26Feb2017

‘The Martian’ Best-Seller Lands In Classrooms Minus F-Words

book

Kaitlyn Ishibashi reads “The Martian” in David Beck’s science class at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, Calif. Beck, like other teachers, lobbied for the sanitized version. (CARLOS GONZALEZ/NYT)

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, astronaut 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, Weir started hearing from a subset of readers who objected to the obscenities. “I got a lot of emails 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, who is cheerful, hyperanalytical and casually profane, much like his protagonist. “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. It’s a gripping story that hinges on the hero’s ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math to stay alive on a hostile planet. (The Washington Post called the novel “an advertisement for the importance of STEM education.”)

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Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars with a dwindling supply of food and a rescue mission that is four years away

After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Weir, who describes himself as “a lifelong space nerd,” asked his publisher, Crown, if a cleaned-up edition of the book could be released.

The novel was easy to amend by replacing the foul language with tamer words such as “screwed,” “jerk” and “crap.” (Weir said there were “occasional squabbles” when he tried to lobby the censors to keep some of the less offensive swear words in.) A kid-friendly version came out last year, and it is being used to help teach science in classrooms nationwide.

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

Eighth-graders at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, California, are following a yearlong curriculum based on “The Martian,” with lesson plans that use key 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.

“It’s really exciting for them to see the connection between the novel and the science they’re learning,” said Denise Clemens, a science teacher at Northwestern. “Hopefully we’re not going to blow anything up.”

New market opens up

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 best-seller that guarantees a built-in audience every year.

Weir did not set out to write a science textbook. A college dropout and former software engineer who is fascinated by space exploration, Weir started writing “The Martian” in 2009, mainly to entertain himself. The story grew out of a thought experiment, when Weir began imagining what a scientifically feasible manned mission to Mars would look like.

The story took shape as Weir tried to work out what it would take to get to Mars, and how to keep a stranded astronaut alive on the planet (the creative use of duct tape is key). “Oftentimes, when I was double-checking the math, I would discover problems that I hadn’t thought of that Watney would run into,” he said.

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He wrote computer software to work out what the constant thrust trajectories would be for the spaceship’s ion engine, and studied NASA satellite images to map out Watney’s treacherous course across Mars in a rover. He also calculated how many calories Watney would need to stay alive, how much water he would need to grow potatoes, and how he could manufacture water out of oxygen and hydrazine, a compound used for rocket fuel.

Weir had failed to sell an earlier attempt at a novel, so rather than trying to get “The Martian” published, he serialized it for free on his website. Some fans urged him to list it on Amazon, and he began selling it for 99 cents. He quickly sold 35,000 copies, and started getting inquiries from publishers and agents. Crown bought the novel and published it in 2014.

A feature-film adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as Watney, came out the next year and grossed more than $630 million worldwide. The novel sold more than 3 million copies, and has racked up more than 29,500 reviews on Amazon.

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, and his publisher will give away about 500 copies of the classroom edition of the “The Martian.”

Lobbying for change

David Beck, a science teacher at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, California, was one of the teachers who lobbied Weir for a sanitized version of the story. After he first read “The Martian” two years ago, Beck 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.

He proposed using the novel in his class to the school’s principal, who loved the idea but thought the foul language could be a problem. They approached the district school board to see if they could assign the novel to students, and were turned down. (They even considered buying copies of the novel and redacting the swear words by hand with markers, but decided against it.)

Beck then emailed Weir and later, his publisher, and asked if they had considered releasing a PG edition for students. At that point, similar requests were piling up. Crown wanted to wait until after the movie adaptation came out, to avoid confusing retailers and readers.

When Broadway Books, a Crown imprint, published the school edition in 2016, Beck created a yearlong 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.

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Los Alamitos, California, was one of the schools who lobbied Weir for a sanitized version of the story

Some teachers are skeptical that students need to be shielded from the profanity in “The Martian.” Marc Montalbano, an English teacher at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York, said he was using the original version of “The Martian” with his seniors, who are also pulling from the text for science projects. Watney’s swearing makes him seem more relatable as a character and helps offset the heavy science, Montalbano said in an email.

Nora Groft, a high-school English teacher at Northwestern, said she taught the classroom edition of “The Martian,” but told students that a version with more adult language was available and that the curse words might be appropriate, given the context. “Imagine if you were stranded on Mars,” she said. “Do you think you’d say, ‘Goshdarnit’?” Source:The Seattle Times

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