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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 YellowstoneResources 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”