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Ask Slashdot: Science Books For Middle School Enrichment? 203

new submitter heybiff writes "It is the time of year where students are scrambling for extra credit assignments to boost grades. As a middle school science teacher, I want to accommodate them, while still keeping science involved; and book reports are a popular activity in my school. Unfortunately, I have only been able to come up with a short list of science related books that a 11-14 year old would or could read in their free time: Ender's Game, Hitchhiker's Guide. What books would you recommend as a good read for an extra credit book report, that would still involve a strong science twist or inspire a student's interest in science? The book must be in print, science related, fiction or non-fiction, and not be overtly objectionable or outright banned. I look forward to the submissions." "Outright banned" actually seems a rich vein on which to draw; note that not even Ender's Game is safe.
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Ask Slashdot: Science Books For Middle School Enrichment?

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  • by simon_clarkstone ( 750637 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:55PM (#43526517)
    As a younger geek, I loved reading Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! [] It would be a good intro to his other more-scientific works too.
  • First it's not quite clear by the title if you're looking for purely fiction so I will recommend George Gamow's "1, 2, 3... Infinity" for a pure science book that reads nicely (though be warned that some of the concepts like DNA are a little outdated). As for fiction, there's some great Bradbury like "Martian Chronicles" and I think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov have some titles that might be accessible, Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron might be short enough but a bit too heavy ... actually I felt like I'v
    • Asimov's stuff is fantastic. If you want something a bit more math based, consider Flatland by Abbot. That also contains a fair bit of social commentary.
  • Here is a site to a scientist,Robert Krampf, that I saw in person once. It was the best science show I ever saw, and definitely the most entertaining.
    Maybe reach out to him through his site and see if he can recommend some good science books. []

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:57PM (#43526533) Journal

    This is probably the most readable treatment of some of the weirder parts of math you'll find. Very appropriate for middle schoolers, that's when I read it first, and that's a great age to show them that math isn't all arithmatic, and how it relates to science. Topics like Cantor's diagonal proof and general relativity are all accessible to middle schoolers with this book.

  • by j-beda ( 85386 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:58PM (#43526559) Homepage

    The reading level is closer to elementary school, but some of the math is fascinating to high school and above. It certainly could be used for an interesting math extra project. A great gift for kids:

    The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure [Paperback]
    Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Author), Rotraut Susanne Berner (Illustrator), Michael Henry Heim (Translator)

    ISBN: 0805062998

    various Amazon links: [] [] []

  • Hugo Award winners are always a good start. "Rite of Passage " is to me a good teen book. I gave it to my daughters.

  • by stanlyb ( 1839382 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:00PM (#43526577)
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
    Anyone, able to read this book, and understand it, deserves his/her master degree right on the spot.
    • Did you miss the "middle school" portion of the summary?
    • You apparently have a very low standard for master's degrees. Anyone who passed a sophomore level philosophy class would have no problem with that book.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Great book that I read as a young teen.

  • The Mars Trilogy [] is interesting, and it might be an interesting exercise to have them outline what parts (both technical and social) are currently possible, which might be possible in 10 years, and which are pure fiction.

    Also, the "Connections" series by James Burke (also available in video form) are an interesting way of showing how technology evolves from need. You might have your students look at a few of them and then identify a current need and predict a few possible technological advances that may com

    • PS - The video Trinity and Beyond [] is a chilling yet enthralling science documentary of the [mostly US but some USSR] nuclear bomb programs. You might ask your students to guess how many bombs were set off in testing, and where. Give them this Google Earth KML [] and show them all of the places and yields.

  • I read Keeper of the Isis Light one afternoon while waiting in the library for the computer to finish doing something. It wasn't bad, discussed the nature of a colony planet through the eyes of an orphan raised by the household computer system after her parents' deaths and how she was different than the colonists that followed the beacon that her family was ostensibly there to maintain. It's not terribly complex, but passable after a fashion. It lacks the sexuality of many science fiction writers like Pi
  • by mongoose(!no) ( 719125 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:03PM (#43526613)
    It's really fascinating, and puts some historical context to the ideas they've been learning about. It's also written at a level to be accessible, but not dumbed down.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif is a classic: It tells the story of the beginnings of microbiology by telling the stories of the researchers (the "Microbe Hunters") who made the most important discoveries. The text is very accessible, with the scientists' stories dramatized in an exciting way. I think it should be OK for a middle school reader.

