LIUtalk

Information about LIUtalk

Published on January 24, 2008

Author: Panfilo

Source: authorstream.com

Content

So You Want to Teach an Astrobiology Course?:  So You Want to Teach an Astrobiology Course? Jeffrey Bennett www.jefffreybennett.com [email protected] Abstract: It’s a great time to start a new course in life in the universe (astrobiology). Students love it, its interdisciplinary nature makes it a great introduction to science, and it’s fun to teach. But how do you start? I’ll offer suggestions to help you get underway. Talk Outline:  Talk Outline What is Astrobiology? Why Teach a Course on Life in the Universe (LIU)? Goals of an LIU Course Content and Structure of an LIU Course Teaching Issues: Assessment, Dealing with UFOs and Creationism Resources What is Astrobiology?:  What is Astrobiology? Literally, “the study of life in the universe” But wait, you say, that doesn’t give us much to study… OK, then, the study of the potential for life in the universe An emerging, interdisciplinary field drawing together astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and more… Key Areas of Research in Astrobiology:  Key Areas of Research in Astrobiology From NASA’s “road map”: 1. How does life begin and develop? Study of the origin of life, geological necessities and constraints, basic biochemistry, … 2. Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? Study of the conditions for habitability, likelihood of habitable worlds, search for habitable worlds, search for detectable signatures of life, SETI, … 3. What is life’s future on Earth and beyond? Evolution of habitability, human influences on Earth’s habitability, prospects for interstellar travel, contemplating contact, … Why the Sudden Research Interest in Astrobiology?:  Why the Sudden Research Interest in Astrobiology? A convergence of science pointing to a reasonable likelihood that biology may be common in the universe. Why Should We Teach Astrobiology? (to nonscience majors):  Why Should We Teach Astrobiology? (to nonscience majors) The interdisciplinary nature of life in the universe offers a broader understanding of the range of scientific research than can a course in any single discipline. Public fascination with ideas about UFOs and alien visitation or intelligent life elsewhere allow LIU courses to serve as a vehicle for teaching about the nature of science. It’s always a challenge to motivate students who are taking courses “only” to meet a requirement, but who isn’t interested in questions like What is life? How did life begin on Earth? Are we alone? Could we colonize other planets or other star systems? Now to the nitty-gritty: translating grand ideas into an actual course with concrete goals and a clear and sensible organization. Goals for an LIU Course (nonscience majors):  Goals for an LIU Course (nonscience majors) 1. The Nature of Science How to evaluate scientific evidence; how to distinguish science from nonscience; … 2. Basic Science Literacy Our physical place in space and time; origin and history of the universe; origin and history of the Earth; the theory of evolution; … 3. Lifelong Science Excite students so they’ll want to learn more: additional formal science courses, reading the newspaper and following the web, … Basic Structure of an LIU Course:  Basic Structure of an LIU Course 1. Introduction — the basis of the new science of LIU and the nature of science in general 2. Life on Earth — its nature and history 3. Life in the Solar System — especially Mars, Europa 4. Life Among the Stars — issues of habitability, extrasolar planets, and SETI Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Astronomical Context The Emergence of Astrobiology The Nature of Science Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Astronomical Context Number of stars and planets (lots of places to look) Scale of the universe (but these places are not easily accessible) History of the universe (why the elements of life are widespread) Formation of stars and planets (why Earth is probably not unique) The Emergence of Astrobiology The Nature of Science Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Astronomical Context The Emergence of Astrobiology Mounting evidence that life elsewhere is at least plausible Topics of study in astrobiology The Nature of Science Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 1: Introduction (2 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Astronomical Context The Emergence of Astrobiology The Nature of Science Historical development of science, including Copernican revolution Hallmarks of modern science Theories in science (the “just a theory” misconception) Distinguishing science from nonscience and pseudoscience Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Nature of Life on Earth The Geological Context of Life on Earth The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Nature of Life on Earth What is life? — Attempts to define life; the critical role of the theory of evolution How life works: Cells as basic “units of life”; metabolism as the basic chemistry of life; heredity and the molecular basis of reproduction and evolution We are not “typical” of life on Earth. E.g., the 3 domains; the prokaryotes outweigh us; extremophiles survive a wide range of conditions The Geological Context of Life on Earth The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Nature of Life on Earth The Geological Context of Life on Earth How we study the past: rocks and fossils; the geological time scale Geological opportunities and constraints: origin of Earth, the heavy bombardment Keeping Earth habitable: plate tectonics; climate regulation and the CO2 cycle The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Nature of Life on Earth The Geological Context of Life on Earth The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Searching for origins: When did life begin? Where did it begin? How did life begin? We may never know, but can construct plausible scenarios… Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 2: Life on Earth (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Nature