The Martian: Using Books and Films to Educate


Using popular books or films to augment and enliven learning is a good trick most every teacher uses when they get the opportunity.

A great example is how science teachers are using Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, The Martian, to teach principles of physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, botany, and other topics that are sometimes a bit dry.

According to The New York Times

Mr. Weir did not set out to write a science textbook. A college dropout and former software engineer who is fascinated by space exploration, Mr. Weir started writing “The Martian” in 2009, mainly to entertain himself. The story grew out of a thought experiment, when Mr. Weir began imagining what a scientifically feasible manned mission to Mars would look like.

The story took shape as Mr. Weir tried to work out what it would take to get to Mars, and how to keep a stranded astronaut alive on the planet (the creative use of duct tape is key).

“Oftentimes, when I was double-checking the math, I would discover problems that I hadn’t thought of that Watney would run into,” he said.

He wrote computer software to work out what the constant thrust trajectories would be for the spaceship’s ion engine, and studied NASA satellite images to map out Watney’s treacherous 3,200-plus kilometer course across Mars in a rover. He also calculated how many calories Watney would need to stay alive, how much water he would need to grow potatoes, and how he could manufacture water out of oxygen and hydrazine, a compound used for rocket fuel.

Mr. Weir had failed to sell an earlier attempt at a novel, so rather than trying to get “The Martian” published, he serialized it for free on his website. Some of his fans urged him to list it on Amazon, and he began selling it for 99 cents. He quickly sold 35,000 copies, and started getting inquiries from publishers and agents. Crown bought the novel and published it in 2014.

A feature film adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as Watney, came out the next year and grossed more than $630 million worldwide. The novel sold more than three million copies, and has racked up more than 29,500 reviews on Amazon.

Because the original novel has some salty language, Mr. Weir and his publishers have also created a PG version of the novel with the 160 stronger profanities replaced, by Weir himself, with words like “screwed,” “jerk” and “crap” to help teachers get the book approved by local school boards.

Eighth graders at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, Calif., are following a yearlong curriculum based on “The Martian,” with lesson plans that use dramatic moments in the narrative to illustrate concepts like Newton’s laws of motion, chemical reactions and spacecraft engineering. In a science class at Northwestern High School in Mellette, S.D., sophomores are using the novel as a jumping-off point for some hands-on experiments, like splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

“It’s really exciting for them to see the connection between the novel and the science they’re learning,” said Denise Clemens, a science teacher at Northwestern. “Hopefully we’re not going to blow anything up.”

Her students seem happy to have an alternative to dry science textbooks.

“It’s been a really good way to understand ionic compounds and bonds and all the things you can do with chemistry,” Jarret Haven, 16, said of studying “The Martian.” “It’s really opened up my mind.”

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