Astrobiology day at Twelve Bridges Middle School

A few weeks back our friend Lucy Coleman, a teacher at Twelve Bridges Middle School in California, contacted us about organizing a day of video calls and discussions with her 8th-grade classes. Her students are currently working on designing their own missions to ocean worlds and are thinking about a lot of the same questions we are- it was exciting to get the chance to help them answer a few!

I first met Lucy during the 2014/15 Antarctic field season on a team led by MIT postdoc Tyler Mackey, then a PhD student of Dr. Dawn Sumner’s at UC Davis. We were investigating microbialite mats in Lake Joyce, communities of microbes that thrive beneath ice cover in inland Antarctic lakes. Lucy joined us through PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating), a program which where K-12 teachers spend 3-6 weeks (or in Lucy’s case many more!) participating in hands-on field research experiences in the polar regions. The goal of PolarTREC is to invigorate polar science education and understanding by bringing K-12 educators and polar researchers together.

Back at Twelve Bridges, Lucy is working to include more concepts about solar system exploration and astrobiology in the curriculum- the days of rote memorization of the nine eight planets are over. Planetary science, and the nascent field of astrobiology, are rapidly evolving with increasing characterizations of other oceans in our solar systems and the discovery of chemolithotrophy and extremophiles on Earth over the past few decades.

In class, her students are studying a lot of these phenomena by learning about how these extremophiles opened up the field of astrobiology, the concept of analog environments and ecosystems, and ocean worlds (e.g. Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus) in our solar system. They’re also learning about current research and technology efforts to understand these systems- Dr. Sumner’s work, submersible vehicle exploration, and NASA’s Clipper mission to Europa planned for the early 2020’s. During our calls last Thursday, we got to talk about Antarctica as an analog, showed the robotic vehicles we use, discussed the engineering design process, prototyping, and field testing. We also talked about how this particular aspect of our research is part of the bigger picture of eventually landing on and exploring Europa.

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Perhaps most excitingly, they are now applying these concepts and designing their own mission to one of these ocean worlds! They will choose the motivating science questions and work within a budget to choose equipment and put together a mission proposal. Essentially the same process we go through as we design our submersible vehicle Icefin for analog exploration of Antarctica as we try to understand other ocean worlds.

Big thanks to Lucy and her classes for the excellent questions and the chance to share our work, we look forward to hearing about the final designs!

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2 responses to “Astrobiology day at Twelve Bridges Middle School

  1. I thought it was very cool for a astrobioligist to come to our school and meet us, I had a very good time and your explanations were amazing, thank you so much for coming!!!

    Like

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