    Apart from that, when I was that age I enjoyed books by Australian science writer Karl Kruszelnicki.

  • Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

    Non-maths guy, so his explanations and examples are approachable. Good jumping off point if it piques someone's interest.

  • When I was around that age, I really enjoyed "The Boy Who Reversed Himself" [] by William Sleator. Pretty entertaining, and a nice introduction to the concept of higher-dimensional spaces.

    Obligatory Amazon link: []

  • I highly recommend The Martian, by Andy Weir. As an initial warning, there is some... "gritty" language in there, but I think that's keeping with the realism of someone who has been accidentally abandoned on Mars. A gripping read, science that is absolutely spot-on, and some genuinely funny moments as well. All available for the low, low price of less than a buck. []
  • Brave New World and War of the Worlds. Of course most of these books with science in them are going to be offensive and at some point banned by religious zealots.
  • What happened to the classics?
    • by mdfst13 ( 664665 )

      Not only Jules Verne. What about H.G. Wells? I'd also include Arthur Conan Doyle. Most of the science fiction in Sherlock Holmes has turned into science fact, but in some ways that actually makes it more relevant for your purposes.

      More recent classics would include the Heinlein juveniles (almost everything he wrote before Strange in a Strange Land plus some of what he wrote afterwards) and (as others mentioned) the Asimov books. The robot series is more for programmers than scientists, but there's quite

  • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) * on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:09PM (#43526717) Homepage Journal

    OK, so they're picture books. But the content is there, and is probably at a slightly higher level than middle school, but made clear and accessible.

    David Macaulay "The Way Things Work" and such []

    Larry Gonick "Cartoon Guide to ..." []

    Stephen Hawking has less pictures, but is surprisingly accessible []

  • It's the least they should read.

  • Stanislav Lem's the Cyberiad. Clever, funny and compelling.
  • by dbc ( 135354 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:20PM (#43526887)

    Free download. Very practical. I suspect it will engage a fair number of middle-schoolers.

  • Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles is an excellent book. I recommend it wholehearthedly.

  • Open research (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jbeaupre ( 752124 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:22PM (#43526905)

    My wife teaches advanced middle school science (7th and 8th). She rarely assigns or recommends reading material. She gives them subjects and turns them loose. This week it is to create egg-drop protection devices and create periodic table/fictional character trading cards. Here are some areas that she's seen the kids go crazy doing their own research:

    1) Pick a genetic disease. Explain the symptoms, the mechanisms, and how is it genetically inherited. Unspoken is "Try to outdo your classmates."

    2) Your town has a billion dollars and wants to build a nuclear power station. You've been asked to recommend what kind. Give a recommendation with evidence to support safety, reliability, fuel cycle handling, economics, probability of success, etc.

    3) GMO's, stem cell research, nuclear power, global warming (etc, etc). Pick one of these controversial topics, research it, talk to your family, and come up with an opinion (for or against). Now write a letter to a government official explaining, with scientific rational, why they should make the policy decisions you believe are correct. My wife refuses to discuss her opinions on any of these topics to avoid biasing their opinions.

    The last two were particularly powerful. Kids were amazed they were allowed to have an opinion. And she began doing these before teaching advanced science. She rigged classroom assignments to get all the special ed kids because she thinks they are more fun. She often had double the number allowed by state law, but her kids were outscoring other classes. Stats got noticed and advanced science classes were born.

    Yes, I'm proud of my wife. And never prouder than the day she had to go to the emergency room for blowing up the lab! Epic!

    • Pick a genetic disease. Explain the symptoms, the mechanisms, and how is it genetically inherited. Unspoken is "Try to outdo your classmates."

      What could possibly go wrong?

      And never prouder than the day she had to go to the emergency room for blowing up the lab! Epic!

      Answered my question, you did. Did they have to get the CDC involved?


  • What about having the kids actually write a short sci-fi type story? A requirement being that at some point in their short story they must utilize some piece of actual science taught in class during the year? It would be a change of pace from another book report. You could possibly even work with their English teachers to have some credit given in those classes as well.
  • World of Ptaavs, Protector, The Magic Goes Away, The Flight of the Horse (funny). They're a good read, suitable for even young teens, refer to numerous significant concepts, and oddly, the best conversations will come from picking out the flaws (e.g. Why are fossils NOT dragons that ran out of manna? How does fossil evidence disprove the main tenet of "Protector?, How do we know PSI doesn't work? What about time travel?). Hours of discussion.

  • my absolute favorite at that age was A Tale of Time City. I read about 300 books in 2 years back then and that's my absolute favorite. It's about a city that travels on type of the time cycle which is horse-shoe shape and they're approaching the gap and don't really know what to do. So they kidnap a girl from 1940's england or something like that because they think she's the legendary time witch who hides somewhere in the timeline or something like that. Turns out she's not but she can help find her. T
  • by bunbuntheminilop ( 935594 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:28PM (#43526979)

    The first book of the series. The depth of the ecology perspective surprised me when I read it the first time. There aren't many books that have a focus on planetary ecology.

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:29PM (#43526983)

    I read this when I was about 14. Suitable I think for a strong student at that age.

    It's Darwin's journal of the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. It would be very difficult for a student of that age to not be positively influenced by it.


    Birth of a New Physics by I Bernard Cohen. This one is perhaps a bit less challenging.

  • By late elementary school I was reading Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Sphere. Admittedly a lot of the science went over my head and took me a few rereads (and aging) to understand it, but a lot of the basic science in understandable and accurate (as is the message, particularly of Jurassic Park). These books helped nurture a real interest in science for me, to the point where my college choices were basically decided by the choice of internship I did in high school (biomedical engineering vs history:
  • Rendezvous with Rama is a mostly good book, and is certainly very strong with its science (though are debates [] he didn't get the Coriolis effects quite right). Unfortunately, there is a very brief page or so in the book that talks about having sex in zero-G that may make some people decide it's inappropriate for that age.
    Having said that, it's got a lot less sex in it than the PG-13 films that the 13 year olds are seeing...
  • []

    Lots of science type material in there, across many disciplines. And its just a great great story.

  • Some aspects of the novel related to science understandable for a teen: * How a submarine controls buoyancy * How the steam engines works * How electric propulsion works * How batteries work * Underwater breathing apparatus * How to make fresh water from sea water * Marine biology * Ethics of using advanced technology to harm
  • These might be a bit much for middle school kids. I'm not sure what they're capable of these days. Both are available on Amazon.
    The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? by Leon Lederman
    Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife
  • If you're allowing the sort of sci-fi you mentioned, then Contact would be an excellent place for middle schoolers to start.

    Also, Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. It's a bit outdated considering it was written before we even visited the moon, but that's a point you ask them to write up in their report.

  • Any of the Martin Gardner books would be good but I don't know if they are still in print.

  • Science fiction isn't about the science, it's about exploring the human condition using a back drop that is alien to our everyday experiences.