of Life on Earth The Geological Context of Life on Earth The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Searching for origins: When did life begin? Where did it begin? How did life begin? We may never know, but can construct plausible scenarios… Major steps in the evolution of life on Earth: e.g., rise of oxygen, Cambrian explosion Impacts and extinctions Human evolution Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Life in the Solar System Prospects for Finding Life on Mars Prospects for Finding Life on Jovian Moons The Evolution of Habitability Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Life in the Solar System Environmental requirements for life — and where we might find life in the solar system. Methods of exploring the solar system Prospects for Finding Life on Mars Prospects for Finding Life on Jovian Moons The Evolution of Habitability Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Life in the Solar System Prospects for Finding Life on Mars A little history: Percival Lowell and myths of Martians Martian conditions today, including possible underground liquid water The climate history of Mars and its possible wet past. Searches for life to date: Viking and martian meteorites Future Mars exploration plans Prospects for Finding Life on Jovian Moons The Evolution of Habitability Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Life in the Solar System Prospects for Finding Life on Mars Prospects for Finding Life on Jovian Moons The nature of jovian moons, and why some are geologically active Evidence concerning a subsurface ocean on Europa Energetics of potential life on Europa — is there enough chemical energy available to support widespread life? Possible subsurface oceans on Ganymede and Callisto Organic chemistry on Titan The Evolution of Habitability Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 3: Life in the Solar System (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Life in the Solar System Prospects for Finding Life on Mars Prospects for Finding Life on Jovian Moons The Evolution of Habitability Nature of the habitable zone and how it evolves with time Why Earth has remained habitable for 4 billion years, while Venus did not. Future habitability of the Earth. Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Habitable Worlds SETI Interstellar Travel What Do Other Civilizations – Or Lack Thereof – Mean to Us? Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Habitable Worlds What kinds of stars could support habitable planets? Detecting extrasolar planets Detecting life on extrasolar planets — spectral signatures, etc. Are Earth-like planets rare or common? — arguments on both sides of the “rare Earth hypothesis.” SETI Interstellar Travel What Do Other Civilizations – Or Lack Thereof – Mean to Us? Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Habitable Worlds SETI What is SETI searching for? — the Drake equation and plausible arguments for large numbers of civilizations The evolution of intelligence — if life is common, should intelligence be common as well? SETI strategies Interstellar Travel What Do Other Civilizations – Or Lack Thereof – Mean to Us? Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Habitable Worlds SETI Interstellar Travel Could we travel to the stars? The challenge and possibilities of interstellar travel. Reconsidering UFOs in light of the realities of interstellar travel. What Do Other Civilizations – Or Lack Thereof – Mean to Us? Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course):  Detailed Structure 4: Life Among the Stars (3–4 weeks in a 1-semester course) The Search for Habitable Worlds SETI Interstellar Travel What Do Other Civilizations – Or Lack Thereof – Mean to Us? The Fermi paradox (Where is everybody?) and why it seems someone should have colonized the galaxy already. Possible solutions to the paradox, and their implications to our future Implications of finding microbial life elsewhere Implications of contact with ET. Assessment:  Quizzes: Use short answer or multiple choice quizzes to make sure students are keeping up and absorbing important concepts and definitions. Homework: Emphasize questions that require critical thinking, requiring students to explain their thinking clearly and concisely. Projects: Have students explore current issues and the latest research; there’s lots available on the web. Quantitative problems: Not necessary, but can add to learning for those who are not intimidated. Interactive lectures: require and/or grade student participation Assessment Always a challenge, but a few ideas . . . UFOs, Creationism:  Never belittle these ideas. Some students hold them dearly, and any hint of condescension will backfire. Carefully distinguish between science and nonscience, showing students why beliefs in UFOs and creationism don’t rate as science… …while pointing out that everyone is free to believe what they wish, and that being nonscience doesn’t make it wrong (just not something we can evaluate scientifically) Do all the above early to break down “us against them” barriers, then use the rest of the semester to help students understand, e.g., why evolution is not “just” a theory the extensive evidence for a long history for the universe, the Earth, and life the difficulty of interstellar travel and why UFO claims generally just don’t add up. UFOs, Creationism These topics WILL come up, so best to be prepared! A few guidelines: Resources:  Selected Astrobiology Web Sites. A bibliography keyed to topics in course structure presented here Resources The handout includes: Textbook and Activity Manual: Life in the Universe, by Bennett, Shostak, and Jakosky Life in the Universe Activities Manual, by Prather, Offerdal, and Slater Tonight: “Ask an Astrobiologist” Crackerbarrel 7-8:30 pm, Wedgewood Room (Atrium Level) Slide31:  My first book for children. • See it at the AAPT Shared Book Exhibit • Read it on-line at www.BigKidScience.com • Or just ask me . . . (and take a bookmark if you wish) www.BigKidScience.com And if you don’t mind a final plug . . .

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