Amanda Ehly-Mills, eighth-grade science teacher at Buchser Middle School summarized Andy Weir’s “The Martian” as a science-fiction novel about an astronaut named Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars after being left behind by crew members believing he is dead. No crew will come to Mars within the next four years. So Watney has to learn to survive on Mars with supplies intended to last for only 30 days.
“When Andy Weir published the book, science teachers fell in love with it and they convinced him to go back and modify the book so that the language would be suitable for students to read in a class,” Ehly-Mills said. “Last spring, I wrote a grant for the books from the Santa Clara Schools Foundation, and we got approved to buy the books.”
Ehly-Mills teamed up with Jill Eliason, an eighth-grade English teacher at Buchser, to create a cross-curricular unit to teach “The Martian” in their science and English classes.
Ehly-Mills’ focus was getting students to think about environmental principles and concepts that are part of the California standards for science.
“Standards include how people depend on natural systems, how people influence natural systems, that there are no permanent or impermeable boundaries in natural systems,” Ehly-Mills explained. “In terms of science, we looked at what those principles are, and how they would play out on another planet. The main character in ‘The Martian’ is depending on these systems that NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) put together. Because Mars isn’t a natural system to humans, we looked at how NASA could create an artificial system that humans can survive in.
“One activity we did was a NASA activity called Mars Bound that I facilitated,” Ehly-Mills continued. “The students had to examine the reasons why NASA has gone to Mars in the past and establish some goals for why they want to go on a mission to Mars. They had to design a spacecraft that had all the tools and instruments required to accomplish what they wanted to do on their Mission to Mars within budget, weight limit, power limit and other constraints.”
According to Eliason, she and Ehly-Mills had been planning this cross curricular unit for over a year.
“The main focus of the unit, from the English point of view, was focusing on the standards the students had to learn. One of them was writing an informational essay related to ‘The Martian,’” Eliason said. “Students chose a topic and they did their project about it. Students had to do an essay in my class where they had to answer a research question about Mars, such as how does a Mars Rover collect data, store it, and transmit it. Some students picked topics related to the atmosphere and climate on Mars. When kids choose the topics they want to work on, they do their best work.”
In addition to managing their coursework, students listened to audio recordings of “The Martian” in their classes.
“Members of the school community were the guest readers,” Eliason said. “We would read one week in English class, and another week, students would read in Amanda’s class. One day, we would have one of our math teachers read a chapter. Another day, the history teacher would read a chapter. The attendance clerk read a chapter. The principal read a chapter. We even had a student who read a chapter.”