Recommend some great sci-fi reading for middle school science class

I’m a fairly new science teacher (2nd year - career changer) and I’d like to incorporate science fiction into my curriculum to improve science literacy and up the engagement level of my newly hormonal tween students.

Our textbook is dreadfully dry, and a major leap in reading level from their previous elementary science textbook. They’re at that crucial age where they can go from science lovers to science phobics. I don’t want to lose them now, and we’ve got a couple of years before I have to worry about standardized test prep, so I can afford to be creative with my curriculum and keep them engaged.

I was (and still am) an avid reader in middle school, but I’m worried that my tastes may have been too “precocious” for some my current students, so I’m asking you guys to recommend some favorites.

I’m thinking along the lines of Heinlein’s Space Cadet, Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Player Piano, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Ursula LeGuin…

Do you think these are suitable for 11 to 13 year olds? They were my faves back then, but I’d like to get a broader range of input.

I teach both gifted and special ed, with a lot of ELL students (4 different languages). Short stories that reinforce basic science concepts would be perfect, but I don’t have enough time now that I’m teaching to search them out. Please help! I’m a long time lurker here so I know I can get some great advice.

Thanks in advance.


The light of other days, by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s about a breakthrough technology that completely unwinds humanity as we know it.

For Heinlein stuff I’d suggest Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, and Podkayne of Mars. Asimov’s Caves of Steel might be good. I’d also throw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into that hat.

You might consider focusing on short stories given that age bracket. I’d suggest Surface Tension by James Blish to start.

Maybe something with a protagonist near their age.

Emergence - David Palmer
Jumper - Steven Gould
Podkayne of Mars - Robert Heinlein
Rite of Passage - Alexei Panshin

Calling B for Butterfly by Louise Lawrence

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

It was “sci-fi” when he wrote it, but it is fast becoming reality.

The three laws!



Moving thread from IMHO to Cafe Society.

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold - great characters and story (it is by Bujold), and it’s got a pervasive background of how technology affects society.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, preferably Volume I or Volume II. Ignore the others (which are, thankfully, almost impossible to find) Older science fiction, but still some of the very best, and the first volume is all short stories. You can introduce your students to quite a variety of authors and story types.

Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. A great SF novel that is all about science.

I remember that in my elementary/middle school library, about the only sci-fi was LeGuin and the assorted Tom Swift stories. Really not sure about giving them Welcome to the Monkey House. I loved it as a teenager, but I’m pretty sure the title story will have many of the parents jumping down your throat. “Harrison Bergeron” should be fine, though it isn’t sci-fi.

I might give them short stories from Larry Niven, especially the Known Space series. They usually deal with “weird” concepts from physics and math—neutron stars, gas toroids, quantum black holes, teleportation, mathematical series, etc—in a very straightforward manner. Usually, there’s a mystery for the reader to figure out as well. And, his early stuff is pretty easy to excise the sex from, which may be a consideration as an American middle school teacher. The beginning of The Integral Trees, especially the cover art, might suck in some of your class that’s starting to get into fantasy. Then again, I got started on Niven from a recommendation for Lucifer’s Hammer from my 8th grade science teacher…

You might also look at Charles Stross’s short stories: Missile Gap, A Colder War, etc. Lots of ideas, but he is very, very dark.

My area is math rather than science, and two math-related SF stories that spring to mind are Isaac Asimov’s “The Feeling of Power” and Robert Heinlein’s And He Built a Crooked House."

This website is a guide to Mathematical Fiction, and it has an extensive list that can be sorted by genre, topic, or motif. I don’t know whether there’s a similar site out there for fiction that relates to specific science concepts, but if there is, it would be a good resource for you.

They are probably a bit outdated now a days, but for me middle school was all about Asimov, Bradbury, and Adams.

Wow, thanks so much for the responses! I love most of these myself, so at least I’m engaged - it’s a start. :slight_smile:

I think I have a copy of Surface Tension already in an anthology - got to dig it out…

I’m definitely going with Emergence - I think my kids will love it.

