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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.