Life Beyond Earth Banner Are We Alone? Is Anybody Listening? Resources
Teacher Resources | Discussion Board | Interview Archive | Related Links | About the Film | Site Credits
Teacher Resources Title
Within this section, you will find three teacher lesson plans adaptable for K-12 classrooms. These lesson plans — complete with activities, discussion ideas, and literary resources — offer creative ideas for teaching the concept of life beyond Earth in the classroom.

Lesson Plan #1
Alien Landscape

Lesson Plan #2
Alien Creatures

Lesson Plan #3
A Europa Probe


Exploring the Unknown: Alien Landscape
A lesson in science for grades 3 to12

Developed by Educator Rick Crosslin


The images of other worlds have come to us through remote sensing, cameras, radar, and other advanced means. We collect data for interpretation and extrapolation. The following activity will simulate what it is like to explore an unknown land. By using a grid system and taking measurements you will be able to collect data from a simulated landscape. Students will make drawings of what the landscape looks like from the data collected.

Instructional Objectives:
  • Students will create an alien landscape out of clay or flour salt mixture.
  • Students will investigate to determine the surface features of an unknown object.
  • Students will use metric measurement to make a profile of an unknown object.
  • Students will understand remote sensing techniques by conducting a simulation.
National Science Education Standards
( )
Science Inquiry
  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.
  • Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  • the "Life Beyond Earth" video tape (optional)
  • a computer with Internet access (optional)
  • the "Life Beyond Earth" Web site (optional)
  • shoebox with lid
  • clay or flour/salt mixture (mix one part water, one part salt, three parts flour)
  • small plastic lid from a soda pop bottle
  • paper
  • pencil
  • centimeter ruler
  • nail
  • "Planet Probe" coffee stirrers or wooden skewers
  • grid paper
Time Allocation:
three to five 45-minute sessions

Teaching Strategy:

After watching the video "Life Beyond the Earth," discuss what an alien landscape might look like and how we know what it looks like. One person will prepare an "Alien Landscape" while you design a method for exploring it.

Have a friend or parent study pictures of Mars and Venus. Ask your friend to use the clay or the flour salt mixture to terraform or sculpt an alien landscape. If the salt and flour mixture is used let dry overnight. Make sure that included in the alien planet are volcanoes, canyons, a lake made from the inverted lid.
After it has dried fill the "lake" with water.

Prepare the Lid of the Alien Landscape

Cover the top of the lid with graph paper. Mark off a grid system every ten centimeters. Label the grid system with letters on one axis and numbers on the other.

Use the nail to make holes at the intersections of the grid lines. Place the lid over the shoebox alien landscape.

Use an Exploration Data Sheet

This should include a table with each letter across the top, and the number down the side.

Exploring the Alien Landscape

Have students tell their partners that they have discovered a new planet. It is the partners' job to make observations on what the surface may look like. They accomplish this by using the Data Sheet, centimeter ruler, and Planet Probe. At each coordinate gently insert the Planet Probe until it encounters an object. Mark on the Planet Probe the depth of the object. Remove the Probe and examine the end. Record on the Exploration Data Sheet the depth in centimeters and any other observations such as the presence of water.

Continue collecting and recording data. Use grid paper to create a side view of each letter column. From these side views or transients the explorer will be able to interpret the surface of the Alien Landscape.

Draw different sketches of what the landscape may look like after each side view. Once the entire landscape data has been collected a final drawing and written paragraph can be made. Open the lid of the Alien Landscape Shoebox and compare your exploration with the model. List the features you correctly "discovered" and those that were not known.

This exercise would simulate what it would be like to identify the land features of Venus. Instead of trying to view the planet through thick clouds, we had to collect data through the lid of the shoebox.

Internet Reference Sites:

Caltech Mars Surface Research

Mars Surface Processes: The Mars Global Surveyor Mission at PSI

Exploring Mars: Educational Brief


The grid system can be used with other known objects inside the box and alien landscape. For example, put a small model of a space ship inside the alien landscape box. Close the lid and challenge your partner to find the ship with the "Planet Probe." Challenge them to locate the spacecraft with only 10 -20 tries with the probe.

Other Earth features could be made in different shoeboxes for students to explore and map.


