College Now Goes to the Movies
Film to Promote Critical Thinking and Writing about Science
by Mary Ortiz and Robert Singer
This year, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, College Now at Kingsborough Community College has created a year-long film festival to bring students to campus to view films illustrative of themes that underlie several of the program’s course offerings while exposing them to the many forms of narrative discourse they will likely engage in when taking freshman-level college courses. Professor Robert Singer, course co-coordinator of the English program, and a noted film scholar, worked with other course coordinators in selecting the six films that comprise the festival program.
Academic departments and programs that offer College Now courses at KCC design curricula that include experiential-based developmental reading and writing assignments. Undertaking these assignments enables high school students to master critical thinking skills and test-taking strategies and to develop a disciplined sense of a writing “voice.” In light of this, the most significant criteria for inclusion in the festival were that films:
- illustrated critical and core concepts from the course curriculum, and
- invited a follow-up series of writing assignments that would measure the value of the experience.
Selecting an Appropriate Film for Science
For the science course, we chose the film October Sky. One reason was that we wanted to select a science-based film that, hopefully, not many of the students had already seen. Sure, there are many good movies out there addressing scientific issues that were discussed in the course, such as evolution and extinction (Jurassic Park), manned space exploration (Apollo 13), and infectious diseases (Outbreak). However, we felt that if the students had already seen the film, they might be less inclined to attend the film festival. We also wanted to choose a film that strongly complemented a portion of the College Now science curriculum. This film fits nicely with the curriculum’s sections on astronomy, physics, and rocket science; several of our College science faculty include an actual rocket launch project in their course work, in which students build and launch small rockets. Moreover, this film captured our hearts, as we both have had a life-long love of space science, and one of us had even worked for NASA!
Most importantly, the science in the film had to be real and interesting. In October Sky, the complexity of the topics involved evolves as the story unfolds. At the beginning of the movie, Homer Hickman begins his study of rocketry when he blows up a part of his mother’s newly installed white picket fence with a poorly constructed rocket thrown together with crude fireworks and a short makeshift fuse. As the film continues, Homer and his friends find themselves enthusiastically learning about concepts they never thought they could tackle. They study materials science when they gradually learn which materials are best for constructing the nozzle and body of the rocket. They overcome difficulties with mathematics when they must learn trigonometry in order to track and retrieve their launched rockets. And, their ignition mechanism becomes more sophisticated as time goes on. By the end of the movie, Homer and his friends are using a clever mechanism made with parts of a Gilbert Erector Set, a popular mechanics toy of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Writing for Understanding
Once we had decided on the film to use in the festival, we developed a series of writing assignments to enrich the students’ experience of the event and to open up a dialogue about the film and its relationship to the world of real-life events. Each assignment poses an interesting and informative approach for the students to go beyond the film, and each provides an opportunity for critical thinking and use of the imagination. These are all college-level, content-based writing assignments that require a degree of reading and writing skills sophistication, and each is representative of the introductory freshman experience that College Now brings to the high school classroom. In addition, these questions were designed to provide students practice in specific formats of writing that must be mastered to enter college, such as the ACT and traditional college essay. The assignments were suggested — not mandated — to the instructors who brought students to the festival, and each question could be revised according to the specific educational needs and levels of the class. Assignments were presented (timed, if deemed appropriate) and assessed by the instructor, who was responsible for selecting whether all or some of the assignments would be utilized. Teachers have agreed to submit “best samples” of student responses for future posting on the program’s Web site at www.collegenowlive.com.
Organizing a Coherent Experience
Prior to the screening of October Sky, College Now science faculty met with Professor Ortiz to view the film and discuss ways to incorporate key concepts the film raises about science, scientists, and career exploration into class discussions pre- and post-viewing. Professor Ortiz had contacted NASA for resource materials and supplied teachers with space exploration kits, posters and bookmarks. Each teacher was also asked to distribute a set of flyers describing the movie and the writing assignments to students a few days before the film’s scheduled screening.
When the big day arrived, we were delighted to welcome over 200 students to campus. Still, we were concerned: would these high school students sit for two hours and participate in the event as we had planned it? After an introduction and discussion of the history of the film and its significance to the science course in the College Now program by Professors Ortiz and Singer, the lights went down. IT WORKED. The story slowly unfolded; the students were enthralled, and they clapped and yelled back at the screen (a good sign) when Homer defied everybody’s expectations. Homer desired a life in the stars and not in the mines. His wish would come true, and this resonated with our students, who also dream about life beyond the neighborhood and fear not only failure but also what success could bring. This film demonstrated to them that science is not irrelevant in their lives. It is a real and, in some cases, highly motivating factor in who and what they become. They also saw that trying is as important as the result. We see this as a recurring theme throughout the film festival: dream, try, and keep the process of critical thinking alive!
Mary Theresa Ortiz is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Kingsborough Community College of The City University Of New York. She is actively engaged in eelgrass (Zostera marina) research and remediation in Jamaica Bay, NY. Interested in space since childhood, Dr. Ortiz has worked for NASA in the Space Life Sciences Training Program at The Kennedy Space Center in Florida and as Faculty Research Fellow at The Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. She is especially fond of the movie October Sky since her father nicknamed her “Sputty” after the launch of the first Sputnik I satellite.
Robert Singer is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College. His areas of expertise include literary and film interrelations, interdisciplinary/comparative research in film history and aesthetics, and developmental studies. He has also written and directed several independent short films.