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As a new school year starts, I thought I’d give some general tips and suggestions for using popular movies and television series in your science classroom. Some of these ideas may be more appropriate for the high school setting, but I hope elementary and middle school teachers will find some suggestions useful. To save you time and effort searching for videos, I also suggest a movie or TV series to accompany each idea.
The first, and probably my preferred, option is to have students collect some data from a short segment and use that data in a quick calculation. Many science-in-movie reviewers who wrote about Pixar’s film Up were curious about how many helium balloons it would take to hold up a house, for example. One of my favorite examples dates all the way back to 2004: Spiderman II, in which Spidey stops an elevated train full of passengers before it runs out of track. I have asked physics students to do a rough calculation of how much force it took for Spidey to stop the train. (The filmmakers are good enough to show us the initial speed of the train, we can measure the time, and we just need to estimate the mass of the train and passengers.)
Sometimes movies depict phenomena too expensive, difficult, or dangerous for you to demonstrate in your classroom, so a brief film clip can be helpful. You do have to be cautious, however, because many films will reinforce common misconceptions about force and motion through the use of special effects. It may surprise you that an animated film, Wall-E, contains some excellent physics (along with some problems, but I won’t mention those here.) At the start of the “dance” scene, Wall-E floats through space without speeding up, slowing down, or changing direction until he uses a fire extinguisher as a rocket. That’s a great demonstration of inertia, and a very difficult one to do in an Earth-bound classroom, where friction and wind resistance are ubiquitous.
To check students’ ability to apply a science lesson in a new context, you might show a short scene from a film and ask students to find scientific errors in it. In this case, the specific film depends greatly on the topic you want to review. If you have just taught sound, for example, you might show a scene from Star Wars in which spaceships are heard flying by even though space has no material to carry sound. If you’re teaching geography or time zones, you might show the scene near the end of Jumper in which characters teleport around the globe and night and day have no bearing on the actual alignment of the Sun and Earth.
As a more extended application of scientific thinking outside the classroom, you might assign a long-term project requiring students to share their observations of either good or bad science in movies in a brief report to the class. A short description of the scene and an explanation of the science concept or misconception depicted would be enough. I would consider giving extra credit to students who find examples from movies outside the science fiction or action genres to illustrate the fact that science is all around us. My review of The Devil Wears Prada, in which I discussed the pressure under high heels versus flat shoes and reflections in car windows, offers an example of this idea.
Finally, if you have an entire class period available, you could show an extended segment of a movie or a full episode of a series like MythBusters. The main concern with a long film is keeping students’ attention on the content you want them to retain. I have found worksheets with questions to answer after each five- to 10-minute portion worked well when I had students watch long video segments. I always try to match the content of these videos to topics I have covered recently in class or plan to cover soon. I might show Dante’s Peak in an Earth science class and have students look for misunderstandings of volcanic eruptions depicted in the movie.
I hope these ideas will inspire you to try incorporating at least a bit of “Hollywood science” into your classroom as a way to bridge the gap between school science and students’ everyday lives.
Keep in mind some technical concerns regarding using videos in your classroom:
- Using movies in the classroom is considered “fair use” if you own or rent the DVD you are using. However, fair use does not allow you to make an illegal copy of a movie for classroom use.
- Check with your school district regarding policies on film ratings for movies to be shown in class. Some schools are limited to those rated G or PG, while others allow PG-13 films.
- Most software for showing DVDs on a computer will allow you to place markers at the beginning and end of a segment you would like to focus on. These markers can be saved, so the next time you play the DVD, you can immediately jump to the marker without having to fast forward.
- It can be difficult to manage the swapping of discs and finding the right sections of a film, so I generally use only one segment per class session, and I always have a backup plan in case the technology fails.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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