9780553418026In this essay, Gillian King-Cargile speaks to how The Martian was incorporated into the curriculum in Northern Illinois University’s creative writing program and STEM summer camps for high school students. Campers had the opportunity to participate in a virtual visit with the book’s author, Andy Weir.

For some students, being in the classroom is a lot like being stranded on Mars. They feel isolated from the content. They have difficulty connecting with the subject, the teacher, or even other students. Whether they’re reluctant readers, reluctant mathematicians, or just plain reluctant, some students need a creative catalyst to get excited about learning.

Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is the perfect spark for igniting students’ curiosity. That’s why I was so excited to share it with high school students during Northern Illinois University’s creative writing and STEM summer camps. Andy Weir makes science the hero of the book. He transforms chemistry from letters on a periodic table into a life or death struggle to create water. He teaches trial and error in engineering by blowing up his main character. He applies math to rocket trajectories and rescue missions and he shows his work without being boring.

The Martian’s protagonist Mark Watney has a strong voice and makes hilarious observations about being marooned on an empty planet. He also thinks up amazingly inventive ways to stay entertained while staying alive. He survives by thinking his way out of problems, by pushing himself to work harder, design better, and use more duct tape.

Mark Watney’s refusal to quit spurs global collaboration as scientists and mathematicians around the world mount a space race to save him. I love a good dystopian novel as much as the next girl, but it’s refreshing to read a book where society is coming together rather than falling apart.

Over the summer, STEM Read used The Martian as the basis for writing and science exercises for teens. NIU’s Creative Writing camp looked at Weir’s use of dialogue and spent an afternoon analyzing The Martian’s opening line and paragraph.

Rather than shying away from the language, we discussed why Weir chose it and how it provided context and characterization.

In the STEM Careers camp, we used the book as inspiration for computer science, communications, and engineering scenarios. Students programmed mini rovers to perform missions and send messages. They also used everything from PVC pipes to duct tape as they engineered their own air-tight Habs.

Best of all, the students got to participate in a virtual visit with Andy Weir. At first, some of the students were reluctant about participating, but Andy Weir quickly set an easy-going tone by introducing his cats and talking about the failed writing projects that led up to The Martian.

Weir is smart, witty, and engaging. His experiences as an author and a software engineer made him a hit with young writers and scientists. After the talk, students who hadn’t read the book begged me for copies.

My favorite part of working with students is finding books that will blow their minds.

The Martian is a mind-blowing book. It shows that STEM concepts can be practical and that scientists can be cool. Students who read it might not necessarily become engineers or astronauts, but they will gain an appreciation for the ways that science, technology, engineering, and math influence the world around them. They might not travel to Mars, but they might catch that spark of curiosity and become the next innovators here on Earth.

Click here for the Teacher’s Guide on The Martian.

Click here to order an examination copy of The Martian.

To learn more about Northern Illinois University’s experiences with The Martian, go to http://www.stemread.com/&ref=martian11