10 Great Movies for the STEM Classroom

Powerful films to teach problem-solving and nurture students' curiosity

by Danny Wagner

If you're looking to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), show them the ways that popular media uses -- and misuses -- the concepts you teach daily. Used as part of a lesson, clips from movies can reinforce topics, spark discussion, and promote new perspectives.

There's still a great need to introduce kids, and especially girls, to STEM fields like neurobiology, nanotechnology, and civil engineering. Whether it's a short clip from a Hollywood film to reinforce the concept of gravity or a feature-length documentary that highlights the work of engineers, incorporating movies into your lessons can help kids connect what they're learning in the classroom to the world at large. And even after the credits roll, you can extend the learning: Create a model, start a debate, or begin a community project that the film -- and your teaching -- inspires.

Here are 10 film picks that showcase essential STEM skills for school, home, the workplace, and beyond.

The Lego Movie  (Grades 1+)

This hilarious save-the-world tale appeals to the builder in all of us; creative engineering solutions abound as the heroes embark on their block-building journey.

Teacher tips: Have students identify the engineering design process at work in the movie. Bring some Lego bricks into the classroom (or use Minecraft) and have students develop solutions to common problems, creating prototypes, testing designs, and iterating on their own designs. Students can document their findings and share the highs and lows of the creative process.

Discussion questions: Which of the movie's creations was your favorite, and why? How might real-life engineers change the design process when they have to make quick decisions? How do the characters in the film demonstrate teamwork, and why is this important for engineers?

Big Hero 6  (Grades 2+)

 In this Disney adaptation of a comic with the same name, a 14-year-old genius invents special microbots to join his brother’s university robotics program. After tragedy ensues, a group of heroes unites and uses their strengths in chemistry and engineering to overtake a crafty villain.

Teacher tips: Try some of the experiments provided by the film's producers. From there, ask students to choose a problem in their school or community and work together in teams to brainstorm, design, and build solutions using their own unique talents.

Discussion questions: How can engineering solutions and inventions help -- and sometimes hurt -- humankind? What skills do you have that might help a team overcome an obstacle? Which events or traits fuel each character's creativity in the movie? Is creativity always positive?

Dream Big: Engineering Our World (Grades 2+)

This documentary highlights engineers from various backgrounds -- many of whom are women -- and the projects they're designing, from earthquake-proof structures to footbridges in developing countries.

Teacher tips: Use the powerful stories about engineering and robotics clubs in schools to inspire your students to join (or create) their own. Have students research other engineering projects from around the world that are currently in the works, and discuss what kind of global impact they might have. Also be sure to check out the film's education guide.

Discussion questions: How does engineering affect our everyday lives? How might engineers adapt as technology becomes more prevalent? Why do you think the movie highlights so many women engineers? Why is this type of diversity important?

Hidden Figures (Grades 4+)

This inspiring true story of African American women at NASA in the 1950s and '60s helps shine a light on the need for humans even as technology continues to automate.

Teacher tips: Build off the film's education guide: Have students construct and solve their own mathematical equations to describe the orbits of planets, or use computer simulations to model Newton's second law of motion. Talk about how technology makes these calculations easier.

Discussion questions: What are the positive and negative implications of technology taking over roles humans once held? What role did gender play in STEM fields in the 1950s and '60s? How much have those roles changed today?

Underwater Dreams (Grades 4+)

An underdog tale, this documentary tells the story of a robotics team from a lower-income high school that took on university teams -- including MIT -- in an underwater robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Introduce students to robots they can build and code like SpherolittleBits Invent, and Cue. Have students work in teams to focus on the design process and complete challenges. And while you're at it, why not start or promote a robotics club at your school?

Discussion questions: What is it about the kids on this team that made them able to overcome such huge obstacles? What makes underwater robotics such a challenging problem to tackle? Besides through robotics clubs, what are some other ways to do STEM activities outside the classroom?

 Apollo 13 (Grades 6+)

 A classic and powerful take on the story of the doomed NASA spacecraft, this film highlights the technical issues astronauts faced (along with some of the do-it-yourself solutions they inspired) to land Apollo 13 on the moon.

Teacher tips: Use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts. Have students build or code their own rockets and create journals to document the kinds of small adjustments and iterations needed to create a successful launch. Tip: Pairs well with a game like Kerbal Space Program.

Discussion questions: How has technology changed since the 1960s? Where should NASA focus its efforts in space exploration today? What does the film say about the role of engineers and their ability to use common items to fix highly technical problems?

Interstellar (Grades 6+)

While some of the film's ideas veer into science fiction, there's enough real science in this edge-of-your-seat thriller to make the heroes' search for habitable planets worth your time.

Teacher tips: After taking a look at the educator's guide and some TED-Ed lessons, have students talk about misconceptions and analyze the accuracy of some of the film's scientific questions. Students can hold a debate around what's a fact, what may be possible, and what's simply unattainable.

Discussion questions: What technological issues are holding humans back from interstellar travel? If you were building your own robot companion for space travel, what qualities would you deem most important? What are some ways viewers can separate fact from fantasy in science fiction movies?

The Martian (Grades 6+)

This sci-fi space thriller follows an astronaut who’s stuck on Mars and must problem-solve his way to safety using real scientific principles.

Teacher tips: Let students know it’s a movie about risk-taking and creativity and that, although the story is fictional, it's rooted in scientific fact. Have students take a look at some of the main character's creations in the movie: a sextant for navigation, his potato farm, or the water he makes from rocket fuel. Next, design a lesson where students are given a limited set of tools, a goal, and some constraints, then see what sort of innovative DIY projects they can launch.

Discussion questions: What is the hexadecimal system, and why is language so important in science and math? How important was it for the film's main character to keep a log? Why do we not yet have the technology to go to Mars?

If You Build It (Grades 7+)

 Want to show students that they have the talent and ability to make a difference? Then check out this documentary that follows 10 high school students who design and build a new farmer's market for their rural community.

Teacher tips: Kids will be inspired not only by the students' abilities but by their actions. Harness that sentiment to get kids out into their own communities. Have your students interview neighbors, collect data, and embark on a cross-curricular project-based learning assignment to solve an issue. Teach your students the necessary skills to build something, and then set them free to create.

Discussion questions: Which engineering processes did you notice throughout the movie? Were some more successful than others? What obstacles might you face if you were to promote a change at your school?

The Imitation Game (Grades 7+)

Cryptologists and mathematicians are front and center in this historical drama about the British government's attempt to crack the German Enigma code during WWII.

Teacher tips: There's a lack of Hollywood movies that incorporate math in meaningful ways. Take advantage of kids' interest in this movie to host a code-breaking challenge event. Or, use cryptograms as an introduction to a matrix unit. If you provide Genius Hour time, let students dig in and explore a topic of their interest. You could also have kids research other examples where STEM skills have helped shape significant historical events.

Discussion questions: Would computers today be able to pass Turing's test to determine intelligence? Why do we typically see more movies and stories about biologists or engineers instead of mathematicians?


This piece originally appeared on Common Sense Education.

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