Kid-friendly edition of The Martian used to teach science

Some science teachers in the United States are using a new edition of Andy Weir's sci-fi thriller, The Martian - which comes without profanity - to teach the subject.
Some science teachers in the United States are using a new edition of Andy Weir's sci-fi thriller, The Martian - which comes without profanity - to teach the subject.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • There are more than 160 swear words in Andy Weir's sci-fi thriller, The Martian, including two memorably deployed F-words in the novel's first three sentences.

The profanity did not strike Weir as excessive when he wrote the book nearly a decade ago. After all, the story's narrator, an astronaut named Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars with a dwindling supply of food and a rescue mission that is four years away - circumstances that warrant constant cursing.

But shortly after the book came out, the writer started hearing from a subset of readers who objected to the obscenities.

"I got a lot of e-mail from science teachers who said, 'Man, I'd love to use your book as a teaching aid, but there's so much profanity in it that we can't really do that,'" said Weir, 44. "It's hard to get that by a school board."

Apart from the four-letter words, The Martian is a science teacher's dream text.

Adapted into a feature film directed by Ridley Scott in 2015, it is a gripping survival story that hinges on the hero's ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics, in order to stay alive on a hostile planet.

After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Weir, who describes himself as "a lifelong space nerd", asked his publisher, Crown, if it could release a cleaned-up edition of the book. The novel was pretty easy to amend, by simply replacing the foul language with tamer words such as "jerk".

A kid-friendly version came out last year and it is now being used to help teach science in classrooms around the country.

At Synergy Quantum Academy, a public charter high school in south Los Angeles, students are conducting experiments based on the novel. In physics class, they will build miniature solar-powered cars and, during astronomy next month, they will try to grow potatoes as Watney did, using a chamber modelled on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Lunar Plant Growth Chamber.

Eighth-graders at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, California, are following a year-long curriculum based on The Martian, with lesson plans that use dramatic moments in the narrative to illustrate concepts such as Newton's laws of motion, chemical reactions and spacecraft engineering.

In a science class at Northwestern High School in Mellette, South Dakota, sophomores are using the novel as a jumping-off point for some hands-on experiments, such as splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

For Weir and his publisher, getting the book into schools opens up a lucrative new market that could turn The Martian, which was already a blockbuster that sold several million copies, into a perennial bestseller that guarantees a built-in audience every year.

Crown has printed nearly 30,000 copies of the classroom edition, which comes with a teacher's guide that lists discussion questions and activities and includes an interview with Weir about the science behind the story. Next month, Weir will address science teachers at the National Science Teachers Association's conference in Los Angeles.

Mr David Beck, a science teacher at Oak Middle School, was one of the teachers who lobbied Weir for a sanitised version of the story.

After he first read The Martian two years ago, he immediately wanted to create a curriculum based on the novel. "I thought, I could teach all of my eighth-grade physical science out of this book," he said.

When Broadway Books, a Crown imprint, published the school edition last year, he created a year-long curriculum for the school's 380 eighth-graders, who each got a copy of the book. So far, the students have been enthusiastic and many have finished the novel ahead of schedule.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Kid-friendly edition of The Martian used to teach science'. Print Edition | Subscribe