Early in the morning on August 6, NASA’s latest rover successfully touched down on Mars to begin investigating the planet’s habitability. The rover, Curiosity, will use an array of instruments to figure out if the Martian environment was ever able to support microbial life. As Curiosity searches for signs of life on the red planet, you may wonder how you can bring the search for life into your classroom. The NOVA Education team has developed a collection of flexible resources to help you turn this exciting space mission into a teachable moment for your students.
In October 2011, NOVA premiered a two-hour special called “Finding Life Beyond Earth.” The program explores some of the dynamic environments found on other planets and moons that have helped scientists expand their ideas of what kind of worlds could support life. Using adapted NASA activities, NOVA Education developed a collection of resources based on the program with seven hands-on activities that explore questions at the heart of the search for extraterrestrial life, such as: What are the characteristics of life? Which planets and moons in the solar system are potentially habitable? How do scientists search for life in our solar system and beyond? The activities are designed to be extremely flexible—educators can mix and match them to help kids understand the biology, physical science, technology, and Earth and space science related to the search for life beyond Earth. Video clips accompany most of the activities to help visually support the concepts students will explore. We have also provided PowerPoint presentation slides that complement each activity in the collection to help assist with the flow of a lesson and further engage students in the subject matter. Each core activity takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete; however, if you don’t teach in a conventional classroom setting, we’ve also adapted each activity into a shorter, condensed cart version that can be used in museum or event settings.
The NOVA Education team took these resources to the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC, to share one of our favorite activities, “Home Sweet Home.” Kids were given a “Creature” card describing one of six possible planetary environments and asked to invent a creature that could thrive in the conditions outlined on the card. The goal of the activity was to introduce kids to the factors to consider when thinking about the habitability of planets: Is there food to eat, gas to breathe, a comfortable temperature, and a way to move? The take-home message is that living things develop so that they can survive in a particular environment. A variety of materials were provided to help kids design their creatures—neon straws, beads, googly eyes, glitter glue, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, popsicle sticks, markers, crayons, construction paper, and more. I was impressed with how creative kids were in their use of these materials. Bubble wrap became a layer of insulation for creatures living in extremely cold environments; straws gave creatures special suction power to breathe gas; and aluminum foil created strong, metallic teeth that creatures could eat rocks with.
This is just one example of how to engage your students in the search for life. You can find the full “Finding Life Beyond Earth” Education Collection and the accompanying video excerpts here on our website. We would love to hear how you use these resources in your classroom. Join our educator community on Facebook and tell us what worked for you!