There are many complicated processes happening outside of the ‘safe haven’ of the Earth’s orbit. Many adults sometimes have a hard time wrapping their heads around them. It’s no wonder it might be an even more difficult task for children. Teaching kids about space using science fiction movies, however, can help them make their first step at understanding physics, astrophysics, and biology. Not to mention, it’s lots of fun compared to textbook learning!
Teaching kids about space and relativity with Star Wars
In Star Wars, spaceships are travelling faster than the speed of light. Unfortunately, this is not possible. According to the theory of special relativity, no object possessing a mass can move at the speed of light, much less do it faster. Sorry, Han Solo, but you would be late for most of your errands.
How can we teach children about special relativity using modern technology?
With GPS! Because of special relativity, objects and people moving faster than other objects experience time slower than the ones which have no motion. It’s called time dilation. As such, the GPS satellites travelling roughly 10,000 km/h lose approximately 4 microseconds a day. Add to that the gravity’s influence, and you arrive at 7 microseconds. If this wasn’t accounted for by the GPS systems, all distances after a day would be about 8 km off.
Teaching kids about human survival in space with The Martian movie
The Martian can teach children a lot of cool science facts. But one part of the story that can be used as a teachable subject is whether it’s possible to grow food using the dry Martian soil. Apparently, with some work, this may be possible!
This is a great opportunity to explain to kids that plants need both micro and macronutrients to grow, as well as water and carbon dioxide. Moreover, plants need to be protected from excessive heat, cold, and adverse weather conditions. Also, sandstorms, of which there are quite many on Mars, could also ruin crops.
There is also currently a lot of talk about the actual possibility of going to Mars, and living there (not fiction folks!). But could humans survive the journey, let alone the environment on Mars?
Here are some educational YouTube videos that concisely explain the troubles of living on Mars (like lack of air and water!), without a lot of the ‘complex science’:
As you can see, there is more than food growth to worry about!
And, here is a video explanation on the accuracy of the science surrounding The Martian movie.
Teaching kids about climate change science using the concept of colonizing Mars
Another question to bring up with students about Mars living is the subject of why humans are exploring the universe for other livable planets, or planets that became unliveable in their history. This can introduce teaching the science of climate change and global warming. As Bill Nye proposes, we probably need to fix our own planet before trying to find another one to live on!
Also related to this topic, popular actor Leonardo DiCaprio has released a film with National Geographic on how badly our climate is affected by fossil fuels. This educational documentary created by a “cool’ person might get kids more interested in the debate, as it directly affects their future. There are also documentaries made by people who deny that there is a problem. Let kids hear all sides.
Teaching kids about space science theories with Interstellar
In addition to extreme time dilation depicted in the movie Interstellar (due to gravitational pull), Matthew McConaughey’s character experiences a lot of other hypothetical scenarios of exploring and living in space for extended periods of time.
For example, his spaceship goes through a wormhole near Saturn, which allows the ship to travel into another galaxy. Using current technology, it would not be practical to travel such long distances in space – at least not without a theoretical ‘warp drive,’ based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
And then there are wormholes. To explain to kids how wormholes work, you can use a piece of paper, like in the movie (or show them the scene where McConaughey explains this himself). The paper represents the fabric of space-time. Both ends of the paper mark two points, A and B. Explain that the distance between A and B equals billions of light years. Ask the children how we can get from A to B and not die of old age, with our current space travel limitations? Now fold the paper, and with a pen, punch right through A and B. We’re there in no time at all! This is how wormholes theoretically work. As of yet we don’t have the tools to test if wormholes exist, but these kind of theories surely give birth to a lot of great stories and movies.
Teaching kids space science ‘truths’ in the Interstellar movie that seem like science fiction
The interesting thing about the movie Interstellar (and others) is that while, yes, it is based on great science fiction (emphasis on the word ‘fiction’!), there are some truths to the scientific theories explored, as we’ve seen above.
For example, McConaughey’s character ends up in a black hole which has more than three dimensions. This brings up multidimensional theory and ‘the multiverse.’ How are more than three dimensions possible? Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains it well in this video:
And of course, by extension, the ending of Interstellar brings up a lesson on black holes themselves! (And why you would not want to be in one!) Use these educational videos to start your research on teaching kids about black holes:
For more on the many plausible science theories you can use to teach kids space using movies, check out this article:
To conclude: science fiction space movies can be a gateway to teaching kids about space
Whereas there’s a lot of fiction in space movies, there’s also a great deal of science to be learned (both with the true and the false!). Teaching kids about space with movies such as Star Wars, The Martian, Interstellar and others can be a fascinating introduction to the amazing world of physics, astrophysics, and biology.
See more helpful teacher resources on our blog!
We’ve written about educational YouTube resources, some of which explain the science of space (including living on Mars). See our articles below for more resources you can use when teaching the subject of space:
Plus, see how these open education resources can help you with lesson planning surrounding space science topics: