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How to Turn Bad Movie Science Into Good Teaching

By Monica Fuglei June 3, 2015
Engaging Movie Science

In 2013, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson entertained and enraged movie fans with his “Mysteries of #Gravity” posts on Twitter. Tyson said he enjoyed the movie “very much” but listed several scientific errors that perplexed and entertained him, including the properties of orbiting satellites.

How Neil deGrasse Tyson’s movie fact-checking can serve science teachers

His Tweets were both beloved and reviled by moviegoers, and they highlight a unique opportunity for educators: examining science in movies and encouraging students to use what they’ve learned to determine whether a film’s scientific concepts are sound — or strictly fictional.

Using movies, television shows or video clips to turn students into scientific fact-checkers can affirm their book-learning in a way no exam or report would. Students enjoy the process of hunting out inconsistencies or contradictions with their learning.

Applying science learning to pop culture is a great student engagement tool

Tyson’s “Gravity” Tweets, for example, point out both good and bad uses of science in the movie. From the Kessler Syndrome to the way a person’s hair moves in zero gravity, there are ample opportunities for students to discuss what they’ve learned and how it might apply to the movies they watch, either to disprove or support what they are seeing.

Watching clips from “Gravity” and “Interstellar” and comparing and contrasting the science they see with real-world concepts engages students in lively problem-solving that cements what they learn in science class. By exploring deGrasse Tyson’s comments on both movies for deeper insight, students may develop an attentiveness to the science they see in the world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s movie commentary isn’t limited to “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” In interviews, he’s also shared issues with his favorite movie, “The Matrix,” and love of the science in the 1998 movie “Deep Impact.” Seeing that their science learning is something that scientists apply in every area of their lives makes it clear to students that science knowledge can be applied in immensely interesting ways.

More movie science exploration: Blick on Flicks from the National Science Teachers of America

Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t the only movie fan in on the action: critiquing the science of science fiction is a beloved pastime of many. The National Science Teachers of America (NSTA) hosts the movie blog Blick on Flicks, where Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, PhD, helps to “sort the good science from the bad.”

Blickenstaff’s blog is aimed at middle and high school teachers and covers science issues from the icy fractals of “Frozen” to the helicarrier in “The Avengers.” He finds teachable moments in films’ properly (or improperly) exhibited principles of chemistry, physics and biology. The movie review format helps teachers integrate movies with lesson plans that cover relevant material, once again marrying pop culture with content and critical thinking.

Students learn that science is exciting

In the end, movies are meant to be enjoyed, which is why they’re a great way for students to engage with the science content they’re studying. While writing lesson plans or planning class entertainment, consider integrating science-themed movies and television shows while encouraging students to practice their science as they watch.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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