184612_weir_andyBy Gillian King-Cargile, STEM Read Director, Northern Illinois University

To request a complimentary examination copy of The Martian or Artemis to review for classroom use, please contact us at K12education@edu.penguinrandomhouse.com or call us toll free at (844) 851-3955.

Click here to listen to the podcast Gillian recorded with Andy Weir at the Argonne National Laboratory.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to be Andy Weir’s interviewer and native guide on a week-long, whirlwind tour of Chicago and northern Illinois. Andy was the keynote speaker at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference (ISTE). He also entertained and enlightened listeners at STEM Read’s after-hours professional development party for teachers, a talk at Google’s Chicago headquarters, and a series of talks and tours at Argonne National Laboratory.

How was I lucky enough to do this? A few years ago, I started asking “Why isn’t anyone using sci-fi books as a gateway to exploring real science facts?” Now, I am the director of Northern Illinois University’s STEM Read (stemread.com). We create free online resources, games, and author events that help K-12 students and teachers explore the science, technology, engineering, and math behind fun fiction books.

As a writer, a book nerd, and a professional science appreciator, I loved The Martian and I devoured Artemis. I love the way Andy Weir’s books make science cool. I love the way his characters solve problems with their brains instead of their fists. And I love that his science fiction is hopeful. His stories show how technology and innovation and crises on Mars or the Moon can bring out the best in us.

Andy Weir visit

Andy Weir at the Argonne National Laboratory

A lot of people have asked me, “What was it like to hang out with Andy Weir?” One thing I’ll say about spending a lot of time with Andy backstage before events, in suburban strip-mall restaurants, and in Chicago rush-hour traffic, is that he is exactly like you think he’d be. Andy is a fun, smart smartass. He’s Mark Watney minus the botched mission on Mars. But what impressed me most about Andy Weir was his boundless curiosity.

Whether we were in an Uber or at Argonne National Laboratory’s supercomputing facility, he was constantly asking questions. Good questions. Interesting questions. Questions that made you feel smarter for having heard them. He asked Dr. Katherine Riley, Director of Science for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, about the maximum density of computer chips and the problematic paths of electrons when trying to design computers on a quantum or exoscale. (The answer had something to do with what happened to Hank Pym’s wife when she “went subatomic and entered the quantum realm” in Ant-Man.) Andy also asked regular old stream-of-consciousness questions like why the Uber driver had a special head support on the headrest of his passenger seat. (The answer had something to do with the Uber driver’s wife hating the car he bought because she was too short for the headrests.)

Andy was always excited to meet new people and learn new things. As we talked with thousands of teachers and librarians and students throughout the ISTE conference and the Chicagoland area, I often heard Andy repeat the same thing about his work: “I never set out to teach or inspire anyone with my book; I just set out to tell a good story.” Andy has often said that he thought he was writing The Martian for the couple hundred science nerds who were downloading the book chapter by chapter from his website. He never dreamed that a mainstream audience would love the book or that Mark Watney’s struggles would launch a thousand hands-on explorations in a thousand STEM classrooms.

Andy Weir visit

Andy signs a copy of his book

But that’s one of the unintended consequences of having boundless curiosity: your curiosity spreads. Your questions lead to more questions. Your desire to solve problems is infectious.

The man who is skeptical about whether books can change the world has written world-changing books. He has reinvigorated our interest in space exploration and made Martian botanists and lunar welders seem cool. His stories make readers happy, make them look to the sky, make them look to the future.

At Argonne National Laboratory, we hosted an event called “Future Telling: Imagining and Creating a Better World.” I led a conversation between Andy Weir and experts in nanotechnology, energy storage, and supercomputing. We talked about the relationship between science and science fiction, how they spur each other, how scientists act as storytellers every time they begin an experiment or scribble a prototype sketch on the back of a napkin.

Creativity and curiosity are at the heart of both science and science fiction. Writers and researchers are embarking on similar missions. They imagine the world as they want it to be and then write something, research something, or build something to try to make that future a reality.

Teachers, how will you inspire your students to bring about a better future? Start with books like The Martian and Artemis that get students laughing while they learn, wondering how long they could survive on potatoes, or thinking about the technology it would take to turn the moon into a vacation destination.

Check out STEM Read’s resources on Andy Weir’s books to find hands-on activities on everything from Martian first aid to an escape-room-style challenge to save the entire population of Artemis. Use great fiction as a launch pad to help your ravenous and reluctant learners find that spark of curiosity, because asking great questions can lead to great things. Students who are smartasses and storytellers and sci-fi geeks might just ask the questions that spur the innovations that send people to Mars or save millions of lives right here on earth.

Andy Weir visit

Andy took part in the event, “Future Telling: Imagining and Creating a Better World” at Argonne National Laboratory