    However, I think you should look into "hard science fiction", Wiki has a nice list of books: []
  • Fred Hoyle's 'The Black Cloud' is one of a select group of novels that manage to combine convincing science and a classic SF situation (intelligence is discovered in a dust cloud that envelopes the earth). I read it at about that age, and learnt a few things about how science is done, like the importance of testing theories by prediction. Dawkins is a fan, and wrote the Afterword to the current edition:

    "But the real virtue of The Black Cloud is this - without ever preaching at us, Hoyle manages, as the stor

  • The problem is a lot of books written for this specific purpose are out of print or lost to the ravages of time. Divers Down! for example, is an excellent book that deals with ocean engineering and mechanical engineering with a story that an 11 or 14 year old is actually going to be able to relate to. Another possibility is "Falling Free" by Lois Mcmaster Bujold which does a good job in orbital welding engineering while also telling an exciting story. Partly, the question is, how sophisticated is the given

  • 'Red Thunder' is a relatively recent series of sci-fi novels by John Varley, written with a young adult audience in mind. Varley avoids the adult content of his usual works -- there's even a character in the book who forbids the children from swearing -- so I'm sure it could pass muster for middle school.

    The plot of the books is rich in science content and wonder. An autistic inventor and his brother discover a new power source, and a gang of young kids decide to build a rocket using that power so that th

  • The Elegant Universe
    The Fabric of the Cosmos

    Anybody who can use The Simpsons to illustrate special relativity is a win in my book. Both should be tractable by a motivated middle school student.

    I would avoid SciFi. Not a lot of true science in there.
  • It's been a LONNNNG time since I was this age, so maybe these books are a bit beyond middle schoolers.

    Greetings Carbon Based Bipeds by Arthur C. Clarke

    The Minds I, or Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofsdater (these might be tough to comprehend though)

    And not books, but what about issues of Scientific American? I got that magazine for a few years, and it was always very thought provoking.

  • There's still some "hard SF" being written. But the era of hard science juveniles has been over for a long time. Heinlein wrote most of his juveniles for "Boys Life", the Boy Scouts magazine. Really.

    Looking through the SF section today, it's "vampire", "vampire", "werewolf", "demon", "comic book spinoff", "Star [Trek|Wars] spinoff", and an occasional space opera. Over in the teen section, there's two cases of Teen Paranormal Romance, one of New Teen Paranormal Romance, and, more recently, Hunger Games c

    • by Hizonner ( 38491 )

      I agree with the parent on the Heinlein juveniles. There's actual science in there, particularly bits of Newtonian physics. Somebody mentioned "Have Space Suit, Will Travel", which would be a good choice.

      I'd have no problem with my kid reading "Accelerando", but I'm not sure a middle school teacher could get away with assigning it. There's the whole BDSM rape scene and all.

      I'd say Greg Egan, but he'd definitely be for advanced middle schoolers only. The problem with him is that he tends to either throw you

      • Kind of a dark horse, but how about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality []?

        The actual science is clearly delineated from the magic. The mindset it's trying to inculcate is a really useful one to be able to enter.

        Just don't make 'em think it resembles Harry Potter, because I don't think it does.

        No sex, but it's not likely to be endearing to people who don't believe in questioning authority. And it is unabashedly propaganda for a certain way of thinking.

  • Maybe a little old for middle school, but an interesting read for the brighter kids interested in math, art and music.
  • It's is a biographical history of the 1950s woman who's cancerous cells (HeLa) are now used throughout the world as a research tool. It's an interesting look into the development of scientific research ethics (there was no consent given at the time), civil rights, biological patents and commercialisation but in an incredibly readable way. I would think the upper-end of your age group would quite enjoy it.

  • by ( 771661 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @03:12PM (#43528389) Homepage Journal
    I read to our kids every night, and after a while I got tired of wizards waving a wand to solve the problems. Wanting something non-fiction, I recalled The Kon-Tiki Expedition and it was perfect. The best part about Thor Heyerdahl's amazing adventure story is that it's true. As in it really happened. Trips to the jungle, strange sea creatures, a real scientific mystery, a shipwreck on an exotic tropical island, it's all in there. The book is still in print (a true classic) and if poke around a bit, you can find a beautiful illustrated edition that's great for younger kids. It's one of the best science adventure books you'll ever find.
  • Hal Clements wrote "Mission of Gravity" and "Iceworld" where physics and chemistry is extrapolated into wonderful new types of world - the Ellipsoidal "Mesklin" in Mission of Gravity for example.

