Aug 152011

Quite a few of my technical English students have been involved in testing in some way – conducting experiments, reporting results, evaluating test data or whatever. So I was pleased to come across a scene in a public domain movie that depicts scientists performing various experiments and tests on a fabric.  I wondered if it could provide some useful extra practice after a lesson on the topic of testing or the properties of materials – for example Unit 11 in Tech Talk Pre-intermediate or Unit 9 of Tech Talk Intermediate.

The video comes from an old 1953 movie. The original sound track was pretty poor and after clean up work, it’s still not great so I’ve prepared a transcript. I’ve also tried to jazz the first part of the video up a bit to give it a more contemporary feel.

So here’s a possible lesson idea – see what you think.

1. Tell your students that they are going to watch a 2 minute video. When it finishes they should tell you what they saw. (A neat way to do this is to have half the class looking at the screen so they can see and listen. The other half turn their chairs round so they can only listen. Then the first students pair up with one of the second ones and tell them what they saw. After that they have to keep quiet while you quiz the second ones.)

With any luck there may be some discussion because the effects I’ve added have made it tricky to see what’s happening at some points in video 1. Key points to establish:

  • The story takes place at an oil refinery in Texas in 1953
  • The police are chasing someone/something that’s wearing a space suit/deep sea diving suit. (Let’s call this thing Mr X)
  • Mr X runs into a building where he takes off his helmet and suit.
  • Mr X seems to be invisble. So we see his suit being folded up and placed on a table but we don’t see him doing it.
  • The police break open the door of the building, but they don’t find Mr X. They just find his suit and helmet.


2. Tell the class that they are scientists who are going to help the police. The police have brought them the helmet and suit and they are hoping for information that could tell them where Mr X comes from or anything else about him. Brainstorm a couple of experiments or tests they could run with the whole class to get them going. (You want a ‘what’ and a ‘why’ – e.g. weigh the suit and helmet in order to find out how heavy they are.) Then put your class into groups. Task them with coming up with a list of different experiments and tests to perform on the suit and helmet.

3. Collect feedback from the groups and make a list of the different tests on the board. (You can write the list yourself or give a student the job – good note taking skills practice.)

4. Tell the class that they’re going to watch some scientists performing some tests and experiments on the suit. They should see whether the scientists in the movie performed any of the tests they suggested, and if they performed any they hadn’t thought of. Play video 2 and then go back to the list on the board. See how similar the students’ list was to the tests the scientists actually performed. (Possible talking point: what tests can we do today that weren’t possible in 1953.)

5. There’s lots of vocabulary to check when you play the video 2 again. Click here for the script: Phantom From Space script

6. There’s also a third video but I have no idea how I’d use this. I did enjoy this line in the dialogue though:

This space suit is conditioned to function above 63,000 feet where human blood would
boil, resulting in the body expanding to twice its size, and death of course.

Ha! Well yes, I guess death would be one of the consequences.

If you find a use for any of these videos, please come back and share your experiences. All advice for changes and ideas for further exploitation will be really gratefully received.


Some other videos you may want to use in lessons:

Dentist negotiation

A business English sing-along

Troubleshooting – technical English – Lucy and the typewriter

Customer service – United Airlines

A handy dictation







 Posted by at 2:38 am

  2 Responses to “Tests and materials – a lesson for techies”

  1. In fact, blood will not boil (nor bodies explode) when exposed to hard vacuum. Human skin is very high-quality leather, and all it needs is some elastic fabric wrapped tightly around it to provide pressure retention — basically like support hose, only much stronger. In 1968, NASA started a research effort to provide suchspace activity suits, as they would be lighter, stronger, safer, and easier to move around in. Working prototypes were built, but they never flew, and NASA abandoned the effort in 1971. MIT is now working on a better version of the design for future flights.

  2. Oh my! John, you’re wonderful. Thank you! So as I understand it, here we have some great class discussion questions: would blood boil and cause a human body explode at 63,000 feet? And if not, why not? And what does this mean for the design of future space suits?

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