Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Using Star Wars to Teach Biomes and Ecosystems


A big part of "Playing Like a Pirate" is using pop culture to teach. Whether it's music, video games, movies or television, you'll get kids on board if you indulge in pop culture from time to time. Or if you're me, all the time. One of the many things I love about the Star Wars movies is the planets. With few exceptions, each world in that far away galaxy is a single biome. It's simplistic, but you've gotta admit, if you're going to be going from planet to planet in a movie, it's nice to be able to look out the window and see snow, sand, or forest and know where you are.


Using those different planets can help students understand the concept of biomes and ecosystems, and have a little fun with it at the same time. In between the movies and television series and video games, there have been dozens of planets represented on different sizes of screens.


If you need a refresher for some of the major ones that are seen most often in the movies, there are handy videos on YouTube that will help you see which planets you might want to include. Chances are very good that most of your students have seen several Star Wars movies...they can help you out too.

For students studying biomes and ecosystems, there are key things they could be looking for in these single-biome worlds of Star Wars. The landforms, flora, and fauna of each world are unique to those worlds, but have distinct similarities to creatures and environments found on Earth.

Three planets I'd use as examples: Tatooine, Hoth, and Naboo. Each is well-known, and both Tatooine and Naboo are featured in several movies, showing us more of their environment than some of the other worlds. By showing video clips from the films, or links to websites (where geeks have obsessively written about the plants and animals of these fictional planets), students can get an idea of what biomes are represented.

Tatooine is a desert planet, and is prominently featured in Episodes I, II, IV, and VI of the Star Wars series. Prominent creatures include banthas, rancors, womprats, dewbacks, and the sarlaac.

Hoth is an ice planet, seen only in Episode V. We only meet two indigenous species, the tauntaun and the wampa.

Naboo is a temperate world, featured in Episode I and II. We see forests, grasslands, and even aquatic biomes here, breaking the Star Wars rule of "one planet, one biome" -- but we see fambaa, kaadu, opee sea killer, falumpaset, and other creatures.


After learning what a biome is and studying Earth's biomes and ecosystems, students can extend those skills by analyzing the fictional worlds. Some sample questions and activities:


  • What physical factors do we see on that planet? Temperature? Water? Humidity? Light? Landforms?
  • What ecosystem niches are represented in what we see of that planet? Producers? Consumers? Herbivores? Carnivores?
  • What niches are missing (simply not seen) in what we see of the planet in the movie? 
  • What Earth plants or animals could fit into those empty niches?
  • Design a Star Wars-style creature that would fit into the empty niches. 
  • How do the humans (or other sentient aliens) interact with that biome? 
  • Pick one of the Star Wars creatures and imagine what would happen if it were introduced into their equivalent ecosystem on Earth -- would it be successful here?  
  • Design a human outpost for that biome that would complement the existing ecosystem, being in harmony with the surroundings. 
  • Write a short story from the perspective of one of the Star Wars creatures, describing a day in their life. 
Pretty much every real world biome is represented by a Star Wars planet -- some other examples:

Endor - Temperate Forest
Dagobah - Swamp/Marshland
Kashyyyk - Rainforest
Yavin 4 - Jungle
Kamino - Aquatic
Jakku - An Awfully Tatooiney-Desert
Geonosis - Also Desert, But Like, Different 
Lothal - Grasslands 

...and then a few that push the envelope a little, but still have ecosystems of their own:

Mustafar - Volcanic
Bespin - Gas Planet/Cloud Ecosystem
Asteroid Field - uh...big spinny rocks in space
Coruscant - Completely Urban Planet

UPDATE: I guess Disney wants money, because they keep making Star Wars movies. Some more planets and biomes from recent films:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (I loved this waaaay more than I thought I would)

Lah'Mu - Volcanic, Contaminated Water and Soil
Ring of Kafrene - Two planetoids connected by an artificial city
Jedha - Rocky Desert in "Permanent Winter"
Yavin 4 - Jungle
Scarif - Tropical Beaches

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Controversial movie, but incredible planets and biomes)

Ahch-To - Rocky Islands in a Cold/Temperate Climate
Cantonica - (another) Desert, but this one with an artificial oasis, complete with sea.
Crait - Red mineral planet crusted with a coating of white salt.

Ahch-To is probably my favorite of these worlds, and the most applicable to teaching students about biomes or ecosystems -- there are porgs and caretakers and Thala-Sirens, and we see how they interact with each other, and how Luke and Rey both interact with them. It's perhaps the closest thing we see to a complete ecosystem in the Star Wars movies, and I mean, porgs. PORGS.



Incorporating any one of those into your standard science lesson about biomes and ecosystems would grab your students' attention, help them think outside the box, and (best of all) deepen their understanding of the principles, structure, and vocabulary of the real science you're teaching them. If you're looking for a lesson they'll remember, look to that faraway galaxy. Help you, it will.



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