Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Avatar in the Science Classroom: Linking Science and Pop Culture to Design Imaginary Ecosystems

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Avatar in the Science Classroom: Linking Science and Pop Culture to Design Imaginary Ecosystems

Article excerpt

Students love pop culture, which is often full of science and scientific concepts that may or may not be correctly presented. When you tie a science project to a movie, TV series, or song, you help guide students toward correct interpretations. And, more important, you stimulate their creativity by tapping into their culture. This article describes a project in which students use their imaginations to create, explore, and explain.



In my classroom, I incorporate movies into projects where students create imaginary elements, construct ecosystems, invent genetically modified organisms, and build science fiction--type technological inventions. As a result, they develop a better understanding of the scientific concepts, and improve their computer, writing, and drawing skills.

Using pop culture in the classroom is not a new idea. The key is to turn the pseudoscience of pop culture into a proper science project--while maintaining the fun. For years, the ExploraVision Awards students to imagine and design futuristic inventions. Recently, Kristi Kilby-Goodwin described ways to incorporate science fiction novels in the science classroom (2010). And numerous websites are devoted to science and the movies (see "On the web").

The range of options is limitless, so making a choice can be time-consuming--therefore teachers must concentrate on the! essentials. I start with the science I want to teach and then work backward to design the rubric and find a complementary movie, song, or with pop culture, Figure 1 (p. 48) provides some suggestions. Once you have a clear idea of the science you want to teach, a rubric, and a medium, you can create numerous projects. movie Avatar (Cameron and Landau 2009).

Define the science

In my ninth-grade combined science classroom, students study ecology as the end-of-the-year unit. They survey various ecosystems and habitats and design experiments on campus; then, as a summative assessment, they complete The Dream Ecosystem project, in which they design their own ecosystems. This project allows students to show what they've learned in a creative way. They incorporate key terms, symbols, diagrams, and units into their projects without researching specific biomes, food chains, or organisms.

Find a link

As I was designing The Dream Ecosystems project, I happened to watch the movie Avatar, and realized that it offered a catchy link I knew would grab my students' attention--a fantasy ecosystem with scientific research projects and creatures sporting unusual adaptations.

Since most of my students had seen Avatar, I didn't show the movie in class, but I did show the trailer (see "On the web"). (If numerous students had not been familiar with the film, renting and watching select sections of the film would have been a terrific introduction to the project.) Afterward, we discussed different components of the movie--for example, the imaginary element unobtainium, Dr. Grace Augustine's (played by Sigourney Weaver) research on tree root communication, the abiotic factors of the ecosystem, and imaginary glowing and flying organisms. Each of these modeled an aspect of The Dream Ecosystem project requirements.

Review the project requirements

After the introduction, we reviewed the project guidelines, which required students to include six components:

1. an overview of their ecosystem,

2. a research project in this ecosystem,

3. the specific details and adaptations of an organism,

4. a food chain,

5. two ecological pyramids, and

6. a biogeochemical cycle.

Each of the components includes specific science content, which students had previously studied. For example, the student-created organism must feed, reproduce, and have one environmental adaptation and an established life span. Detailed project guidelines are available online (see "On the web"). …

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