Movies in the Classroom Part 3: Teaching Science With Film

by | Aug 26, 2018 | STEM

Teaching science with film can help students learn about several aspects of astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics, according to many educational experts. More relevant to you, perhaps, is that there are many easily available lesson plans that can help you utilize these movies in class.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how teachers can use movies in social studies classes. In Part 2, we looked at how teachers can use movies in English classes. We were still amazed, though, when we saw how many popular movies could be utilized in science classes.

For example, let’s look at the website Teach With Movies. There are guides for making lessons plans in technology and applied science using movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Around the World in 80 Days, Swiss Family Robinson, and Hidden Figures. Additionally, the website has lesson plans that help teachers use clips from popular movies like Daylight, Alan Young’s The Time Machine, Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spiderman to teach concepts like oxidation-reduction reactions, evolution, black holes, refraction, and thermonuclear reactions to middle and high school students.

If you’re a science teacher, though, you might be far more interested in getting students interested in science in the first place than teaching them about specific aspects of biology, chemistry, physics, and other sciences. To accomplish that, you should consider experimenting around teaching science with film so students will become more excited, intrigued, and curious about science and technology.

Fortunately, there are innumerable lesson plans for popular science fiction and other science-oriented movies online. The Shmoop “Movies” website has learning guides for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Frankenstein, several Harry Potter movies, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and several Star Trek and Star Wars movies. By the time you’re done teaching science with film, you’ll have a class full of science aficionados and movies buffs.

Great Movies for Teaching Science with Film

We have mentioned a lot of movies so far in this article, but let’s go into depth on some that should be considered as part of a lesson plan for teaching science with film, according to at least two sources.

Apollo 13

Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton star as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. The astronauts were going to the Moon in 1970 when a liquid oxygen tank exploded on their spacecraft. The mission was aborted and the astronauts’ lives were in danger on their way home. Common Sense Education says in its article 10 Great Movies for the STEM Classroom that the movie is for middle and high school students and recommends that teachers use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts and ask students to build model rockets.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is about three African-American female mathematicians who worked for the space program during its early years in the 1950s and 1960s. Their stories could inspire young African-American girls to pursue careers in math and science. Common Sense Education says the movie is for 4th- to 12th-graders and recommends that it be used to spur students to solve math equations related to the orbit of planets. Here is the Teach With Movies’ learning guide for the 2016 movie.

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Jurassic Park

Though there have been many Jurassic Park films, we refer here to the first 1993 movie that fascinated millions of people with the science fiction fantasy of dinosaurs living in the 1990s. A film like this can notably spark interest about not only dinosaurs, but about the evolution of all of life on this planet. Here is the Shmoop website’s learning guide for the movie.

Lorenzo’s Oil

Lorenzo’s Oil is listed as one of 10 Movies You Can Show In Your Science Classroom by The LearnEd Teacher. The 1992 movie stars Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon as parents who are trying to prevent their son Lorenzo from dying by finding a cure for the fatal disease adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). Lorenzo was six when he was diagnosed in 1984. He was given two years to live, but the parents found a treatment that restored his sight and improved his thinking although they weren’t doctors. Lorenzo lived for 30 years. Here is Teach With Movies’ learning guide for the movie.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project is listed as one of the 7 Best Science Movies for the Classroom and as one of 8 science and technology movies among the 50 Inspiring Films You Should Show Your Students. The 1986 movie is about a high school student who builds an atomic bomb for a science fair. Perhaps your students could relate to the student scientist and thus be inspired to start their own science project (just make sure it isn’t a bomb).

Blow your learners’ minds. Frequently.

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March of the Penguins

This 2005 movie won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it depicts the lives of emperor penguins, the largest of the penguin species, in Antarctica. During the one year that the photographers followed them they migrated back and forth from the ocean to land—a distance that is as far as 60 miles away—because they need to breed on land. Viewers are often captivated as they watch adult penguins court each other and then try to take care of their chicks. What happens can be heartbreaking because the adults sometimes have to abandon the chicks to find food to survive. Here is the Teach With Movies learning guide on the movie.

Microcosmos

Microcosmos is a 1996 documentary about insect life in meadows and ponds that won a Cannes Film Festival award. The late Roger Ebert, probably the most respected movie critic of the past few decades, called the movie “an amazing film that allows us to peer deeply into the insect world and marvel at creatures we casually condemn to squishing.” Teach With Movies reports that using clips from Microcosmos can teach students a lot about biology and also can help with chemistry lessons.

October Sky

Do your students need to be inspired to get as involved in science as they are in sports? This movie could motivate them, and even spur them to pursue a career in science. October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam Jr., the son of a West Virginia coal miner, who became interested in rockets in 1957 after watching the Soviet Union launch the Sputnik 1 satellite into space. Hickam’s father opposes his son’s interest in rocketry because he wants him to be a coal miner. Undaunted, he perseveres and builds a rocket that is the winning entry in the National Science Fair, and later becomes a NASA engineer. Here is the Teach With Movies learning guide for the movie.

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Underwater Dreams

This is another movie that could inspire your students to become scientists. Quite simply, it’s a David vs. Goliath story about lower-income high school students who are also the sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants building underwater robots. The Davids defeat college teams from elite schools at the national 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition. The article 10 Great Movies for the STEM Classroom says this 2014 movie is for 4th to 12th-graders. Here is the Teach With Movies learning guide for the movie.

Planet Earth (series)

Although it’s not a movie, we would be negligent if we didn’t recommend that you utilize Planet Earth, a 2006 television series of documentaries, in the classroom. It has an incredible 9.4 rating on the IMDB website. There are 11 episodes, and the series was so highly reviewed that the BBC produced a sequel, Planet Earth 2,  in 2016 which was also very highly rated.

Science is ultimately a very fascinating subject. Your students might not realize that because their reading material has been too intimidating and complex for them. Hopefully, however, teaching science with film using one of more of the movies mentioned in this article can help them realize how fascinating science is.

References

Additional Reading

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