The Martian — Not a Review

Dedicated to the stellar STEM team at Everett Elementary and to intrepid teacher I(inquiry)TEAMs everywhere.

In the summer of 1999, I did some work for Adler Planetarium as part of a MAPS (Museums and Public Schools) grant. Museums in the Parks and Chicago Public Schools collaborated to design curriculum based on museum collections, with an eye toward creating interdisciplinary units incorporating something from each of the museums, connecting kids to the rich treasury of artifacts they housed, and making field trips more relevant. Each curriculum team consisted of representatives from each of three museums and 4 CPS teachers representing different subject areas. My team included The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (as it was then called).

After touring our partner museums, my team was charged with developing field trip activities tied to the Mars-focused unit we were working on and based on what we had seen at the museums. I still remember one of the “field trip questions” written by a teacher on my team: “What do the red planet and the Red Sea have in common?” I’ll tell you his answer later in this post.

Mars has always been fascinating, but back then it was particularly so. Three years earlier (1996), Dr. Robert Zubrin had published The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, and Adler Planetarium was all over it. It’s a fascinating and important book that makes the colonization of Mars seem entirely doable. Carl Sagan said, “Bob Zubrin really, nearly alone, changed our thinking on this issue.” As an aside, the science behind the book is both compelling and accessible to the general reader, so it would be good background reading for units you might create in the future focused on ESS1B – Earth and Solar System and the Disciplinary Core Ideas under Engineering, Technology and Applications of Science (ETS1A, ETS1B, ETS1C, EST2A, and ETS2B).

The Case for Mars by Dr. Robert Zubrin

The Case for Mars by Dr. Robert Zubrin

Now, let’s fast forward to October 2015, and the movie that debuted this past weekend at the top of the box office heap, raking in almost $55 million dollars in one weekend, director Ridley Scott’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon. Revisiting the Zubrin book after just having seen The Martian, it’s obvious that Zubrin’s thinking about how Mars could first be explored and then colonized, has shaped the work that is going on today, including some of what we see in the film.

We’re so used to film conflict centering on man vs. man, all those Terminator and Bourne movies, that the struggle of one man against the hostile environment in which he finds himself stranded … Mars … and against his own physical, psychological, and intellectual limits … is a refreshing change. What sets this film apart, in addition to Damon’s superb performance and the strikingly beautiful setting, is the plausibility both of the story and of its heroic resolution. This really could happen and in the not too distant future.

Serendipitously, just days ahead of the film’s release, NASA scientists confirmed evidence of water on Mars, something that had only been suspected until then. And NASA is currently working on  at least nine of the technologies that are represented in The Martian. The film is a celebration of scientific thinking and engineering expertise, both on the part of astronaut Mark Watley and by the team of scientists at NASA and Watley’s crewmembers who are trying to save him. If you ever needed inspiration for teaching STEM, this film is it. And if you ever needed ammunition to make a case for the value of increasing the amount of time devoted to STEM subjects in school, The Martian will also serve.

But as to immediate practical applications, I think the film can serve as a model for STEM thinking and teaching. Exactly how do STEM professionals set about understanding a phenomenon or solving a problem? When Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney finds himself stranded on a planet where he is fast running out of food supplies and realizes that he has only a small window of time to travel the thousands of kilometers necessary to reconnect with the next mission from earth, he defiantly says “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

It’s that attitude that teachers are now called on to exhibit in facing the challenging task of teaching to the new standards, when we have precious little time in the daily schedule for it, no NGSS aligned resources (just some old FOSS and SEPUP kits), and no likelihood of having those resources for about the same length of time Mark Watney must wait for the return of his crew (total mission length about 900 days), and, with any luck and a lot of science, his return to earth. In the meantime, we have to “science the s**t” out of what is available.

So just like Mark Watney broke into things never intended for the use he would put them to in order to save his life and just as he dumped stuff from cupboards and lockers onto the table and floor to see what would serve his new purposes, we are in a space and time when teachers literally have to do the same thing. We have to fully embrace the first of the 5 E’s … Exploring! And, thankfully, just like Watney, we aren’t alone. He had his crew in space and the NASA team back on earth to help him problem solve, once, of course, he had figured out the huge problem of how to communicate with them the fact that he was still alive. Teachers have each other. We just have to reach out to each other and collaborate.

All over the Internet, teachers and STEM organizations and institutions (including NASA, btw) are posting free resources that you can use to do the science you want to do with your students, science aligned with the NGSS. And there are those FOSS boxes, possibly sitting in a closet or storeroom somewhere in your school. Raid them. FOSS isn’t inquiry based and it isn’t NGSS aligned, but those kits contain all of the stuff that STEM folks use in their work. Break into those boxes and figure out how those tools and materials can be used in new ways for different activities than FOSS intended, activities that are NGSS aligned. Let Mark Watney be your inspiration. If he could figure out how to keep himself alive on a hostile planet, you can figure out how to keep NGSS alive in an environment not conducive to its implementation. No pun intended, but it will require “out of the box” thinking from you.

So give yourself a treat this weekend, and see this terrific film. Then have a go at those supplies lying around your building.

Recently, when he was asked by The Guardian about the scientific accuracy of The Martian, Robert Zubrin said, “The US space programme today is frozen in its tracks. NASA talks about sending humans to Mars in 2043, but that’s just postponing it for another generation. We’re much closer today to being able to send people to Mars than we were to sending people to the Moon in 1961. If Barack Obama’s successor were to commit the nation, in the spring of 2017, with the same kind of courage and determination that JFK did in 1961, we could be on Mars before the end of his or her second term. It’s a question of political will to me. That’s the real positive message of The Martian. It’s saying, ‘we can do it. If we use our minds, we can take on all these challenges.’”

And, teachers, so can we! Storm the Internet. Tear into your classroom closets and storerooms. Repurpose those FOSS kits. And make it an iTEAM effort; enlist your colleagues.

Now for the answer to that question I posed earlier, “What do the Red Sea and the Red Planet have in common?” I’m ashamed to say, the teacher who made up that question for a field trip worksheet that students would fill out on their visit to The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, wrote the correct answer as “the color red.” If you’re like me, you anticipated something more scientific. In point of fact, one thing Mars and the Red Sea do have in common is high salinity; both are extremely alkaline, with a pH of over 8.0. There’s surely an inquiry investigation in there somewhere.

Teachers, is there any doubt we have our work cut out for us?

~ Penny

For more information about Golden Apple STEM Institute, click.

A good free resource, the NRC’s Guide to Implementing the NGSS, which will help you keep the task in perspective can be downloaded here. You can find a summary here.

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Filed under 5 E Model, Adler Planetarium, collaboration, creativity, Everett Elementary, Field Museum, inquiry science, Mars, NGSS, resources, science teaching, STEM education, teacher resources, The Martian

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