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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?

Activity

National Careers Week: An inspirational STEM Role Model

National Careers Week is upon us, 7th-11th March 2016! A celebration of careers guidance and a focus for activity across the UK. Be sure to explore the official website for resources, including the free-download 2016 digital magazine.

If you’re looking for a quick case study to inspire your students, here’s a role model who’s current, pushes boundaries, and is positively dripping in STEMness:

Elon Musk. Picked by business magazine Forbes as the 38th most powerful person in the world, Musk is a self-made billionaire. South-African born, Canadian-American, and a physics graduate, he’s made his name as an entrepreneur, building businesses like PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Elon’s back story is just as fascinating as what he is doing now, and as a leading visionary of the tech world, his work is likely to affect the lives of us all.

Messages to take away and reiterate:

Whether your students see themselves as the next Elon Musk or would like to work for someone like him, this presentation should encourage discussion about STEM careers as well as the characteristics and attitude to learning and life that Musk displays. His company SpaceX has a terrific careers page with a load of cool jobs like: commercial director, internship opportunities, propulsion development engineer (making rockets go fast), or software development. Yes, these job opportunities are in America, but if this is the type of company in which you’re interested, why let the Atlantic Ocean stop you in your pursuit of job happiness?

What’s happening in North East England?

Here’s a tiny handful of the most exciting and dynamic companies in our region. Have a look on their careers pages to gain an understanding of the types of jobs they offer, and the people they are looking for…

  • Nomad Digital: A Newcastle based company providing wireless networking for trains, right around the globe.
  • Hitachi Rail Europe: Based in Newton Aycliffe, Hitachi are fitting out trains to be used all over the world.
  • Kromek: Based at Netpark Sedgfield. Kromek develop a range of radiation detection equipment used in the nuclear industry, medical imaging and for security screening.
  • Sanofi – Aventis: a multinational company with a site in Newcastle who manufacture a range of pharmaceutical products for the healthcare industry. (Careers Page)
  • Tharsus: helping other companies develop their products through a team of developers with skills in manufacturing, prototyping and managing

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