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Resource Rendezvous

Project Hail Mary

Hello science teacher friends—we’ve made it! By the time this is in print, another school year will have come to a close. For some of us, our naive science learners will don caps and gowns and move on into the “real world.” We hope that some of our lessons about the Nature of Science will guide them through adulthood, where scientific understanding will be an everyday necessity, not just something you learned in school. Other graduates will move on to the next level of science learning, where our lessons will propel them into scientific careers that may have begun as gawky freshmen at a lab bench. And for most of us, it will simply be a few short months of relaxation (I hope!) before we come back and do it all over again for next year. For all of these reasons, this month I am reviewing a book that you can not only use with your students next fall, but one that hopefully will help you renew your passion for teaching (and maybe help spark a few under those caps and gowns to join us in this great profession).

Andy Weir is a fantastic writer. His first novel, The Martian, became an instant success in and out of the classroom (and a great Matt Damon movie), so I was excited to see that he had written another “science accurate” fiction book. Also, for all of us teachers, I will say that the language in this one is pretty much entirely appropriate for a high school science classroom, and Mr. Weir is clearly aware of the critique of his first book. He pokes fun at the lack of bad language in this book to the point of almost becoming redundant. He knows his audience, and for someone who has never been a secondary science teacher, he sure does capture what it means to be one in his new book Project Hail Mary.

When you read the classroom scenes, which, like nearly all in fiction, are certainly contrived, look past that just a bit, and you will see a great phenomena-led, inquiry-based, possibly even three-dimensional classroom. In a classroom like this, science is more than a subject; it is a learning experience. I’m not sure who advised Mr. Weir on his secondary science class portrayal, or if he was just one of those lucky kids who had a great science teacher in his life, but I found it refreshing to read.

I will also say that the publisher of this book, Penguin Random House, was well-prepared for the book to become an instant classroom hit. They offer the book in large-print and audiobooks on Audible and other sites (see my previous columns for ideas on how to access the audiobook, especially Soldiers of Science). I could not locate any foreign language versions of the book, but I would be surprised if they are not available soon. Their website puts the reading level squarely in the 9–12 range, so be advised that students reading below grade level may need extra support. They also offer a couple of teacher’s guides with a long list of potential classroom projects, activities, reading guides, etc., on their website (see Online Connections).

Since they offer teacher resources, I will try and give ideas that are more directly tied to the high school science curriculum, but do check out the teacher resources; they are great! For me, this may have become my “15 on Friday” book, a time in which we read something fun about science together for 15 (and sometimes many more) minutes on Fridays. If you have never tried something like this, I suggest you give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised by the learning and discussion that can take place—I know I was. I’ve also seen people use a book for an everyday opening, and there are many other ways you could use this, from reading just excerpts that go with your current topic to an in-class science book club or whole-class unit.

This is where I usually give a brief synopsis of the book. The tricky thing about this book is that its protagonist, Ryland Grace, begins the story not knowing his name, where he is, or what is going on due to a long-term coma, which can cause amnesia and much worse. A big part of the joy of the book is discovering all of that as the story progresses. So, I will try and stay as spoiler-free as possible and stick to the “book jacket summary,” but it is hard to make instructional recommendations without discussing some of the key plot points. So, if you hate spoilers, read the book and then come back to read the rest of this article; meanwhile, I promise to give away as little as possible!

Ryland Grace is a middle school science teacher who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Grace, played by Ryan Gosling in the upcoming movie version, awakes from a coma to find that he is aboard a spaceship on his way to another solar system, Tau Ceti, twelve light-years from Earth. I will leave how a middle school science teacher ended up at Tau Ceti for the book, but it is a great story! The mission’s primary purpose is to find a cure to an invasive microscopic species infecting our (Earth’s) Sun, sapping its life-giving power. As the name of the book title suggests, this is the Earth’s “Hail Mary” pass attempt at solving the problem. Along the way, Grace makes first contact with another interstellar explorer whose own planet shares the same issue of a slowly dying star, and they must work together to save both of their worlds.

