The Universe in the Classroom

Astrobiology: The Final Frontier of Science Education

A High School Curriculum in Astrobiology

Astrobiology is a truly integrated science. For example, when extreme environments of Earth are examined as a springboard to the search for life in the Solar System, other subjects–the biology of microorganisms, the chemistry of nutrients, the process of respiration, and the nature of autotrophic habitats–are intimately entwined and must be considered in one breath, albeit a long one. When the subject of the search for life around other stars is undertaken, it is impossible to separate the discussion of instrumentation and technology from the nature of radio waves from the size and scope of the Universe.

As a science, astrobiology is a perfect vehicle for introducing major science content standards. Not only can they be threaded through the curriculum, but they can also be applied by students within the context of a problem that they need to solve. For instance, the electromagnetic spectrum can be introduced in one section of the course in terms of white light necessary to see astronomical objects with our eyes and telescopes, and in another section, infrared light can be studied as a tool to discover planets orbiting other stars. In yet another, radio waves are used to attempt communication with life forms in other solar systems. In each case, repeated application of a concept within the context of solving a particular problem creates a powerful conceptual learning sequence for students.

Other important national science education content standards are nested within the branches of the astrobiology subject matter tree: atomic and kinetic-molecular theory, diversity of life and evolution, chemical species and reactions, thermodynamics, fundamental forces, cell theory, photosynthesis and respiration, and the nature of light and electricity.

The search for life, with all its cross-curricular ties, is also rich in potential long-term student research projects. Students can immerse themselves in a variety of astronomy-, biology-, and chemistry-related disciplines. Students can examine and measure the crater distribution in the northern plains of Mars, seeking evidence for large bodies of water sometime in the distant past or attempt to unscramble the maze of cracks and ridges on Europa. Teachers and students can easily set-up and perform bacteriology experiments such as testing for the presence of life in "extreme" Earth environments (hot desert sands, snow banks, icy water) using disposable petri dishes and instant agar. One approach is to have students try to prove that life does not exist in a place of their choosing. Taking swipes from the middle of barren parking lots or from automobile tires and then inoculating plates to produce thriving bacteria colonies every time reveals much to students about the tenacity and diversity of life on Earth.

Growing plants under different sets of environmental conditions, using lunar- or Martian-like soils, can give students a feel for the problems that will attend space colonization and terraforming other worlds. Astrobiology offers a wide spectrum of projects to satisfy students’ particular interests. And as Project 2061 and the national and state science education standards insist, students need to do science instead of take science in order to develop that spark of interest and excitement that results in the quest to understand the unknown.

To accomplish this goal, TERC (Technical Education Research Center, Cambridge, MA) and NASA are developing an interdisciplinary middle and high school course using astrobiology as its unifying, underlying structure. Through investigations based on the search for life on other planets, students will explore diverse concepts in chemistry, biology, physics, Earth and space science, and engineering. They also develop research skills such as hypothesis testing, experimentation, fieldwork, modeling, and image data analysis, and engage in long-term experiments. The astrobiology course will provide students opportunities to master fundamental science concepts in a relevant context and apply their skills and understanding directly in a variety of investigative modes. In short, the students taking this course will feel as if they are partners in the quest for knowledge as they explore the many disciplines contained in a branch of science that may soon yield some of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.

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