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Astrobiology: Science Learning Activities for Afterschool

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

Astrobiology is a free, fun, and informative eight-part set of activities developed and provided by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and NASA. The materials approach Astrobiology in an easy-to-grasp and exciting way. They are available at no cost, and the supplies necessary to conduct the activities are relatively inexpensive (e.g., slice of potato, markers, paper, hand lens) or easily downloaded from a computer. Don’t let the title Astrobiology deceive you: this set of activities addresses a variety of relevant National Science Standards and includes links to resource lists for further exploration and extension of the topics addressed, as well as an introductory note that explains, in general terms, how the scientific method is used for these materials and is employed by researchers. The activities can be adapted for students aged 5 to 12 years old, and there are instructions on how to adapt these materials to meet the needs of students across the entire grade span.
Full Review:
In my opinion and experience as an afterschool program leader, Astrobiology is hands down one of the most exciting and rewarding afterschool science programs that you can implement in your center. The AMNH and NASA curriculum takes the stuff of science-fiction fantasy—elements that can easily be featured in the wildest imaginations of young people, such as extreme life forms, planetary terrains, intergalactic survival—and lands them in your work center in an easy-to-access format. This is a program that will allow your youth to explore and learn the basic concepts and philosophies behind techniques that are actually applied in these pursuits by scientists. Better still, it’s inexpensive, reusable and well suited for the targeted age group of 5 to 12 year olds.

There are eight activities, each requiring about one hour to complete. However, I warn you that these activities are so much fun and varied that you can easily modify them to fill longer blocks of time, yet still keep the students interested and on task. For example, one of the students’ jobs is to determine what life is, figure out what life might need to thrive, and transfer that knowledge to the possible conditions of life on other planets. The program itself is progressively organized, and each activity should be followed in order, though with some modification, you could do some of them as stand alone activities with a little explanation. Unlike many other programs that purport to be useful for kids of different ages, this astrobiology unit actually provides sets of instructions modified to meet the cognitive and developmental needs of students of the various age groups, ensuring that there are age-appropriate components for all.

Activity titles include:
  • Do You Think Aliens Exist?
  • Is It Living?
  • Do The Mystery Samples Contain Life?
  • What Does Life Need?
  • Are Microbes Alive?
  • Where Does Life Live?
  • Could Life Exist in Other Places in the Solar System?
  • Now What Do You Think About the Possibility of Life in the Universe?
The imaginative approach that the AMNH Astrobiology program applies to the exploration of this branch of science draws, in part, upon the perceptions and knowledge that most staff and young people already have. It will not matter if neither instructors nor students using these materials have ever HEARD of the discipline of Astrobiology. Through familiar activities, like journal writing, charting observations and results, conducting surveys, group discussions to form consensus around issues raised during explorations, artistic representations of interesting ideas, and additional unique activities the staff and youth will be able to engage in each of the sessions. Participants become co-inquirers as they search for answers and discover unknown concepts about life beyond our planet.

Setting up, leading, and cleaning up after the activities included with this set of materials is uncomplicated. Each activity includes information to guide the instructor, such as estimates for the time it will take to complete the activity, a list of the materials required, a concise overview, and suggestions for preparing and wrapping up the activities. The authors make an effort to encourage instructors to participate in the explorations and to actively engage in all activities with the young people. As learners and participants, the leader is released from being the arbitrator of what is right and what is wrong, and is free to ask questions such as, “What do you think?” rather than simply confirm that students found a correct answer. This approach to science is fun for the students because rather than pressure to find the "right" answer, they are given information and tools to ask questions and find an answer while reinforcing some of the skills and exploration/hypothesis techniques that serve as the foundation of the scientific method. If the group decides to move beyond the activities included, there are references to additional books and web sites for further exploration and reading.