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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