World-Building Lesson Plan

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A lesson from Ben Cartwright showing how to guide your students through the creation of a science fiction or fantasy setting. This can help improve understanding of geography, climate, and solar systems, as well as consideration of existing settings.

Unit goals: Have your students construct a realistic world for an SF or Fantasy short story/novel they intend to write, while learning about geography, climate and the solar system.

Lesson 1: Planet-size

Goals: Determine the size of the planet that will be the setting for your creative work.

Possible science to be taught:

* Newton's equation for the relationship between gravity, mass and distance.
* Comparison of mass, weight and gravity of the different planets in the solar system.

Questions for discussion:
1. Would planet-size make a difference in your story/novel if the characters do not travel to other worlds?
2. Would there be advantages to being born on a planet with a particular gravity and then moving to another planet? What would those advantages be?
3. What effect would gravity/mass/distance of the planets in our solar system have on the types of stories you could tell about people on those worlds?

Lesson 2: Planet-tilt

Intro: Planets, such as Mercury, Venus and Jupiter, which have a tilt (inclination of the axis of rotation to the orbital motion) near zero or 180 degrees, so that their axis of rotation is perpendicular to their orbit, have no seasons. Planets, such as Mars, Saturn and Neptune, which have a tilt similar to that of the Earth, have seasons similar to the Earth (although all three of those planets, being further from the Sun, have longer seasons, and colder ones, than the Earth). Planets, such as Uranus and (former planet) Pluto, which have a tilt close to 90 degrees, so that they are rotating on their "side", and can have one pole or the other face the Sun for long periods of time, have extreme seasons, in which even the planet's Equator experiences considerable variations in temperature (although both of these are so far from the Sun that it is cold everywhere, all the time).

Goals: Determine the tilt of your planet in relation to its sun (or suns?)

Possible science/math to be taught:

* Earth-sun geometry
* "Seasons" of the various planets in the solar system

Questions for discussion:

1. How would characters mark the passage of time on a planet with a tilt near zero or 180 degrees?
2. What is the relationship between planet-tilt and dramatic potential? Do planets with a certain tilt seem to have more or less potential as the settings for stories? For example, would living on a world with a tilt close to 90 degrees have more potential, or a world with a tilt of 180 degrees? Why?
3. What adjustments would characters need to make in their daily routines when traveling from one planet with a particular tilt to another, with a different tilt?

Lesson 3: Continents

Goals: Make a map indicating the different continents on your world that includes geographical features such as oceans and mountain ranges. Making a timeline may be useful for this activity as well.

Possible science to be taught:

* plate tectonics
* continental drift and collision
* seafloor spreading
*oceanic ridges

1. At what point in your planet's geological development do you think you will have your story/novel take place?
2. Are there areas of your world that are uninhabitable? Where are these areas? Why?
3. Which continent on your world do you feel has the most potential for habitation? Why? Which one has the least?

Lesson 4: Creatures

Goals: Make a list of some possible inhabitants (both sentient and non-sentient) of your world, and the locations on your map where they thrive.

Possible science to be taught:
* Evolutionary biology

Questions for discussion:

1. What effect has climate and geography had on the evolutionary development of your creatures?
2. In what ways has natural selection played out in the different species populating your world?
3. How were the ancestors of the creatures that will appear in your story different from the creatures?
4. Are there species that began as quite similar, but then developed startling differences as a result of environment?
5. Are there species that have died out on your world? Why did they become extinct?

Lesson 5: Flora

Goals: Look back at your map and determine where vegetation might be most likely to thrive on your world. Are there forests? Jungles? Make a list of different plant species and the areas on your world where these are prevalent.

Possible science to be taught:

* examine complex plant systems on earth for inspiration, including the vegetation in rainforests, deserts, and in the oceans.
* ecology
* endangered plant species
* scientific uses of plants from the rainforests

Discussion questions:

1. How do sentient creatures on your world use the vegetation? To eat? As housing? Travel?
2. Has there ever been an antagonistic relationship between the plant life of your world and its other inhabitants?
3. Are any plant species being threatened? What is threatening them?

Lesson 6: The MSK3000/Skeptic's Reprieve

Goals: Now that the students have spent a lot of time using science to develop their own worlds, as a fun activity, have them critique the fictional worlds depicted in SF films.

Steps:

1. Have the students vote on a movie to critique, MSK3000-style, using the knowledge they've gained from the previous lessons. (Film suggestions: The Empire Strikes Back, Dune, Outland, Chronicles of Riddick, Solaris, various episodes of Dr. Who, etc.)

2. Watch the film together, pausing when appropriate, to critique the presentation or plausibility of a fictional planet.

Lesson 7: Final activity

Goals: Now that the students have constructed their own fictional world, they should write a short story or novel excerpt that takes place on that world.

Step 1: Have each student give a brief presentation on their worlds during class while they are writing the stories outside of class.

Step 2: Once the presentations are finished, have students distribute copies of their stories to their classmates and teacher.

Step 3: Spend several class periods workshopping the students' stories in creative writing workshop fashion. Encourage the other students to provide written feedback of their classmates' stories and to actively take part in discussion, paying particular attention to both the narrative at the hearts of the stories, and also the settings of the stories, using the knowledge they've gained from the previous lessons in the unit.

Step 4: After the students have had time for individual conference with the instructor and for revision, have the students turn in the final versions of their stories. Incorporate plausibility and a working knowledge of the scientific principles discussed in class into the final grading/feedback.