The Martian – A Study in Character

martian

Since Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, came out, I’ve had many friends recommend it to me. And not just the science fiction fans. All sorts of friends raved about this book! I hadn’t read it yet, but I saw the movie last week, and am now a third of the way through the book. I love the movie and book for a wide variety of reasons… but what I want to focus on here is Character. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is in many ways, the kind of person I want my kids to be, and who I hope to inspire kids in our Inventors class to be. I don’t mean that I want them to be astronauts, or even necessarily scientists. I’m not talking about their academic field or career choice… I’m talking about their character traits.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story: Mark is a botanist and mechanical engineer who is one of six crew members on a mission to Mars. He is believed to be killed, and thus left behind during an emergency evacuation of the planet, and needs to figure out how to survive on his own for years until he can be rescued.

I really liked the movie… but I hadn’t realized how much I liked it until I was listening to the /Filmcast, and Jeff Cannata said (around 46:30) “The hero of this movie is smarts, intelligence, can-do attitude. How not giving up, thinking your way through things, being well-educated… is to be lauded, to be celebrated.” And I thought, YES!

Here are some of the laudable qualities I see demonstrated by the character Mark Watney:

  • Curiosity and desire to learn: All scientists are driven by curiosity, but especially a botanist who has chosen to give years of his life to training and travelling to Mars so he can explore the idea of growing plants on other planets. We learn very little of Mark’s back story, but clearly his career is defined by a desire to learn more.
  • Can-do attitude and willingness to work hard. When he is faced with inconceivable challenges, he doesn’t let them overwhelm him. He just starts working. In the book, there are frequent instances where he says “OK, to accomplish this thing, I need to solve these five problems. That’s’ too much to think about right now. I’m just going to think about one of those problems. After I’ve solved that one, I’ll move on to problem number 2.”
  • Problem-solving: In the book and movie, there’s no “bad guy”. Just a hostile environment, and an unending series of problems to solve. In the book, especially, the focus of much of the action is on the details of how he solves those problems. You wouldn’t think the discussion of how to collect CO2 in a high pressure vessel and how to liberate hydrogen from hydrazine would be interesting to a non-scientist like me, but it was. Not because I care about that specific challenge, but because I am fascinated by how people think and how they problem-solve and Weir does a fabulous job of walking you through Mark’s thoughts.
  • Flexible thinking: Mark is continuously forced to use materials in ways they weren’t designed to be used. This requires looking past the surface of an object. It requires thinking first about the goals you hope to accomplish, then what criteria you need your materials to meet, then searching for the material that meets that criteria. It’s about looking for underlying qualities, and defining for yourself whether they meet your needs. (This is what open-ended materials do for a kid in a tinkering oriented classroom!)
  • Positive attitude: He does, of course, have moments of anger and railing at the unfairness of the situation, and moments of self-pity. But overall, he remains positive and optimistic throughout, with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
  • Forgiving: He understands that his crew did not leave him behind on purpose. He doesn’t waste energy being angry at them, and wants to be sure they are told it was not their fault.

And it’s not just the main character who displays these traits. It’s virtually every character in the movie / book. Another thing that makes this story special is the way it portrays collaboration amongst scientists and engineers, as they work together to solve a problem. We see lots of long hours and hard work and dedication amongst people who have studied long and worked hard to become experts in their field. And we see their excitement when they come up with new possible solutions, their frustration when it fails, their stick-to-it-iveness to keep trying after failure, and sheer giddiness they feel when their idea succeeds.

So, if I’ve decided these are character qualities I want to inspire in the children in my life, how do I teach them?

NPR had a great article this spring about non-academic skills: what to call them and some educational theories on how to teach them. Experts in education agree that there is more to success in life and in career than academics. (Academic skills are of course very important too.) They talk about things like critical thinking, character skills such as gratitude, self-controlgrit, growth-based mindset,  willingness to fail and to try again, social skills and emotional literacy, and love of learning.

How do I teach these things? I’ve written about several of them (see all those links at the end of that last paragraph? Just click on any of them to see my post on that topic.) Other things I think about are: encouraging children to tinker, focusing more on the process than on the product, and focusing on internal motivation more than on punishment and reward.

Someone asked me if they should take their child to this movie. First, this is not a little kids movie. Way over their heads. But…. if I had an 11 – 15 year old child who was at all interested in seeing a movie about space, would I have them watch it? You bet. Watching a movie about how science rocks, scientists are cool, and modelling positive character traits is absolutely a good use of a couple hours. There are some tense situations, a gory wound, some swear words, and some rear nudity. So, if those things concern you, read reviews on Common Sense Media or Parent Previews, or learn exactly what things your child would see and hear on Kids in Mind. I personally find that the overall positive messages of the film outweigh those details.

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