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A Science Program in Wisconsin Brings the Universe to Students' Backyards

Environmental and astronomy educators have teamed up not only to teach students about ecosystems, but also our cosmic origins that make life possible.

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A Science Program in Wisconsin Brings the Universe to Students' Backyards

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It is good to know our home.

We mostly live our lives in a pre-Copernican world. Earth seems motionless. The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars appear to move across the sky. Surely they are made of some unearthly material. Astronomy education lets young people recapitulate the last 500 years of science as they discover for themselves that our home rotates, revolves around our sun, belongs to a solar system, and travels through a galaxy filled with many other worlds. Even more, astronomy education lets young people discover that Earth belongs to a larger ecosystem and that they are made of the same stuff as stars.

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As an educator for 30 years, I did not always think environmental science included astronomy. Astronomy was the study of “things out there.” My work the last few years at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin has changed that for me. Before that, astronomy education meant setting up a telescope and sharing views of planets, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. But that proved difficult when so much of the education at a nature center takes place in the daytime. Being around environmental educators has given me a new set of lenses. Now when we study ecosystems, we also look at our cosmic origins and the stars that fused the elements that make our world and its life possible.


At the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, environmental and astronomy educators work together to help students explore the universe.

Last summer, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve offered its first Space Camp. Fifteen girls and boys (ages 8-10) spent a week exploring the Moon, the Sun, the planets, the constellations, and life beyond Earth. Our mission was to teach astronomy using the 8,500 acres of ridges and valleys and creeks as our classroom. We used Night Sky Network’s Supernovae in the Lives of Stars because it takes an environmental approach comparing the life cycles of stars and butterflies. By comparing stellar recycling to the recycling that occurs as fallen trees decompose on a forest floor, students were able to see the connections between the ecosystems above and below them.

We extended this activity by asking students to recreate stellar recycling in an outdoor performance. Each student became stardust. As they bumped into classmates, they glommed onto each other showing how the interstellar medium condenses to form stars. After igniting, they fused more elements until they eventually went “supernova,” seeding the environment with the elements needed for future stars and planets and life. A NOVA video clip, “ How the Inner Solar System Formed ,” let students experience the creation of the rocky planets. Students then examined meteorite slices from NASA to see for themselves how chondrules accreted to form meteoroids.

NOVA’s “ Finding Life Beyond Earth ” collection on PBS LearningMedia was an important part of our curriculum when we focused on what happened next to the stardust. Four activities were an especially good match.

1) “ What is Life ” asks students to gather up objects, classify them as alive or not, and develop a working definition of life. A companion video clip “ Life’s Basic Ingredients ” shows how life needs water, organic compounds, and energy. “ Comets Bombard the Early Earth ” shows how dirty snowballs from the Oort Cloud may have seeded life on Earth.

2) “ Extreme Living ” asks students to match extremophile microbes with the places where they live as they discover that Earth has life that might thrive in the extreme environments of other worlds. Students viewed three short clips: “ Life’s Extreme Environments ,” Microbial Life in Antarctica a nd “ Thriving on the Artic Seafloor. ” As we hiked about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, students became more aware of how life adapts to challenging environments. They recognized this in KVR’s logo of a conifer growing tenaciously from the side of a rock face.

3) “ Home Sweet Home ” was an especially fun activity. Students received a card describing a planetary environment and invented a creature that would be happy there. As we explored trails and creeks, students became more mindful of the match between home and creature.

4) “ Where to Look for Life ” asks students to examine twelve cards describing planets and moons in our solar system. Working together as scientists, they selected one of these worlds as a destination for a future mission. Four video clips gave them a preview of the four worlds often seen as the best candidates for life: “ Life on Enceladus ,” “ Life on Europa ,” “ Life on Mars ,” and “ Life on Titan.

After learning from media and hands-on activities, we explored these worlds with Guy Ottewell’s 1000-Yard Model, or The Earth as a Peppercorn . Students used a sunflower, peppercorns, chestnuts, and acorns to create a scale model of the solar system over a half mile. As we hiked back from lunch in the Kuiper Belt, we gathered up the planets and reviewed what we had learned about each of the worlds. There was a lot of time between Pluto and Neptune, so I made the most of it by quizzing them on the plants and birds and animals along the way. I’ll remember the one nine-year-old who finally looked at me with an amused and patient smile and said, “John, don’t you know it’s all stardust?” And we found our way home.