I’ll look at Podkayne - do you all think it’s a better bet than Space Cadet? I was thinking my boys would relate to Space Cadet…

So I’ve ordered most of these already, both through my librarian and on my own. I’m not sure if I can get class sets for some of these, so we’ll see what happens on that end (I’ve never ordered fiction class sets before).

Gray Ghost, how do you “excise” the sex out of an assigned paperback? It is a concern, as I’ve got quite a few “helicopter” parents with time on their hands. Are you saying I should photocopy chapters and edit them first?

Do you really think Welcome to the Monkey House is unsuitable? I love Vonnegut, and he always gets shortchanged by ELA teachers (actually, most sci-fi does, hardcore or otherwise). Any votes for including some Vonnegut, or is he best saved for high school?

Asimov is a definite yes, just matter of which one…

Thank you all! Now I’m looking forward to my lesson planning (suggestions welcome with that as well, as I’m not an ELA teacher)…

As to the helicopter parents…

I read Ender’s Game when I was 12, and loved it, and it is no doubt suitable for that age group. But it’s also got, um, two fairly graphic murders in it.

Ethan of Athos partially takes place in a society that is all men, with the pairings as you would expect. Nothing explicit, and I find it quite charming and would totally let a 12-year-old read it, but you may have to watch out depending on how conservative your helicopter parents are.

More generally: Yay Asimov! The short stories are pretty much all good (scientific, logical). Arthur Clarke’s short stories were favorites of mine too (if not quite as classic as Asimov’s).

Not sure if you’re looking for nonfiction at all, but Feynman’s Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! is a classic that I read at about that age and loved. Perhaps take out the sections where he talks about picking up women :slight_smile:

Thudlow Boink, that is an awesome list. I’m going to have to go through that in more depth.

I’d just photocopy the short stories out, edit whatever you’d think are prurient bits, and assign those. Buy a copy or three for the school library if you think you need to assuage the copyright gods. Definitely check with your institution’s policy on copyrighted material, yadda, yadda. IIRC, Niven’s Known Space short stories aren’t that unseemly, but they do have adults as characters, and adults have sex from time to time. Nothing like Heinlein’s later stuff—I’d avoid Friday and Stranger in a Strange Land—but still…

In the short story, Welcome to the Monkey House, isn’t the protagonist [SPOILER] a poet who forces himself sexually on different women in order to reacquaint their culture with the beauty of physical love? From the wiki,


The collection is wonderful, I agree. You could go with EPICAC, the Euphio Question, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, The Kid Nobody Could Handle (no, not sci-fi, but applicable to them, I think)…

Off the subject of sci-fi stories, but if you were looking for small vignettes to popularize math and science to young women, you could do worse than talk about the life of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (very early computing pioneer) and Hedy Lamarr’s contributions to spread-spectrum radio communications. Yes, that Hedy Lamarr.

(Got thinking about Admiral Hopper in reference to her familiar saying, “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”)

Space Cadet is my favorite of the Heinlein juveniles, and would not be a bad choice, but for demonstrating scientific principles, it’s hard to do better than The Rolling Stones: There’s tons of orbital mechanics packed in there.

And speaking as someone who may someday have to teach relativity to your students, please don’t get Time for the Stars. Bless him, old Bob knew all the formulas for relativity, but he hadn’t a clue how to apply them.

You’re probably right about Monkey House - the rape part might be too much. I taught high school last year, so I’m still trying to gear down to middle school level. I’ll see if I can edit it to make it suitable, but if not, I’ll go with another Vonnegut ss.

And thanks for the links about Grace Hopper and Hedy Lamarr - my girls do need encouragement right about now. I love Hopper’s models for nanoseconds and picoseconds…

Chronos, thanks for reminding me about The Rolling Stones, but Space Cadet is my fave juvenile too, and I think my reading averse boys will get into it a lot easier. I might save The Rolling Stones for 8th grade next term - that’s when we’ll cover orbital mechanics anyway.

Alan Dean Foster: Glory Lane and The Last Starfighter.