted to writing lab lit narratives. She had learned about the genre while exploring teaching resources from the New York Times and from there, had happily discovered LabLit.com.

Some narratives also contained hope: that science could get us out of the messes that we, as a species, have landed ourselves into. (That not all of them had happy endings told a story in itself.)

She went on to explain that the class had read Frankenstein during their prior fiction unit. As a follow-up, the students were challenged to apply the narrative writing skills that they had acquired over their last two years of middle school to a collaborative narrative task. Students took the time to understand the lab lit genre, aided in part by studying LabLit.com; they sought to identify connections to the art and media they have seen, and to create unique stories centered around real-world issues. “Our goal,” she said, was “to pursue this genre with fidelity.”

As if this weren’t wonderful enough, Ms Apuli then asked me if there might be an opportunity for her students to contribute their stories to the website. I thought it was a great idea, as we have never received fiction written by non-adult authors in our 11+ years of existence. I agreed to consider all of the stories, with a view towards publishing the best ones. The students, across three classes, then met in collaborative pairs to write their short fiction, which were eventually sent to me for scrutiny. Because of the special nature of this project, we allowed for some genre-blurring into science fiction, but to make the cut, the stories had to feature realistic scientists and relatively plausible scenarios.

Of 23 stories submitted, we chose the six best to feature in a series on the website – the first of which appears today. (To comply with school regulations, all of the students will be bylined with their first name and last initial only.)

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this exercise was gaining an insight into what issues are currently central in the minds of our young generation. Fiction always holds up a mirror to the hopes, worries and dreams of current society, and in this crop of writing, the general tone is one of grave concern. The themes tended towards the dystopian, and particularly dystopias dealing with the environment: climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and mass extinction. There were also stories about the fall of civilization, the potential dangers inherent in gene editing technologies and the perils of runaway Artificial Intelligence.

In some cases, the narratives also contained hope: that science could get us out of the messes that we, as a species, have landed ourselves into. (That not all of them had happy endings told a story in itself.)

Ms Apuli’s fantastic class has since graduated from middle school and just last week, started off their next exciting phase in high school. We wish them all well, and hope that they will continue to explore science narratives. We’ve even got our fingers crossed that some of them will become famous lab lit authors in the future!



About the author

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London and the founder and Editor of LabLit.com. She's the author of three lab lit novels, Experimental Heart, The Honest Look, and her latest, Cat Zero. She blogs about the scientific life at Mind The Gap, and she frequently appears in print, broadcast and in person as a science/lit/art pundit.