Alien Creatures: Extra Terrestrial and Terrestrial Oddities
A lesson in science for grades 3-12

Developed by Educator Rick Crosslin


After watching the video "Life Beyond the Earth," discuss what life on other planet might look like. Remember that on Earth animals have internal and external features and behaviors that help them live, find food, and reproduce. It can be argued that life on other planets would follow the same rules of adaptations or behaviors. By studying what the environment of another world might be will give us insight into what life might need to cope with to survive. Use your imagination and what we know about biodiversity on the Earth to create your own alien.

Instructional Objectives:
  • To understand external plant and animal features have positive benefits for an organism.
  • To understand that plants and animals are adapted to the environment they live in.
  • To understand the different environmental conditions that are present on other worlds.
  • To create an imaginary creature that fits into a described alien environment.
  • To understand that extinct Earth fossils have strange external body parts that were used in an environment that is not present today.
  • To understand that very diverse creatures lived on the Earth as evident from the fossil record.

National Science Education Standards
( )

Science as Inquiry
  • An organism's patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism's environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce, and others die or move to new locations.
  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.

Life Science
  • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
  • Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.
Science and Technology
  • Scientific inquiry and technological design have similarities and differences. Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations. Technological solutions are temporary; technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide benefits.

  • the "Life Beyond Earth" (optional)
  • a computer with Internet access (optional)
  • the "Life Beyond Earth" Web site (optional)
  • paper, pencil, drawing paper, markers
  • fossil reference material (optional)
Time Allocation:

One 45-minute session

Teaching Strategy:

Make a strange creature — it will never be stranger or more diverse than what nature can construct. Plants and animals have physical features called adaptations that allow them utilize the resources in their environment. A birds beak is shaped for the types of foods that are available — short and strong for crushing seeds, long and hollow for licking nectar from flowers, long and wide for sifting small plants and animals from the water. Vines have tendrils to attach to other plants. Animals have claws, fur, feathers, and body parts that allow them to live and prosper. In science we call this diversity. Plants and animals have evolved to fit into the environment they live in. To avoid competition, or possible because of competition, plants and animals have found ways to utilize the resources in their habitat.

All of these adaptations seem perfect to the animals in their environment. We recognize the animals and the environment. But what happens when we venture into new and strange lands.... We find new and strange plants and animals. We also find new and strange animal body parts and adaptations.

Wrote the artist Sydney Parkinson, who accompanied Cook and painted some of the exotic life forms they encountered in the south Pacific, "How amazingly diversified are the works of the Deity within the narrow limits of this globe we inhabit..."

What would life look like on other planets?

For example, the following planets and moons are somewhat different from our home. How different could life be? What adaptations would it need to survive.

Planet or Moon Environment and Conditions
Venus very hot, sulfuric acid clouds, volcanoes, etc.
Mars frozen poles, strong wind, dust, no atmosphere or ultraviolet protection
Io volcanoes
Europa frozen gases

Alien Biodiversity

Now it is your turn to create diverse creatures from unknown worlds. Use what you know about different planets and moons to create a creature. Write a short paragraph that describes each body part and it is used for.

Internet Reference Sites:

Paleontology at the U.S. Geological Survey

Arthropoda (Bug-like animals) Fossils found in Kentucky

Diversity and Biodiversity Links

University of Michigan

Biodiversity and Conservation a Hyper Text

Species 2000


Terrestrial Oddities: If you think you have made some weird creatures check out some of the strange animals that once lived on this planet. Today we can study the fossil remains of unusual creatures that lived millions of years ago. The planet was different then - the animal adaptations matched the environment. As you check out these ancient oddities think about their body parts and what they were used for. Many features of these creatures are still a mystery to science. Looking at these creatures may teach us something about what life on other planets may look like.


The Habitable Zone: A Europa Probe
A lesson in science for grades K-12

Developed by Educator Betty Paulsell

Europa is a cold, ice-covered moon orbiting Jupiter. Scientists now believe that liquid water might exist below Europa's icy surface. If so, Europa might be capable of supporting life. In this lesson, students will explore ways in which scientists might develop a probe that could go below Europa's layer of ice and explore the water below — if it exists — for signs of life.

