Science and the Teachable Moment

Take the face on Mars. The first photograph of this bumpy mesa was snapped by the Viking Orbiter, and released by NASA to the public on July 31, 1976. It is an intriguing image, and certainly does look like a face. In fact, since then, this “face” on Mars has inspired a whole library of books and groups of true believers that now find “evidence” of a “Pyramid” and an “Inca City” as well. All, of course, photographed by Viking but “covered up” by NASA officials. Note that all of the publications help to put bread on the table and pay the rent for the creative folks churning out such books, articles, and tabloid stories about “the face.” Now, imagine being a science teacher with a classroom full of 15-year old students who believe the television accounts of the face on Mars, cities on the Moon, alien autopsies, etc., and you are teaching your unit on space and astronomy. A careful excursion through the characteristics of the planets and their moons interests your students; the red spot on Jupiter would hold at least 3 Earths, a cool factoid, but it doesn’t grab them. The face on Mars does. And this was what I discussed with the science teacher at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) meeting in San Diego, California.