The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

Here on our new adventure Deb and I are always looking for new ways to introduce learning and to make something more interesting to our young adults. While watching the movie Gravity the other night, I found an unexpected opportunity to try to get Aidan and Nev more interested in math and science.

For a bit of context, neither Aidan nor Nev like math very much. Aidan likes chemistry a bit but generally their view on science is “ho-hum.” Deb and I were planning to introduce a math and science project after the young adults’ current history and religion project. Aidan has had some great approaches to both at University Cooperative School but Nev has endured the more traditional approaches which I think can tend to kill interest pretty quickly. Like most kids, they don’t have a lot of good examples of needing math in their lives – or science for that matter.

Gravity, in case you have not heard of it, is an incredible movie about two astronauts caught in a disaster in space. The movie is very high on realism – including no sound in space, but I get ahead of myself. It is an exciting film to watch.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Gravity, you may want to avoid reading the rest of this until you do.

About 20 minutes or so into Gravity, Houston warns the astronauts that the satellite the Russians detonated earlier has caused a chain reaction and that there is a large amount of space debris hurling towards them. Nev asked, “What’s a chain reaction?” I got my first surprising opportunity for a “learning moment.”

I use the word “learning moment” here in the same way most people would use “teachable moment.” It generally refers to a moment when a particular topic, idea or skill becomes easy to learn, usually because the learner is particularly engaged. While accurate, I dislike “teachable” because it centers the focus on the “teacher”. This is really about the “learner” and their interest. A “teacher” may simply facilitate the learning but a teacher need not even be present for the opportunity to happen.

I paused the movie and explained that a “chain reaction” meant that every time pieces of the Russian satellite hit another satellite, they would create another explosion, sending even more debris into orbit and striking even more satellites. That progression is a chain reaction. And that’s when it started.

I had mentioned something about the pieces shooting around orbit like bullets and Nev and Aidan looked a little confused. It got clearer when I “reminded” them about space physics: there is no friction. When things start moving, they maintain their speed, unless disrupted, and nothing slows them down. When you add Earth’s gravity, those pieces get pulled into orbit around the Earth and will keep travelling around the Earth like a blanket of death for a long time. They were engaged – even after I said this was all just physics.

They asked some more questions and we talked about the fact that after such an event, we’d unlikely be able to have many functioning satellites for a long time (and what that would mean). We talked about how extraordinarily challenging cleaning something up like that would be. Aidan was a little worried that it might happen.

I unpaused the movie and we continued watching. They then saw all of the pieces come shooting by the astronauts in the first pass, destroying the shuttle, killing the crew, and wreaking havoc on other space vehicles. It was a real moment. They saw the “chain reaction” happening. I paused the movie again and reminded them that the debris would be back again…why? We had another good, short discussion.

As an aside, we don’t usually pause movies except to get snacks or to answer the rare question. I was surprised, happily, that they kept asking questions throughout the movie and didn’t mind the pauses.

We had another good physics discussion when George Clooney was towing Sandra Bullock. I paused the movie and asked them if they knew why when the line became taught it would jerk George Clooney. We talked about how there is momentum in space but no friction (again) and that means when Sandra gets moving she has counter force on George; i.e., an “equal and opposite reaction.” Space was becoming fun and more questions followed.

A math moment came when George Clooney said they should set their watches because the debris would be back in about 90 minutes. I paused the movie and said “do you know what he just did?” He did math in his head. I said that without a calculator, he had to estimate how fast the debris was moving, what its orbital path was, what the distance around the Earth was at their altitude, etc., and then figure out when they would have to watch out. He was the experienced guy but not the scientist. He still needed to be able to do that math.

We all play video games and tend to like to see ourselves leading groups, etc. I told them that people in real positions like this need to be able to do math. It might be “cool” to be the experienced space captain, but you can’t get there without math. Heads, surprisingly, nodded.

There were several other times we paused. Aidan asked why they were hitting the ship so fast after George got Sandra. I asked “well, how would they stop?” There are no “brakes.” George was out of propellant (which would not brake, really, just shoot them in the other direction counteracting their current speed). Then Aidan started getting even more engaged, peppering me with things like “so, if they kept going and hit the space capsule, they’d break something?” and “so, if they kept going they would just burn up in the atmosphere?”

“Yes, but why?” They’ve seen enough sci-fi and Cosmos to know about “burning up in the atmosphere” but had never tied it to the fact that there is no friction in space, but the atmosphere creates friction and moving very fast with friction creates heat. Ahhh. More head nods.

I think they were aware of these types of facts generally but had never processed the “why” – the mechanisms of physics. Physics, and to some degree, math, weren’t abstract anymore. They made connections about events in the movie now with how physics, as much as they knew, worked. And that made physics maybe just a little “cooler.”

Now I’m not fooling myself into thinking that we’ve just created two young adults who will now want to learn math and science eagerly. Not yet, at least J But, we did have a number of great conversations about math and science during an exciting movie and not only did they not mind, they enjoyed it. That’s the spark we always hope for. We can build from that.

Last night we somehow got on the subject of zombie apocalypse. I challenged, “You know, the zombie apocalypse is all about math.” Then I quickly explained epidemiologic math – the math behind infection rates – you know, if one person infects two others and they infect two others, etc. How would you know how fast it will hit if you don’t know math? So now, Aidan and Nev are moderately interested (read “moderate” here as a stunning success) in doing zombie apocalypse math. I think they are probably going to become wary now that we will connect many “cool” things with math and science. We won’t abuse it, but we will use it.

We are thinking of adding some more movies that can illustrate math and science concepts to their upcoming project. Apollo 13 is definitely on the list. Maybe we’ll find some horrible ones too and let the young adults critique the (poor) science. If you have any good suggestions, please send them!

It is so exciting to see their energy when they want to learn. I had expected to see it a lot more with unschooling, but they are pretty much teenagers and I am happy with what we find. As I mentioned before, they learn differently than me and they are motivated differently than me. I’m still getting used to that. While I am, I still treasure these kinds of moments, as I treasure my time with them on this adventure. Pura vida.

2 thoughts on “The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

  1. Red Planet: Val Kilmer. Not a great movie, but some good examples of physics, and enough robotics and creepy stuff to be “interesting”

    Sent from Steve’s iPhone

  2. Andy, check out David Brin’s (great SF writer) page on movies that teach science. http://www.davidbrin.com/sffilms.html. In particular, Andromeda Strain is really good. Life after People (the pilot, not the series, which was redundant from episode to episode is really interesting). Dante’s Peak was pretty bad in terms of science.

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