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Astrobiology: Afterschool Life in the Universe

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  Afterschool Expert   Science Expert  

Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

Astrobiology: Afterschool Life in the Universe is over 90-pages of curriculum, featuring 4 units with a total of 27 activities linking such subjects as Earth science, biology, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, art and design. The program is created by TERC, a group renowned for their serious approach to education research and creating and implementing quality programs and curricula in mathematics, science, and technology. Right from the introduction they let the user know that "most of the activities and concepts presented in this Instructor’s Guide are based on Astrobiology, An Integrated Science Approach, a high-school textbook developed by TERC." Unfortunately, most of the activities are laid out like a textbook and although engaging, they won’t be easily implemented by your average afterschool center. Cost for materials seems low, but there appears to be considerable time needed for facilitator prep work. Overall, this curriculum is very much geared for high achieving high school students, and they require that the facilitator have a strong background in science, as well as sufficient prep time to familiarize themselves with the different concepts. It seems to be a good afterschool program for the oft-neglected gifted high school students who have a dedicated facilitator with a strong foundation in science.
Full Review:
Astrobiology: Afterschool Life in the Universe is over 90-pages of curriculum, featuring 27 activities linking such subjects as Earth science, biology, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, art and design. The activities are divided into four units; Life in the Universe, What is Life?, Habitable Worlds and Mission to Mars. The program is created by TERC, a group renowned for their serious approach to education research and creating and implementing quality programs and curricula in mathematics, science, and technology. Although the curriculum makes efforts to combine some outdoor activities and games, the curriculum itself is based on TERC's high school textbook Astrobiology, An Integrated Science Approach and it requires that the facilitator have a strong background in science, as well as sufficient prep time to familiarize themselves with the different concepts, background readings, or set up.

The book begins by explaining why they've chosen astrobiology for an afterschool program. It then proceeds to explain the textbook origins of the curriculum and how to use the book, and provides 9 black and white icons representing different pedagogical focuses. These 9 icons; group challenges, Earth science/biology, astronomy, math challenges, engineering, art and design, reflection/discussion, information/multimedia and final projects, are to be consulted when using the table of contents chart to navigate the activities. They'll let the facilitator know which activities pertain to these focuses.

At first glance the curriculum is full of activity sheets, such as charts for the students to record data, make observations, answer questions, etc…It has a very academic look. Some of the projects ask for guided discussions and have an extensions feature at the end to offer suggestions for modifying the activity. For example, the format for the very first activity, Cosmic Debate 1.1, is representative of most of the activities in the first unit, and since it is the first one in the book, will more than likely set the pace for the entire curriculum.

In the first activity, there are two pages, a worksheet and a page that is divided into the topic, materials list, preparation, presentation, directions, close and extensions. The materials list is pens/pencils, photocopies of the worksheet and a stopwatch. Preparation informs the facilitator to make photocopies of the worksheet and divide the group into two or more subgroups. Presentation offers the facilitators two questions to ask the students about life on other planets and then to pass out the worksheet and inform them that they will engage in debate. The Directions section offers four steps that dryly ask the facilitator to read questions from the worksheet and allow the groups to answer them and select a spokesperson to present their answer, time for rebuttal and repeat with other questions. The Close section asks each person to share something they learned and surprisingly, the Extensions section suggests that the facilitator try framing this as a United Nations Security Council discussion among member states. The planners estimate that each of the activities in the book will take between 30 and 60 minutes. This session could easily run much shorter if the participants don't find the enthusiasm for the discussion topics or the facilitator doesn't apply some additional creativity in its presentation. For your average afterschool program, this would fall flat.

Most of the first unit follows similarly. The unit, What is Life?, focuses a great deal on scavenger hunts, observations, drawing and recording and provides for more outdoor time and hands-on activities. It seems like it was written by a completely different author. The 3rd Unit, Habitable Planets, focuses more acutely on mathematics, exemplified in the equation below: “For example, to calculate the light intensity on Mercury, refer to Worksheet 3.1 to see that Mercury is 36 million miles from the sun. When you divide this by an AU (93 million miles), you will see that Mercury is about .39 AU from the sun. Square this number (multiply it by itself) to get .152. Now divide 1370 by .152. Light Intensity on Mercury= (1370 W/m2)/.152 = 8599 W/m2. How much stronger is sunlight on Mercury than on Earth? What does this indicate about environmental conditions on Mercury and the chances for life on the planet?”

The fourth unit focuses more on physics and has classic fun activities ranging from making rockets of soda bottles to hurling eggs (astronauts) in student made “transportation vehicles.”

Following the units is a resource section that aligns with the various activities. Other resources are given as URLs within the book or as step by step illustrations to complement the directions on the worksheets. Overall, the projects are valuable lessons that can help to create a foundation in the various disciplines that compose astrobiology. However, this curriculum is best suited for a focused group of high school participants.