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Andromeda Strain - A Narrative

Kathy Paris

Introducing the scientific method is not always the most exciting topic for students. Listing the traditional format on the board (problem, gather information, formulate a hypothesis, perform an experiment, gather data and make a conclusion) can be, let's face it, dull. It is hard for the students to grasp the methods involved until they perform experiments for themselves, which they will eventually do in my class. The anticipation for these experiments must be raised. I have found one way: show them the movie Andromeda Strain and let them see if they can pick out what scientists do to solve problems. Even though this is a science fiction movie, many of the experiments the scientists (actors) perform are real experiments done with real scientific equipment. Besides a short discussion of the steps of the scientific method, two other important topics must be covered before this movie is shown: a discussion / lab about pH and the pH scale (acid, base/alkaline, neutral) including what happens to blood pH when someone hyperventilates and some basic chemistry (elements and organic molecules especially proteins).

The first day, I start off by describing the scene. "You have just been projected into the future and you are now a working scientist with years of experience. Because of your expertise in blood chemistry, you will be joining a team to try solve this problem: What, brought by a satellite retrieved from outer space, is killing people and other animals?" The next step in the scientific method is to gather information. The students are instructed to write down the information they see the scientists (actors) gather. At this point, I do not tell them the scientist's hypotheses. As homework, the students design some experiments to find out more about the organism (they must keep in mind that the organism is deadly). They are given three hints (in the movie and again by me). The scientist's job is three-fold:

1. Detection (to confirm an organism is present; isolate and identify it)

2. Characterization (how is it structured and how does it work)

3. Control (how to contain and destroy it)

The next day, they will follow the movie's scientists as they go about finding a solution to the problem. Questions are asked about the experiments performed and the data collected. As you can see from the attached assignment that I give the students, they are taken through the steps in the scientific method.

The third day, the excitement builds as the scientists try to meet their self-imposed deadline. The sooner the solution is found, the fewer people will die. Bit by bit, the case is built that the organism can only live within a very narrow pH (7.4), the pH of human blood. The only two survivors found at the beginning of the movie both had abnormal blood pH-the baby's pH was too high due to crying much of the time (respiratory alkalosis) and the old man's pH was too low because he drank sterno (alcohol and wax). Before the actual conclusion is drawn by the scientists in the movie, I stop it at several locations to give the students some "think" time. Can the students come up with the answer to the problem (the conclusion) before the scientists do? I would be willing to bet that the majority of adults who watch this movie don't really understand pH and therefore do not understand the end of the movie. Most of my students can (come up with the answer), but some cannot. After their assignment is turned in, we have a discussion so that everyone understands why the scientists reached the conclusion they did.

I also have the students rate the movie in three categories: overall interest, value in helping them understand the scientific method, and if it helped them further understand pH. A scale of 1-10 is used with 10 being the highest and 0 the lowest. The last two years the students have rated the movie an average of an 8 in all the categories. Even though I think the movie is great, I am still amazed that today's students, with their love for blood and gore movies, enjoy and learn from it too.

Objectives: After viewing the movie Andromeda Strain , the student will be able to

1. list and explain the steps in the scientific method.

2. propose some experiments to perform given a hypothetical situation.

3. analyze the data of an experiment and draw a conclusion.

4. explain the pH scale.

5. relate pH with hyperventilation (in humans).

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