    Also, Robert D Forward's "Dragon's Egg" about life on a Neutron star's surface is an exploration of nuclear chemistry.

  • I would recommend Michael Crichton. Yes, books like Jurassic Park only use sudo-science, but he does his homework to add some actual science behind it. I remember reading The Andromeda Strain and was rather impressed with the level of "science" involved in the story. The same goes for Cube. Both use scientific investigation as a means to drive the story, at least early on.

    The only thing about Michael Crichton's books is that a large number of them have been made into movies. But, the differences are ea

    • Yes, books like Jurassic Park only use sudo-science

      Is that science you can only do if you're root?

      • Yes, books like Jurassic Park only use sudo-science

        Is that science you can only do if you're root?

        Yes! Ok, so my spelling isn't so great.

  • No question about it, the science in Larry Niven's Ringworld series boggles most people's minds and opens up all kinds of interesting questions.
    • by Hizonner ( 38491 )

      Orgasm guns. Just a warning.

      I think it may be hard to find much that nobody can get teed off about. It must be pretty annoying to be a teacher sometimes.

  • He writes some easy to read, get to the basics books on physics and they're available to buy via lulu or free for download here [].
  • I come from a generation and area in which extra credit was something that only a kid who had skipped school or suffered a suspension would ever be involved in. Sadly it was also a path that could corrupt teachers as the rich could make arrangements to get extra credit for their kids in such a way that straight A report cards were assured no matter what.
    A better notion might be to refer kids to online courses at places

  • I just finished this book and loved it. It is a book about a high school team and the FIRST robotics competition.
    Easy, fun read and loads of science+general teanage kids stuff.
    By Neil Bascomb. The New Cool []
  • I read it some 20 years ago but it's readable, presentable, hard science, well-written. I don't know if it's still in print (be amazed if not) .. yes is is [] or how much is still valid. 20 years is a long time in cosmology.
  • First, I'm entirely unclear about how Hitchhiker's Guide could be considered "science related". It's a great story, and it has all the trappings of science fiction, but it's almost (but not quite) exactly unlike science.

    Second, though, I highly highly recommend Cory Doctorow's young adult novels, especially Little Brother. Good writing, good story, and the (computer) science is generally accurate. Plus it was actually written in the past decade so it doesn't seem like ancient history or retro "what we use

    • by qwak23 ( 1862090 )

      There is plenty of science in "Hitchiker's Guide", it's just mostly wrapped in humor.

      Flying - throwing oneself at the ground and missing - might be a good place for discussion on free fall, principle of relativity, etc
      Somebody else's problem field - see psychology.
      The infinite improbability drive - could be a good starting point for a discussion on probability
      The earth (as a computer) and the bistro drive, good places for discussion as to what makes a computer, and maybe even a lead in to topics such as cha

  • I read an article that holds up Ender's Game as either a) a good book, or b) something that kids should be encouraged to read, I know that the article was written by someone who doesn't know much about books.

  • "One Two Three Infinity"
  • It occurred to me one to my science classes in high school had us read Jurassic Park. Seems like old Michael Crichton knew how to include interesting details in that book and it's no a bad book to boot.

  • Simon Winchester has written some interesting stuff about the San Francisco earthquake, Krakatoa and a few other topics in an easy to read style but with care taken not to screw up the science (especially in his own field of geology from before he was a journalist). I'm sure kids would love to read about a Pygmy Elephant going beserk on the third floor of a Jakarta hotel during an earthquake a few days before Krakatoa erupted. There's a pile of other authors that write well about other topics.
  • Science fiction is not about science.

    A very good example of this is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I love this series -- it's one of my all-time favorites. But it's not about science, and doesn't even involve much real science. It's a parody on modern society. Most science fiction is more about modern times than anything.

    If you want them to do book reports, then have them read real non-fiction science books. There are plenty out there, quite a few suggested in these comments.

    But if you really want to

  • Some of my favorites as a kid: The Mad Scientists' Club, The Great Brain,
    Homer Price, Henry Reed, Bruno & Boots.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.