Learning Lab Feature - Expos 20: Journey to Mars

November 14, 2018
Ramyar Rossoukh

Raymar Roussokh's Expos 20 course asked students to consider the implications of human efforts to reach Mars. As part of the course, they visited the Learning Lab to engage in unique, hands-on film analysis of "The Martian." Students returned later in the semester to work on using visual evidence and oral presentation skills to develop research questions and arguments for a writing assignment.

Mars has become the next great frontier in human conquest and exploration. Why Mars? What is at stake in our efforts to reach Mars? What does it say about life here on Earth? In this expository writing class, students examined at a range of scholarly literature on Mars as well as films, science fiction, and virtual reality simulations to examine some possible futures in which humans have colonized outer space and become a multi-planetary species.

Ramyar Roussokh’s Expos course visited the Learning Lab during their first unit in which they analyzed the film, The Martian. As many folks who’ve taught film know, it is often extremely difficult to get students to move beyond mere plot summary, to force them to analyze the images and properly filmic qualities of the piece rather than a relatively thin version of the story. So, for their visit we printed up two collections of stills from the first 4 minutes of the film. We offered both a computational sampling of the piece—one still every 2 seconds for the first 4 minutes—and a “cinematic” sampling, grabbing a single still from each and every one of the film’s first 200 shots, which is the number of discrete shots we encounter in the first 4 minutes of the film. When the students arrived, they found both sequences of stills lined up next to each other on the tables, tangibly introducing the complexity of film analysis. Even shrunk to an inch in height the stills ran the length of two big LL tables end-to-end. It was quite a sight! For their activity, the students selected stills to compare and contrast using a glossary of film terms we printed out on cards. Students used the images and terms to present insightful, multimodal analyses of the film’s opening scenes, which most certainly did analyze the images qua images rather than mere conveyors of plot points. The concrete materiality of the cut up images—even more than the digital display of clips on the computer—made the film an object or artifact in need of analysis rather than a story, and this had a powerful effect on the students’ work.

Later in the semester, students returned to the Learning Lab for a pre-drafting exercise. Students delivered short pitches (~1 minute) in which they used visual evidence to explain their Unit 3 paper research question using images of Mars (both real and imagined). We knew that students would be in different stages of their writing process at during their visit, so two prompts were designed. The first helped students who were unsure of a research question to develop one, while a second helped students with a proposed question refine their arguments.

Lastly, the Learning Lab hosted an optional event on a Sunday evening where students were invited to play the board game “Teraforming Mars” with their professor and talk through the implications of their game choices.