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SPOTLIGHT: Professor uses fiction to teach science

Associated Press Published: November 8, 2012

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) — Students in James Garvey's conservation biology class at SIU often had questions beyond the course material.

The professor, who started the course three years ago, came up with a unique method of answering them. His combined his knowledge and experience with science with his personal passion for writing to pen a science fiction novel, "The Platform."

In the story, Earth is a struggling environment, abused and neglected for centuries. Human and their allies in the known universe explore space and time seeking a new place to establish a home, modifying the atmospheres of different planets — known as "terra-forming" — to meet their selfish needs.

From a science perspective, the books offer insight into topics such as biology, ecology and political policy and the influences they can have on society and the surrounding environment.

"The students dug it. They read it and thought it was interesting," Garvey said. "It's a great opportunity for students to start put-ting together what they've learned in all their different classes."

Fueled by the support he received, Garvey penned a sequel, "Earth Rising." The goal is to round out a trilogy with a third install-ment, but work and a textbook project have kept the author busy and away from his fiction writing.

Garvey offers free copies of the book to his students and gives extra credit to those who read it. He recently had a student finish the original and come to him with several questions. He provided her with the sequel and told her that will answer many of them.

"It stimulates interest in the real issues we face as a society, but it puts them in a science fiction environment," he said. "Fiction is always more fun than non-fiction."

Garvey said only about 30 percent of students each semester take him up on the extra credit offer, but those who do frequently express positive feelings. One of his past students waited until after the course was over to say how much he enjoyed the book to avoid the appearance he was brown-nosing to the teacher.

While he enjoys the writing process on a personal level, he also takes pride in finding a way to connect with students and help expose them to material outside of the traditional classroom. He folds in a lot of information from class into the books and vice versa.

"We always try to find new motivators to inspire people, and this seems to be working," he said. "There are a lot of little nuggets they can tie together."

When Garvey started writing short stories for his wife and son, he never really imagined he would be writing full-length novels. He said he just started with an idea, and it took off. He uses writing as an outlet to escape the hassles of every day life and live in a world of science fiction, which offers flexibility and creative freedom.

Between his nonfiction textbook project and keeping the final book in his trilogy at the back of his mind, Garvey stays fairly busy. He's holding on to a dream, though, that he may eventually be able to find success as a professional writer. But one person lovingly questions him.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said, chuckling.