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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute 6 Education and Outreach This chapter evaluates the success of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in supporting outreach by providing scientific content for use in K-12 education programs, teaching undergraduate classes, and communicating directly with the public. NAI CONTRIBUTIONS Astrobiology addresses scientific topics that attract wide interest from the public: the origins and evolution of life, space exploration, and the possibility of life on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system and beyond. NASA legitimized and took ownership of these topics through its support of astrobiology. The education and public outreach (EPO) component of the NAI is essentially NASA’s vehicle to deliver its discoveries to the public. NAI member scientists and EPO professionals have capitalized on the broad appeal of astrobiology by making substantial contributions to the public’s general understanding of science. The close interaction between EPO professionals and NAI scientists is the key to the impressive list of the NAI’s EPO accomplishments. In many cases, the scientists themselves play active roles in education and outreach by giving public lectures, leading field trips, and teaching college courses at all levels. These EPO efforts have been extremely well received by their intended audiences. There is extensive evidence that the products of NAI EPO are being incorporated into mainstream science education at all levels. Astrobiology courses that comply with National Science Education Standards (NSES) are being taught in high schools. Astrobiology courses are now offered at most of the NAI principal investigators’ (PIs’) and co-investigators’ (CoIs’) home universities, in addition to many universities not directly affiliated with the NAI (see Chapter 3). And the NAI’s EPO effort is a highly effective mechanism for providing the public with information on the latest discoveries, many of which have been made by NAI teams, regarding evolution, the origins of life, and our cosmic origins. Overall the NAI has been highly successful in integrating cutting-edge research into educational products. In fact, the interdisciplinarity of the science (and of the NAI members themselves) has been a major factor in the success of the NAI’s EPO efforts. NAI scientists are adept at communicating with colleagues in various disciplines, and by so doing make the information accessible to a wider audience, including science teachers and the public. Although interdisciplinary scientific research is the major mission of the NAI, it has since its inception in 1998 set very high goals for education and public outreach. Examples of the NAI’s EPO achievements include the following:
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute Elementary-school science activities that directly address educational standards; A high-school-level astrobiology textbook and curriculum that address educational standards; A number of college-level textbooks for general education,1 undergraduate-,2 and graduate-level3 courses authored by NAI members; Workshops and field trips for teachers, science journalists, and students, organized by both EPO professionals and scientists; Well-attended public lectures given by leading NAI scientists; and Interactive Web sites, teacher training activities, workshops, field trips, and museum and national park displays whose science content is provided by NAI scientists. The NAI has effectively used its visibility to leverage funds, partnerships, and expertise. With assistance from NAI Central, NAI researchers and educators together have developed an extensive array of activities in multiple formats. Collaborating with organizations that provide major or supplemental funding has produced high-profile, high-quality products. Examples include the following: Origins—14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution—a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television broadcast in the Nova series.4 Looking for Life—a NASA/PBS program on astrobiology.5 The NAI expanded public distribution of this program by producing 4,000 DVDs, which were distributed within the NAI EPO community for use in local public outreach events such as Astrofest, Space Day, science fair judging, Girl Scout programs, and so on. Aliens of the Deep—an IMAX film produced by the Disney Corporation.6 Are We Alone?—a weekly hour-long radio program focusing on a wide range of topics relevant to astrobiology. Initiated by the SETI Institute with its endowment fund but currently supported in part by the NAI,7 the series is broadcast on the National Public Radio satellite channel and is available as a podcast.8 The podcasts present the latest developments in astrobiology to approximately 50,000 listeners per program. NAI Central and members of NAI teams assisted as consultants in all of these productions and provided coordination and support for companion Web sites and other accompanying educational materials. The Nova series identified above features NAI scientists at work. The NAI node at NASA’s Ames Research Center is engaged in several cooperative endeavors that reach large audiences. Examples include contributions to the Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook,9 training lectures given to park and interpretative rangers, and the Park Kids Program (Astrobiology Educator Guide). Yellowstone is one of the most visited parks in the United States, hosting some 3 million visitors a year. The NAI team at the Ames Research Center also assisted in developing displays at the museums of the California Academy of Sciences10 and the New York Hall of Science.11 To further promote the interpretation of science to the public, the NAI team at the University of Colorado has organized a series