2012 Annual Science Report

Montana State University Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

EPO Activity: Montana State University 2012 EPO Report

Project Progress

Origin of Life Documentary Film
In the past funding cycle, ABRC partnered with film students from the highly successful MSU Science and History Filmmaking Program (the world’s only such program) to produce a one-hour documentary film about astrobiology researchers. The student-produced and faculty-directed film features other NAI teams, including Georgia Tech, JPL, and Penn State, and ABRC and we are currently negotiating distribution of the film.
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Abscicon 2012
The MSU E/PO team went to Abscicon 2012 and gave talks and presented posters on the following topics: Science of the Springs: Bringing NAI science to Yellowstone tourists; Astronauts and Aliens: NASA science family nights for libraries; Explaining the Origin of Life: Making a film for cable television; and QR Codes: Wave of the Future or Flash in the Pan? The Origin of Life film premiered at AbSciCon 2012 and was used in a workshop held at AbSciCon for teachers around the country.

Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations Outreach
This project was a partnership between the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s ABRC and Icy Worlds, at JPL and the school districts on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations. These three school districts, Hardin School District, Crow Agency and the St. Labre School District identified different needs within their school systems to enhance science education for their students. To this end, two different education foci were developed to meet the priorities defined by each district. To maximize efficiency, Monica Brelsford, the EPO Lead for ABRC provided project management for the St. Labre District, while Susan Kelly, an Education Specialist working with the Icy World’s project will continue to work with the Hardin School and Crow Agency Districts expanding on the work funded by NAI last year. Materials and personnel were shared when possible. ABRC provided Science Days to 3rd and 4th graders at 3 schools in the St. Labre school system. One school is on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Ashland, Montana. The other two schools are on the Crow reservation in Pryor, Montana and Xavier, Montana. We had two graduate students, and 3 faculty members present on the field days, which included Monica Brelsford and cultural liaison Gail Whiteman. We also provided science material and leadership to the 4th graders of Lame Deer Elementary school in Lame Deer, Montana in the fall of 2011. This school is also on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, but not part of the St. Labre school system. This fall in 2012, there were two outreach events on the Crow Reservation in Hardin, Montana which were spearheaded by Susan Kelly. These kids will then culminate their science days with a 3 day experience in Yellowstone National Park on November 9-12, 2012. These kids have had a rich exposure to astrobiology and technology, and will now investigate living systems in Yellowstone which combines geology, meteorology, habitats and natural forces on the ecology of life in Yellowstone. Students and teachers will be recording with video and sound media to create lasting images of their three day field experience. Outreach on the Crow Reservation will continue in the spring of 2013 with Susan Kelly.

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Graduate Courses for Teachers
ABRC and Thermal Biology Institute sponsored two summer classes for advanced credit in conjunction with the Masters in Science of Science Education program at Montana State University (MSSE). The courses provide astrobiology science content information for practicing science instructors teaching middle, secondary and college level courses. Our first class, Thermal Biology in Yellowstone National Park, focused on the extreme geothermal environments in Yellowstone and their implications for understanding early earth environmental conditions. The second course, Examining Life in Extreme Environments, looks at 4 extreme environments where NASA research scientists are studying life. The class looked at Arctic, Antarctic, highly saline environments, deep sea vents and hot springs in Yellowstone. ABRC’s faculty Eric Boyd, John Peters and Mark Young were an integral part of the courses, and guess presenters included David Grinspoon, Kevin Hand, Mike McCormick and Nikki Parenteau. With the assistance of NASA research scientists, we developed an understanding of how life can make a living in such extreme environments by looking at the chemical reactions and energetics of many systems. Both courses include field days in Yellowstone National Park, and dynamic discussions with NASA scientists.
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Astrobiology Guide to Yellowstone National Park for Tourists
In 2010 and 2011 Yellowstone Park set new records for visitation (3.6 and nearly 3.4 million respectively). ABRC continued distribution of its visitors’ guide to Yellowstone called “Science of the Springs” that explains the NAI research happening in Yellowstone. ABRC reprinted the guides and provided them to NAI teams, schools, and distributed thousands around Yellowstone National Park. ABRC also created a teacher’s kit to accompany the guide so that teachers would have lesson plans for grades 3-12.

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“Life Is All Around Us” Astrobiology Children’s Book
Two years ago ABRC created an astrobiology event kit for libraries. While making the kit, ABRC had trouble finding any astrobiology themed story books for young children that had accurate scientific information. Therefore ABRC decided to write one. This year, ABRC completed and printed 10,000 copies of “Life is All Around Us” a book for grades K-4 about what life is. The book contains information about astrobiology and ABRC, as well as a follow up activity parents or educators can use to reinforce the content of the book with children. ABRC is currently finishing a lesson plan that teachers can use with the book.

EPO Events
ABRC conducted hands-on educational activities at events around Bozeman. For the transit of Venus, MSU held an event at the university football stadium attended by over 3,000 people. The Museum of the Rockies held an Astronomy Day event attended by over a 1,000 people. At both, ABRC tried out a new activity created by the EPO staff in which the public can look at data on several imaginary planets and guess which ones might hold life. Each planet was represented by a bucket of material through which the public could sift through looking for “life” that was represented by small objects. The activity proved very popular and was written up as an activity that can be used by teachers. Two of the EPO staff also visited schools on the Blackfeet reservation and in the town of East Helena (a community that has suffered economically since a nearby mining company closed) to do astrobiology activities with 5th graders.

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Astrobiology Short Course for Educators
The Astrobiology team at Montana State University, in conjunction with NTEN at MSU, has developed “Introduction to Elementary Astrobiology,” an online short course with modules addressing astrobiology subject material. The course outline includes the challenges of defining life, sorting life, and discovering life. It also examines extreme environments and chemical resources available to living organisms on earth, which then compares these earthly extreme environments to the chemical signatures of extraterrestrial environments. The course modules provide building blocks to allow participants to contemplate and investigate the potential for finding life beyond Earth. The online short course is a self-paced course with interactive components as well as links to NASA resources.

Xtreme Worlds Planetarium Show
ABRC helped the University of Houston with 3-D animations of Yellowstone extremophiles for their planetarium show Xtreme Worlds. We suggested extremophiles and areas in Yellowstone that the show should focus on and coordinated a visit to Yellowstone for the Houston team to film hot springs.

Astrobiology Class and Communicating Science Class
MSU introduced a new upper level astrobiology class, CHMY 350. Lead instructor Dr. John Peters, head of ABRC, presented many lectures but also facilitated conversations via interactive videoconference with many leaders in the field of astrobiology such as Bob Hazen from Carnegie Institute and Mike Mumma of Goddard Space Flight Center. MSU recorded all of the sessions and will release them on the web for other students and teachers to use.

The students in CHMY 350 were also placed in a communications symposium specifically about communicating astrobiology. The four credit course was co-taught by ABRC director John Peters and Suzi Taylor, an E/PO professional. The commutations discussions were directly integrated with science lectures; current events in astrobiology spanned both sections; and communications assignments were designed to produce materials that were relevant and useful to the larger astrobiology community. At the end of the course nearly all students agreed that their communications skills has improved. Most students also strongly or somewhat agreed that the course had: * Increased their interest in learning more about science communications (80%) * Increased their interest in participating more in science communications (90%) * Made them a more discerning consumer of science communications (80%)
The assignments that the students rated as most valuable were designing an astrobiology poster to get the public interested in the topic, learning graphic design principles, developing an outreach strategy for the public, and creating a short ‘elevator speech’ about astrobiology research