Is “The Martian” accurate? Does it matter?
It’s been a big couple of weeks for the planet Mars. Two weeks ago it was the star of our North East skills stand, last Monday NASA announced they’ve found evidence of flowing water, and now it’s the setting for the big-budget rescue of Matt Damon in the movie, The Martian.
Being both a teacher and a movie fan, I’m always curious as to how I can use films to educate students. I know a lot of people worry about the scientific accuracy of films; in fact there are whole websites dedicated to exposing bad movie science, but I wonder if a movie like The Martian has other things to offer. Firstly, it’s a film that celebrates intelligence and problem solving. The film’s heroes have to use their brains to save the day, a relative rarity in a Hollywood blockbuster. Interstellar was praised for its scientific content (thanks to consultant Kip Thorne), but still ultimately boils down to “love saves the day”. The Martian bucks the trend and is a great demonstration to students of how a scientific mind-set can be our best weapon in the face of the most challenging of problems.
Secondly, I think that the insight into a large scientific organisation, in this case NASA, will help students to appreciate the wide-range of different careers onto which STEM qualifications can lead. In this film we see every type of scientist outlined by the People Like Me project which is part of the WISE campaign which promotes women in STEM. The aim of this project is to demonstrate the different roles available to people who study STEM; it’s not all men in white coats. It is the combination of these different skill-sets working together in The Martian that ultimately saves the day. Thankfully, The Martian also has a suitably diverse cast which helps to break down a few stereotypes about the types of people who work in STEM.
If we decide to use films in the classroom, I think we need to be very clear as to what our ultimate goal is. If we are using them to illustrate or teach scientific concepts, I think we must be very careful about the accuracy of the scientific content. On the other hand, if we want to show our pupils the value of a STEM education and inspire them to continue towards STEM careers, I think films like The Martian, despite the odd inaccuracy, can be very useful.
Another favourite of mine is Contagion (also with Matt Damon!), for being similarly diverse and not afraid to celebrate intelligence. What films or TV shows have/would you show in the classroom?