Keynote Address: Timothy Slater

"Using The Excitment of Astrobiology to Engage Students" - Long Abstract

Astrobiology can be defined as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and destiny of life in the universe. It defines itself as an interdisciplinary science existing at the intersection of astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Discoveries from this field have dramatically changed our view of the potential for life in the universe. For example, at least ten times as many planets have been discovered outside our solar system as there are within it. Perhaps even more impressive is that life has been found to exist under conditions previously thought impossible. This includes organisms that thrive in temperatures above the boiling point and below the freezing point of water, in extreme acidic and basic conditions, thousands of feet below the Earth's surface and on the ocean's floor, and in the extreme radiation conditions of outer space. As a result, our understanding of the limits on life has forever been changed. These discoveries are being made simultaneously with discoveries that strongly suggest that liquid water oceans exist under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa and that running water was likely present on the surface of Mars in the past.

As a result of its truly interdisciplinary nature, teachers are actively considering the inclusion of astrobiology in their courses. Consequently, there exists a rapidly growing need to create classroom-ready astrobiology instructional materials. However, the development of meaningful activities requires a robust research base that identifies specific difficulties and pre-instructional beliefs students have concerning astrobiology related concepts. For our investigation of astrobiology, we focused our research around two main goals. First is the documentation of conceptual and reasoning difficulties students experience when learning about astrobiology. The second is to design innovative instructional materials that are sensitive to these identified student difficulties and that are aligned with the content and instructional goals of the National Science Education Standards.

Our investigation was focused on four key astrobiology related topics: sunlight, water, temperature, and limiting environments. Over two thousand students ranging from fifth grade students through seniors in college were surveyed to document pre-instructional beliefs at each age level as well as identify beliefs common to all ages. Students were surveyed through the use of open-response style questions designed specifically to elicit student beliefs concerning the importance of sunlight, water, and temperature for the existence of life as well as the limitations on life.

Through careful analysis of student responses we found that the majority of students correctly identified that liquid water is necessary for life and that life forms can exist without sunlight. However, many students incorrectly stated that life cannot survive without oxygen. Furthermore, when students were asked to reason about life in extreme environments, they most often cited complex organisms (such as plants, animals and humans) rather than microorganisms.

Results from this investigation were used to guide the development of an interactive lecture-tutorial structured around a directed-inquiry approach Overall students demonstrated a significant improvement in their conceptual and procedural knowledge about life in extreme environments after instruction using these researched-based instructional materials.

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