of workshops designed specifically to explain the science of astrobiology to journalists and thus enhance their ability to accurately inform the public.12 To inspire a future scientist takes an ongoing effort that continues from middle school, through high school, to college and into graduate school. Early capture of students’ interest depends on inspired teaching of science in the early grades. Embracing this concept, the NAI has made teacher professional development a major cornerstone of its EPO activities. NAI teams have instituted and maintained a host of effective teacher training programs. With earlier NAI support and currently as a member of the NAI, the SETI Institute offers both curriculum and teacher development programs. Voyages Through Time,13 a 9th and 10th grade high-school curriculum, is taught in more than 400 schools around the United States and is supported by an active network of more than 90 teachers who have been trained in the SETI Institute’s Astrobiology Summer Science Experience for Teachers (ASSET) program.14 Teachers attending ASSET can obtain continuing education unit credits at San Francisco State University, a major educator-training university in the San Francisco Bay area. NAI Central works toward creating a cadre of “master astrobiology teachers” who can bring their knowledge back to local communities and share their work with their peers. This initiative has created an effective national network of astrobiology teachers across the United States. In addition, the University of Arizona presents semester-long Internet courses entitled “Astrobiology for Teachers”
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and “Advanced Astrobiology for Teachers 1+2.”15 A total of some 250 teachers have enrolled in this program in the 7 years it has been offered.16 Another element of the NAI’s EPO program is serving diverse populations. A collaborative NAI project drafted, field tested, and finalized a workbook with six hands-on activities and a short film weaving together astrobiology and origins science with Navajo Indian cultural knowledge. The workbook—So’ Ba Hane’, Story of the Stars—and the film were internally distributed to approximately 300 schools on the Navajo Reservation.17 The project has been presented by Navajo partners at Indian education conferences, and the companion film was screened at the 31st American Indian Film Festival, held in San Francisco in 2006. The NAI team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) has initiated the Minority Institution Astrobiology Collaborative (MIAC), which involves secondary school teachers and faculty from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).18 A 2-year curriculum was developed and field tested at GSFC and at South Carolina State University. Under this program, 10 middle-school teachers received training each year and 20 middle-school students were engaged in science projects. This pilot project moved to Tennessee State University, where a 3-year program to train teachers is ongoing. This MIAC project is now the recipient of a newly funded National Science Foundation grant for education research. Tennessee State University has also become part of the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) project that successfully involves researchers from HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutes (HSI), and tribal colleges (TC).19 Tennessee State University not only has embraced the minority teacher training program but also has initiated an effective undergraduate program in astrobiology. Astrobiology has generated considerable interest at Tennessee State in part because it is viewed as a “pioneer” field of science, and the students entering perceive increased opportunities for making significant discoveries as compared to the more traditional fields of science. There are many successful NAI education and public outreach projects in addition to those cited here. The NAI contribution to undergraduate and graduate courses and their accompanying educational materials is discussed in Chapter 3. Curricula and several excellent astrobiology textbooks have been developed by NAI members for use in high schools and middle schools. Examples include the following: Astrobiology in Your Classroom—a NASA educator resource guide for grades 5-8,20 Astrobiology—a new book for middle-school students by Fred Bortz,21 and Astrobiology: An Integrated Science Approach—a high-school textbook by Jodi E. Asbell-Clarke et al.22 The NAI is also providing an astrobiology framework for the national Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education initiative and actively encourages collaboration among EPO practitioners. A large component of the University of Washington’s EPO effort has been to expand the very successful Project Astro—a nationwide program in which astronomers are paired with local school teachers to bring astronomy into K-12 classrooms23—into Project AstroBio.24 Starting with the 2002-2003 school year, the University of Washington’s Project AstroBio has annually paired 20-25 teachers from the Puget Sound region with volunteer astronomers or biologists. Each teacher-scientist partnership participates in a training workshop, receives resource materials, and develops a strategy for working together in and out of the classroom. The teachers participating in Project AstroBio subsequently guide students in grades 3 to 12 through inquiry-based, hands-on activities relevant to astrobiology. These activities are rigorously designed to meet national and state education standards. The partnering scientists each commit to a minimum of five classroom visits per school year. In its years of operation (i.e., prior to the termination of the University of Washington’s NAI funding in 2006), Project AstroBio had a direct impact on some 150 teachers and almost 4700 students. The NASA Astrobiology Institute’s overarching mission, to search for clues to the origins of life on Earth and to search for life on other planets, clearly resonates with the public. This is attested to by statistics on visits to the NAI Central Web site,25 which in May 2007 logged more than 46,000 visits from more than 29,000 unique visitors. At first sight, these numbers do not appear large when compared to, for example, the 3,952,000 visits to the main NASA Web site in the same period.26 However, the significance of the NAI’s 29,000 visits becomes apparent when they are normalized by the ratio of the total NASA budget to the NAI budget (i.e., approximately