Because of the nature of the story, an invasive species, interstellar space travel, a slowly dying Earth, and meeting another form of life, there is barely a high school science topic that is not covered in this book. I have a good friend who teaches a pretty rare high school course, astronomy, and reminds me that we need more about this subject, so I am sure she will be thrilled by this one. The characters must use the stars and astronomical calculations to find a location, navigate, and much, much more. For chemists, the construction of a wall between the two space ships to determine which material is best for the task is a treasure trove of exploration for chemistry students learning about atoms, molecules, compounds, and their many interactions. The way Grace learns to talk to his new alien friend is based on the periodic table—if your kids can unravel the mystery before Grace does, they can count themselves as molecular experts!

Anatomy and physiology teachers can make comparisons between alien species and humans. And as the book goes in-depth into both the anatomical and physiological structures and needs of both humans and the alien, the text is rich for exploration and project ideas. Physics students can think about force, motion, energy, velocity, and vectors, and even try to replicate the many mathematical calculations Grace must use to solve exceedingly complex and deadly situations he encounters in another galaxy. Environmental scientists will love the climate change take in this book, which will turn what may be a controversial topic in their classrooms into an engineering issue that requires both lowering AND raising the temperature on Earth by changing the structure of the atmosphere.

And finally, the biologists, oh, the phylogenies you can draw! The evolutionary nature of all interdependencies and interactions and some fascinating ideas about what is and what is not required for life are captivating. One of these debates is a central theme, and as the story slowly expands, every added detail helps to both deepen and unravel the mystery simultaneously. Set your students on an evolutionary biology quest as they read. Their understanding of the process should represent a whole picture of natural selection on both the microscopic and grand scale (with some guiding help, undoubtedly).

Another area your students can explore in this book is what I consider to be one of the more realistic views of scientists in a novel. While career-based standards are rarely a part of the state science curriculum, students’ exposure to the real world of scientific discovery is critical to filling STEM careers in the future. Again, I don’t want to give away too much but suffice to say that inventing and undertaking interstellar space travel to save Earth takes A LOT of scientists, from those who are eager and enthusiastic, to others who best stretch themselves as the leaders, to others who want no part in working with those who seem ‘inferior’ to their view of what academic research should be. Rather than the geeky, glasses-wearing introverts that are usually portrayed in novels and films, your students can create a “scientist search” throughout the book, researching all of the different fields, thinking about which personalities they most relate to, and getting a behind-the-curtain peek at how basic science and novel engineering occurs. Bonus points to looking at the portrayal of the alien scientists too. Dr. Stratt is one of my favorite characters, and maybe you and your students will find the Project Hail Mary leader as complex, intense, and immensely intriguing as I did! I don’t know who will play her in the film, but whoever it is will undoubtedly steal some scenes!

Overall, my favorite thing about this book is not the educational value, for which I hope I have convinced you there is plenty, but the story of a science teacher. A science teacher who proves that this is not something we “have” to do or are doing because there are no other good options for us, but because there is something extraordinary in loving science and sharing that love with teenagers. In those moments in class, as in the story, when the excitement is palpable, the kids have been hooked by a phenomenon that they want to know more about, and the joy of a curious mind is present in those who are looking to you to help them find those answers—it really is magic. And I don’t know about you, but for me, I could definitely use a reminder of that right about now!

Questions/comments/something you love with your students you would like to see reviewed? Contact me at holly.amerman@gmail.com.

Online Connections

Publisher’s Teacher Guide: (Scroll down and select “guides”) https://penguinrandomhousesecondaryeducation.com/book/?isbn=9780593135204

Also from the Publisher: A Teacher’s Kit with media, an excerpt, and an interview with the author  tinyurl.com/PHMKit    

Test Tubes

DCIs: 5 of 5 Hard to find one that doesn’t fit! 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪

CCs: 5 of 5 ALL! 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪

SEPs: 5 of 5 Asking Questions; Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking; Planning and Carrying out Investigations; Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions; Engaging in Argument from Evidence; Developing and Using Models 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪

Ease of Use for Teachers: 5 of 5 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪

Interest to Students: 5 of 5 (All of the teens in my backseat test LOVED this one and demanded we continue listening to the audiobook!) 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪

Earth & Space Science Instructional Materials Interdisciplinary Teaching Strategies Technology High School

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