When students walk into Juanita Ryan's classroom abuzz about the recent discovery of possible fossilized organisms in a Martian meteorite, she will have tools to stimulate their curiosity, rather than stifle it; a set of curriculum guides about the scientific search for life in the universe, developed with support of the National Science Foundation.
Ryan, who teaches 3rd grade at Toyon Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., was one many educators nationwide who helped to develop and field-test the series of six guides for teachers of grades three through nine.
The news that possible microbes, perhaps billions of years old, may have been found in a potato-sized meteorite that crashed into Antarctica 13,000 years ago is bound to make her students even more enthusiastic about a subject they already love to discuss, Ryan adds.
"My students will very definitely be interested in this discovery," she says. "At this age, they are always asking me the question: 'Do you believe those television programs about finding aliens?' They're going to eat it up, they really are."
The materials were developed at the SETI Institute, a non-profit institution in Mountain View, Calif, that manages research and education projects related to the search for intelligence on other worlds. The guides, with supporting videotapes and posters, were developed with a $659,000 grant from the NSF's division of elementary, secondary, and informal education and support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They are published commercially by Teacher Ideas Press, of Englewood, Colo. The individual volumes in the series, each with a foreword by noted planetary scientist Carl Sagan, of Cornell University, deal with such topics as The Evolution of a Planetary System; How Might life Evolve On Other Worlds; and The Rise of Intelligence and Culture.
Ryan says she expects to use one volume of the series, called The Science Detectives, to channel her students' interest in the question of life on Mars. The module allows them to learn about the features of the solar system, states of matter, and large-scale measurements by 'helping' a fictional character to track a mysterious extraterrestrial radio signal.
She adds that elementary school teachers, in particular, who generally don't have much science background, find the materials easy to use and effective. Edna DeVore, who heads the education programs for the SETI Institute, says that she will conduct several workshops for teachers this fall in how to use the materials.
Kathleen O'Sullivan, a professor of science education at San Francisco State University, was one of three NSF principal investigators who created the series. She notes that a module for 7th- and 8th-grade students, called Life Here? There? Elsewhere? The Search for Life On Venus and Mars, encourages them to figure how to design experiments to determine whether life might be present in Martian soil, replicating on a very basic level the experiments that were carried to Mars in 1976 aboard the Viking spacecraft.
Guillermo Trejo-Mejia, who helped develop the module and who teaches it at Hillview Junior High School in Pittsburg, Calif, uses the questions about Martian life left unanswered by Viking to inspire his students. "I say to them 'Some of you may be involved in future Mars missions. You may be the future astronauts that will answer these questions'." Trejo-Mejia already is collecting clippings and videotapes of news about the meteorite to spark discussion when school opens.
Based on the best scientific evidence, the guide indicates that the most likely form that Martian life might take would be one-celled organisms. "One thing that we didn't do in the guide was to consider that we would find traces of life here on earth in a meteorite," O'Sullivan concedes.
She also notes that the curriculum guides attempt to teach that scientific fields are interrelated and that scientific investigations often are multidisciplinary. "Too often, the kids never see the connections between the subjects of chemistry and biology, and physics," she says. "The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a natural way to make those connections and it's obviously a fascinating topic for kids."