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.
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.