Boston Globe, February 27, 2001

Alien Biology Sparks Class

A Pilot Course Considers Far-away possibilities


by Sandy Coleman, Globe Staff

LEICESTER - Is there life on other planets?

If so, does it look like the monstrous thing Sigourney Weaver battled in the Alien movie blockbusters? Could you kiss it the way Captain Kirk was so fond of doing on Star Trek? Or, could it be related to your house plant?

Students are grappling with such lively questions in "Astrobiology: The Search for Life in the Universe," a course being piloted at Leicester, West Springfield, and 23 other high schools and middle schools nationwide.

If pondering the possibility of alien life can send minds racing and launch thousands of science fiction movies, educators say, maybe it can lure students into a closer encounter with science.

"We want to reignite that interest in science as being something unknown, that's alive," said Jeff Lockwood, the earthling in charge of making this new, experimental course fly.

A Cambridge research firm - the Technical Education Research Center, better known as TERC - developed the course with a little help from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The main mission: reverse a disturbing trend in which students lose interest in science as they move to upper grades, which leads to poor performance on international science tests.

Astrobiology cloaks the serious business of biology, chemistry, and physics in creative activities that try to tap into the average eighth- and ninth-grader's natural curiosity.

"When they walk into a regular science class, all the questions have been answered: `Here's Isaac Newton. Here's what he found out,"' said Lockwood, TERC's astrobiology project director. "It's a lot different than saying, `Gee, I wonder if there is life on other planets. Let's try to find out."'

So far, the course is so new there are few critics.

But while sci-fi flicks tease the imagination and make it easy to believe that "Men in Black" are keeping tabs on aliens, astrobiology takes a more grounded approach, trying to spark critical thinking so students can separate fact from fiction using evidence and scientific methodology.

Take that Star Trek episode students are shown, in which a silicon-based life form was tunneling beneath a planet.

Bad science, Lockwood said. "It's not really possible that silicon is the basis for life."

A Star Trek fan, Lockwood taught science for 28 years in Arizona.

As a final project, students can write their own science fiction story to learn the components of the genre. They also dissect and write their own tabloid story to get a better sense of the wild stories seen on newsstands.

For example, students compare tabloid and news articles about an image, a "face" on Mars. Life on Mars! shout the tabloid headlines.

But when you're presented with a really convincing photo of something, can you trust your eyes? Maybe not, students discover, once they analyze a different angle of the same location and it shows the "face" is a rock formation.

"We're trying to approach a lot of these ideas using scientific evidence and, if anything, remake some of the misconceptions concerning alien life forms, flying saucers, and all the other trappings of science fiction," said Lockwood.

Students use a special Web site to examine ongoing, real-life discoveries about Mars and other space-related topics.

And in case anyone wonders, there is still plenty of the usual science going on, as students use biology, chemistry, and physics to learn how to search for life forms, decipher coded messages, and explore the technology used to go to other planets.

Students also create microworlds to see what it takes to sustain certain organisms and assemble a puzzle without a guiding image, the same kind of challenges scientists face as they try to interpret scattered bits of information.

But it's the passion and probing that astrobiology has sparked in students like Dianna Sullivan and Dan Stuck that designers of the new course hope will sell it in the classroom.

Sullivan is not sure whether she believes there is life on other planets. "I do, and I don't," said the 15-year-old sophomore at Leicester High. "I think there is other life out there. But, aliens and all that stuff, I don't know."

There has to be something out there, insists Stuck, a senior at West Springfield High. "We can't be the only life forms out there. The universe is neverending, so the chance of us being the only life forms is slim. There has to be other intelligent life."

And "they could look like anything," he said.

It's been fun trying to figure it out, said Sullivan, who admitted she only took the class because she had an opening in her schedule. Now, she loves it.

Instead of reading about the solar system, Sullivan and her classmates recently took paper tape and placed cutouts of Earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in correct order and distance from each other. There was laughter and concentration, as students learned the distance between planets and how vast space is.

One group's tape stretched from beneath tables out into the hallway. "So, there are huge distances in space," science teacher Bryan Davis said. "How does this correspond if there were extraterrestrial life out there?"

One boy quickly responded,"We're not going to see them for quite some time."

"Is it worth it to visit?" the teacher asked, once the laughter died down.

"No," another boy said. "Let them try."

Some of the hands-on activities the experimental course uses have been more effective than others, acknowledged Davis. (Students love burning marshmellows to learn about nutrients and energy, but are bored using conventional measuring techniques.)

"It's a lot better than listening to someone preach at you," he said.

The National Science Foundation is well aware of that. Its search to find more stimulating ways to teach science is spurred by such reports as the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which showed that interest in science declined between fourth grade and eighth grade.

And US students performed dismally, compared to such countries as Singapore, Japan, or the Czech Republic, according to the study.

"Any way you can use that motivates the students to learn these things is good," said Gerhard Salinger, a program director for the foundation.

In February 2002, the two-year test phase of astrobiology will end, and schools must decide whether to keep the course.

Rob Sauer, at least, looks forward to teaching astrobiology later this month at Foothills Middle School in Wenatchee, Wash.

"There are kids who get off on science fiction-type things, and that might spark their interest" in science, he said.

Sauer hopes the key to stemming any challenge to the course on such factors as religious beliefs is to present extraterrestrial life simply as a theory.

That's what astrobiology is all about, leaving the questions provocatively open. Nothing is off limits, as long as it examines scientific evidence.

But Lockwood offers one last caveat: "NASA doesn't want us to use a lot of alien pictures to promote this idea that aliens are running amok," he said.

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Filel Date: 3.26.01

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