Movies You Can Use in the Classroom

by Mark Griep
Department of Chemistry
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

You can use movie clips in your classroom to achieve nearly all of the same aims as you would for demonstrations. They attract attention, they are fun, and they spark students to think why.  Movie clips have the advantage over demonstrations in that:

(1) they are related to things the students have actually experienced,
(2) they do not involve much preparation or clean up, and
(3) movie clips are not physically dangerous.

The descriptions below indicate how I use these clips in my classroom. I have linked these clips to specific textbook chapters on another page.

Movie Clips That I Use In My Liberal Arts Chemistry Course
• Movie Title (Year) [movie clip duration and cue time]
• Movie Notes
• Chemistry Classroom Notes

First Day Lecture: Sources of Chemicals

• Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) [1.8 min long; cue to 31:30]

• The second year at Hogwarts begins with a lesson in the greenhouse, where the students learn to re-pot human-shaped mandrake plants. Little do they know the mandrake extract will soon be needed for its anti-petrification properties. There is a lab safety message about using earmuffs. There is a craftsmanship message that if you want to use potions, you need to know how to tend a garden.

• Mandrake tuber really exists and is a member of the Deadly Nightshade family.  Alcoholic extracts of mandrake contain the compounds atropine and scopolamine. They have very similar structures and similar but non-identical physiological effects. If you want to be a chemist, you need to know how to handle chemicals. I tell my students that wearing goggles will put you in the mood to discover.

Second Day Lecture: Informed Consent and Clinical Trials

• Senseless (1997) [3.0 min long; cue to 24:30]

• Darrel Witherspoon (Marlon Wayans) is a hockey-playing economics major at Stratford University. He also works a dozen jobs to earn money to put himself through college and have a little left over for his mother.  While cleaning trash around campus, he sees a notice that neurophysiologist Dr Wheedon (Brad Dourif) is looking for volunteers.  The movie clip shows Darrel and a roomful of students listening to a woman read Protocol 563.  As the number of possible side effects grows, people leave until only Darrel remains. He visits Dr Wheedon who is holding a molecular model.  Wheedon explains that the drug magnifies each of the five senses ten times.  Darrel needs to inject 6 cc every day into the buttocks just before he goes to bed when his serotonin levels are lowest.

• After the clip, I show students the short, modern version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, Do No Harm; which would seem to preclude scientific drug testing. Then, I ask the students to tell me what we can infer from the clip about our current drug testing methods. After the students have generated a half dozen or so inferences (and showing they know a lot of about drug discovery), I sometimes show them the long modern version of the Hippocratic Oath and note that Hippocrates lived when there were few safe and effective cures for diseases. He was actually promoting palliative care.

Atomic Theory and the Incompressible Electron Shells

• The Devil-Doll (1936) [2.5 min long; cue to 7:45]

• Dr. Marcel (Henry Walthall) describes to Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) that he and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano; a literal translation is “little evil woman”) are able to simultaneously shrink all the atoms in any living organism by six fold.  Since the lab is filled with chemical glassware, we have to infer they use chemicals to do it.  His goal is benevolent in that he intends to shrink people so that normal-sized food will feed six times as many people.

• Dr. Marcel spouts some great mad scientist dialog including, “Atoms are made of electrons, and I’ve been able to shrink them.” He seems to forget that atoms are also made of neutrons and protons, but I forgive him because my real interest lies in his ability to shrink atoms. I show this clip after giving my lecture about the incompressible nature of the electron shell that is part of John Dalton’s Atomic Theory. I ask the students to be smarter than the mad scientist and explain why it is not possible to shrink the size of atoms. It is actually a tougher question than you might imagine because even the electron shells around the hydrogen nucleus are incompressible, and students don’t learn the answer in my lecture. In fact, General Chemistry students don’t learn enough to give the best answer either, although they might reasonably mention that changing the electron shell size will change the properties of the atom. If you want an easier question, there is more than one flaw in Dr. Marcel’s food supply scheme.

The Periodic Table

• Fuller Brush Girl (1950) [1.0 min long; cue to 30:15]

• Young Harry (Bobby Hyatt) describes the composition of the solution that caused his mother’s hair to fall out. He names 20 elements and ions in about 30 seconds.

• I have to admit that I use this clip mainly for its humor although I do point out that Young Harry has a chemical set that includes uranium, thorium, mercury, and argon!

Metal Oxidation States; Heavy Metal Toxicity

• Erin Brockovich (2000) [3.0 min long; cue to 34:00]

• Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) visits Donna Jensen’s home in Hinckley where she learns about her health issues and that Pacific Gas & Electric offered to buy their home and pay all her medical bills. Next, Brockovich visits a UCLA Toxicologist where she learns the difference between the good trivalent chromium and the highly toxic hexavalent chromium.

• This is one of the rare movies that mentions metal oxidation states, in this case for chromium. Trivalent chromium is a monatomic +3 ion and is a micronutrient. Hexavalent chromium is the fully oxidized form and could be chromic acid or chromate. It is toxic. Later in the movie, we learn that PG&E had used it to prevent corrosion of their cooling towers. After it was used up, they stored it in waste pools that weren’t properly lined so it leaked into the groundwater.

Stoichiometry; Rates and Reaction Forces; Human Metabolism; Fuel Cell Reaction; Human Ingenuity

• Apollo 13 (1995) [5.5 min long; cue to 1:27:00]

• Before this scene, one of the oxygen tanks on the space ship blew up. To save energy for the trip around the moon so they can return home, the astronauts turn off all electrical equipment in the Command & Space Module and move into the Lunar Module.  When the scene begins, the CO2 detector light turns on to indicate rising levels. Just as the astronauts realize the Lunar Module was designed for 2 astronauts over 2 days and not for 3 astronauts over 8 days, they learn that the engineers at Command Central have a plan.  The astronauts construct their LiOH canister and connect it, resulting in nearly immediate CO2 reduction.

• On the NASA website, you can find a photo of the famous LiOH canister. It looks way better than the one in the movie. You can also find a diagram of the spaceship and, if you search hard enough, you will find the daily average CO2 emitted by an astronaut (18.2 mol CO2/day/astronaut).  If you are a fan of chemistry, you should be able to predict the reaction equation for the generation of lithium carbonate and use it to calculate the minimum mass of LiOH needed to scrub the CO2 generated by 3 astronauts for 8 days.

Carbon Dioxide; Global Warming

• An Inconvenient Truth (2006) [50 min first half of the documentary; cued to the beginning]

• Politician Al Gore gives a brief history of global warming science and his lifelong attempts to generate a political discussion about global warming and greenhouse gases. The inclusion of the animated Futurama segment in which Mr. Sun Beam is beaten by the thug-like Global Warming Gases is a nice touch.

• I enjoyed learning about the history of making CO2 measurements from Mr. Gore so much that I share it with my students.

Polymers; Glue

• Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (1995) [2.5 min long; cue to 58:16]

• Michele (Lisa Kudrow) describes the chemistry of the glue that makes Post-It notes sticky.

• The sticky notes story began in 1968 when 3M chemist Spencer Silver was preparing a series of acrylate copolymers in his search for a new adhesive. One of his preparations created sticky microspheres that were smaller than the pores in paper. The coated paper was removable and re-stickable.

Last updated on January 9, 2014.