Instructional Objectives:

  • research information about Jupiter's moon Europa
  • state what the "Habitable Zone" is
  • design a probe that would explore Europa for signs of life
National Science Education Standards
( )

  • Knows that throughout history, many scientific innovators have had difficulty breaking through accepted ideas of their time to reach conclusions that are now considered to be common knowledge.
  • Knows how the interrelationships and inter dependencies among organisms generate stable ecosystems that fluctuate around a state of rough equilibrium for hundreds or thousand of years.
  • Knows that although people using scientific inquiry have learned much about the objects, events, and phenomena in nature, science is an ongoing process and will never be finished.
  • Knows that different people may interpret the same set of observations differently.
  • Knows that scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • Knows possible outcomes of scientific investigations (e.g., some may result in new ideas and phenomena for study; some may generate new methods or procedure for an investigation; some may result in the development of new technologies to improve the collection of data; some may lead to new investigations.
  • paper
  • pencil
  • scissors
  • glue
  • recyclable materials (cans, cardboard, etc.)
  • found materials (sticks, jar lids, etc.)
  • a TV and VCR (optional)
  • the "Life Beyond Earth" video (optional)
  • a computer with Internet access (optional)
  • the "Life Beyond Earth" Web site (optional)
Time Allocation:
three to five 45-minute sessions

Teaching Strategy:
After screening the program "Life Beyond the Earth," rescreen the part about the "Habitable Zone" (located approximately 45 minutes into the program) where Timothy Ferris discusses the possibility of a probe to Europa with astrophysicist, France Cordova.

The habitable zone was first considered to exist only as far out in our solar system as Mars, but this may extend further now that we have discovered life on Earth can thrive in environments from extreme cold to extreme heat. (Refer to the Habitable Zone section in this site for more detailed information.)

Have students research more about Europa using the Internet sites or magazine articles listed below. This will provide background information to aid in the design of a probe to go to Europa.

Have students design (draw, label, and explain in detail) a probe that will travel to Europa, boar or melt through the icy crust, and then travel the oceans of Europa looking for life. They should keep in mind that scientists' knowledge of Europa's environment has changed in recent years.

Designs for the probe should take into consideration fuel amounts and source, probe materials to withstand temperature extremes, guidance and control systems, storage, and data transmission. Another important aspect is that the probe must be sterile so as not to bring any life forms from Earth to Europa!

Now students should build a model of their Europa probe using found or recyclable materials.

"Found" materials might include fabric scraps, pieces of wood, sewing notions, wrapping paper, tissue paper, wires, craft supplies, or anything else found at home or work that the adults think is junk.

"Recyclable" materials might include 1 or 2 liter plastic bottles, boxes, plastic dividers in foods, meat trays, milk cartons or aything else found at home or work that adults think is also junk.

To build a model of the Europa probe students should consider all the information that they have found and also the labeled design drawing they have created. Then look at available materials and decide which things will best represent their probe. Construction could take place at school or home.

Internet Reference Sites:
This site has information about the Europa Orbiter Mission with ideas about using a "radar sounder" and "hydrobots" to study the oceans of Europa Use for grade six and up.
This site has brief background information about Europa. Use for all grades.
This site gives very detailed information about Europa with a particular section called "Is There Life in the Ocean of Europa". Also several links to other articles about Europa. Use for grades six and up.
This is an excellent site with information about Europa's oceans. Use for grades four and up.
This site compares the search for ice on the moon with Europa's icy surface. Use for grades four and up.
This is an excellent site to build space experiments. Test a new spacecraft materials and see inside a closed box are examples of activities. Use for grades kindergarten through sixth.
This site has experiments, games, mazes, and things to build while discovering facts about space. Use for grades kindergarten through sixth.
This site is about Icepick: the Europa Ocean Explorer project which is an effort to generate a design for a future mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. It has links to every site imaginable about Europa! Use for grades six and up.
This site has recent information about finding sulfuric acid on Europa that possibly came from the volcanoes on Io which leads to implications for astrobiology. Use for grades six and up.

Other References:
"Ames Tackles the Riddle of Life," Andrew Lawler, Science, 20 March, 1998, pp. 1840-41.

"Craft Sees New Evidence of a Slushy Europa," Ron Cowen, Science News, 7 March 1998, p.149.

"Geophysicists Ponder Hints of Otherworldy Water," Science, 2 Jan. 1998, pp. 30 ff.

"Russian Outpost Readies for Otherworldy Quest," Richard Stone, Science, 30 January, 1998, pp.658 ff.

Suppose we discover radio signals from an apparently friendly civilization somewhere else in our galaxy. Write a message that you would want to send to them.

Go to this web site and create your own planet and see if the Robinson Family can live on it —

Write a letter to NASA to convince them to use your Europa probe design.

Hold a mock press conference to describe your Europa probe.

end rule