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute 1,000:1). NAI Central created and maintains the Web site that serves members by posting a newsletter, an events calendar, funding opportunities, team Web sites, a seminar series archive, collaborative tools, and a handbook. It also communicates the activities and accomplishments of the NAI to the astrobiology community at large and to the public. In summary, the NAI’s EPO activities and products are a profitable return on the investment, and there has been a very successful synergistic relationship between the NAI researchers and the EPO staff of the individual teams. RELATIONSHIP TO OTHER ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAMS The NAI provides a unique and useful complement to other EPO activities associated with PI-driven programs within the Astrobiology program (e.g., the Exobiology grants program). While EPO activities are associated with some of these grants, there are few examples of scientists being as actively involved in the EPO activities as NAI scientists are, and also few other instances where the scientific results of the project are the focus of the EPO products. For example, the NAI’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) EPO team has developed an interactive Web site where visitors can “meet” the individual scientists and learn about planet formation from the scientists themselves, via pre-recorded interviews. They can also build their own planet online and see if it is likely to support life. An example of NAI scientists who become intimately involved with EPO efforts and of EPO professionals who acquire a high level of understanding of the science is evident in the NASA Ames NAI team’s contribution to the public understanding of life in extreme environments in Yellowstone National Park.27 The study of hyperthermophiles is an important focus of the research of the Ames team, and its scientists were actively involved in providing technical content for eight new trail signs that relate the unique geophysical phenomena at these locations to astrobiology. BALANCE OF NAI ACTIVITIES The NAI’s EPO efforts have been highly successful at transforming the science and discoveries of astrobiology into K-12 educational products, curricula, and standards. However laudable the NAI’s efforts in EPO are, can they have an impact on a national scale? The short answer must be no; the expenditures are too small. Indeed, if the entire NAI budget were devoted to EPO activities, NAI EPO would still be too small an effort to have a sustained national impact. The NAI is not going to solve the nation’s educational woes. Nevertheless, the NAI has demonstrated that limited public outreach activities can have a major local impact. A sufficient number of parallel local efforts, be they by the NAI or other NASA activities, may create a cascade with sufficient momentum to be important on the national scale. Unfortunately, it is not evident that other NASA programs, even the non-NAI Astrobiology programs, are taking full advantage of the EPO activities of the NAI. They could do so to great advantage. In the educational arena, although there are many NAI scientists who also are faculty members and demonstrate their commitment to EPO by giving public talks or leading field trips, they do not stray far from their home discipline with regard to teaching a course on astrobiology for science majors. The result is that “astrobiology” courses at the college level tend to be taught by several instructors or to be narrowly focused on a traditional field, which sends the wrong message about the interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology. More support could be given to NAI faculty members who offer truly interdisciplinary astrobiology courses for undergraduate science majors. This support could be in the following forms: Curriculum materials, similar to those produced for K-12, but adapted to the college undergraduate level; Release time, before or during the semester that an astrobiology course is being taught, to allow researchers to host workshops for current and future astrobiology educators; Initiation of a focus group on astrobiology education at the undergraduate science-major level; and Summer courses in astrobiology for undergraduates.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute In 2006, for example, the Vatican Observatory Summer School hosted a course on astrobiology inspired and supported by George Coyne S.J., the former director of the Vatican Observatory and ardent supporter of science education. Members of the University of Washington’s NAI team and colleagues from the University of Arizona team played a major role in this course and reported that the international cadre of students was very enthusiastic and benefited greatly from the experience. A similar, but continuing, activity is the Josep Comas i Sola International Summer School in Astrobiology jointly sponsored by the NAI, its Spanish associate, the Centro de Astrobiología, and the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo Palacio de Magdalena. Support for such activities would help bridge the gap between K-12 education and Ph.D. programs. Several general-education textbooks on astrobiology have been published for introductory courses whose target audiences are nonscience majors, and several upper-level textbooks have appeared recently. Various universities offer general-education astrobiology courses. However, there has not been much progress in offering advanced undergraduate astrobiology courses for science majors. This is an issue that the NAI could address to prevent a disconnect between success in inspiring schoolchildren and success in developing Ph.D. candidates in astrobiology. In the near future, faculty positions will be held by instructors who have had formal astrobiology training, and undergraduate educational opportunities will increase accordingly. In the interim, however, attention should be paid to this gap in undergraduate education. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE NAI ACTIVITIES With respect to the goal of supporting outreach by providing scientific content for K-12 education programs, teaching undergraduate classes, and communicating directly with the public, the committee finds that the NAI has: Successfully promoted astrobiology as a field with broad-based public appeal; Developed effective programs for outreach to the general public; and Enabled minority educational activities. Recommendation: The NAI should be more strategic in exploiting synergies among nodes in K-12 education, minority education, and teacher training. Because the current NAI teams are at various stages in their tenures, their EPO activities are in various stages of development. To avoid duplication of effort and wasted resources, the committee suggests that when new NAI teams are selected, NAI Central could facilitate connections between the existing EPO teams and the new arrivals. Recommendation: The NAI should address the specific requirements for teaching astrobiology at the undergraduate level. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation: The NAI could support development of educational products (other than textbooks) at the undergraduate level similar to those available for K-12 education; NAI faculty could be encouraged to take courses outside their areas of expertise (e.g., through release time, and so on); Workshops could specifically target undergraduates interested in astrobiology (most workshops have been conducted for graduate students); Programs similar in scope to the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) could be developed; A focus group should be formed that is specifically dedicated to issues related to teaching astrobiology at the undergraduate level. Care should be taken to ensure that its membership includes individuals who teach undergraduates and are familiar with the disciplinary pressures, rather than individuals whose experience with undergraduate education is restricted to their own undergraduate days; and High-achieving undergraduates could be supported to attend the NAI-sponsored astrobiology summer school in Spain, for example, or other similar events and conferences.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute NOTES 1. See, for example, Bruce M. Jakosky, The Search for Life on Other Planets, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998. 2. See, for example, Jonathan I. Lunine, Astrobiology: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach, Benjamin Cummings, 2004. 3. See, for example, Woodruff T. Sullivan III and John A. Baross (eds.), Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007. 4. For more information see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/origins/. 5. For more information see http://passporttoknowledge.com/life/. 6. For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliens_of_the_Deep. 7. For more information see http://radio.seti.org/index.php. 8. For more information about the podcasts see http://podcast.seti.org/. 9. See, for example, Chapter 4 of the 2007 edition of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook, available at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/yellowstone-resources-and-issues-handbook.htm. 10. For more information see http://www.calacademy.org/. 11. For more information see http://www.nyscience.org/home. 12. For more information see http://lasp.colorado.edu/education/journalists/index.htm. 13. For more information see http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org. 14. For more information see http://www.seti.org/epo/asset/. 15. E.E. Prather and T.F. Slater, “An Online Astrobiology Course for Teachers,” Astrobiology 2: 215-223, 2002. 16. Personal communication, Timothy F. Slater, University of Arizona, October 11, 2007. 17. For more information see http://nai.nasa.gov/storyofthestars/. 18. For more information about MAIC see http://miacnetwork.org/index.html. 19. For more information about MIRS see http://www.nai-mirs.org/. 20. For more information see http://teachspacescience.org/cgi-bin/search.plex?catid=10000406&mode=full. 21. Fred Bortz, Astrobiology, Lerner Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2007. 22. Jodie E. Asbell-Clarke, Daniel W. Barstow, Teon E. Edwards, and James L. Larsen, Astrobiology: An Integrated Science Approach, Technical Education Research Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005. 23. For more information about Project Astro see http://www.astrosociety.org/education/astro/project_astro.html. 24. For more information about Project AstroBio see http://www.astro.washington.edu/projastrobio/index.html. 25. The NAI Web site can be found at http://www.nai.arc.nasa.gov. 26. E.R. Hedman, “The Fragility and Resilience of NASA,” The Space Review, August 6, 2007. Available at http://www.thespacereview.com/article/924/1. 27. See, for example, Chapter 4 of the 2007 edition of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook, available at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/yellowstone-resources-and-issues-handbook.htm.