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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Kid-friendly ‘Martian’ teaches science

David Beck uses The Martian to teach science at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, Calif. Photo: Carlos Gonzalez /New York Times

An astronaut is stranded on Mars, nobody knows he’s alive and rescue is four years away, far longer than his food supply will hold out. “Gosh darn it!” he says.

Science teachers are using a profanity-free classroom edition of The Martian to teach physics, astronomy and chemistry, reports Alexandra Alter in the New York Times. It’s the same story with less cursing. (The astronaut doesn’t really say “gosh darn it.”)

To survive on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney must “solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math,” writes Alter.

At Synergy Quantum Academy, a public charter high school in South Los Angeles, students are conducting experiments based on the novel. In physics class, students will build miniature solar-powered cars, and during astronomy next month, they will try to grow potatoes as Watney did, using a chamber modeled on NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Chamber. 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.

Denise Clemens, who teaches at Northwestern High School in Mellette, S.D., listed some of the questions she asks students:

— Explain the difference between a “sol” and a “day.” — Newton’s laws play a major role in the functioning of life on Mars and our life on Earth. Review by stating Newton’s Three Laws. Give an example of how each of these laws is applied in “The Martian.” — Mark Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer. State how both backgrounds have been helpful to him and state which you think is most beneficial to have and why. — Create a flow chart with the mathematical information presented when Watney experiences a leak in his suit (p. 164/165). Validate his math.

Some teachers think cursing makes the stranded astronaut a more credible character.

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