Education and Public Outreach

Training the Astrobiologists of Tomorrow

The VPL Team is committed to higher-level interdisciplinary education, the expansion of the professional astrobiology community, and the training of early career scientists. We are closely partnered with the University of Washington Astrobiology (UWAB) Program, a long-standing graduate program that provides a rigorous, interdisciplinary training for the next generation of astrobiologists. In 2012, the UWAB graduate program expanded from offering a Gradaute Certificate in Astrobiology to also offering a more comprehensive "Dual-Title" PhD. On an undergraduate level, the VPL plans to enlarge the reach of the University of Washington’s “Introduction to Astrobiology” course for non-science majors. Additionally, we propose to host a series of astrobiology public lectures in the Seattle area. Follow our news page for more info on upcoming E/PO events!

Expanding Astrobiology Understanding

The VPL’s scientific focus on exoplanet habitability and biosignatures provides an engaging way to stimulate public interest in, and understanding of, astrobiology and STEM fields in general. Presenting current research to the public promotes the idea that science is not a set of facts, but an ongoing explorative process. Research indicates that science career interests developed prior to secondary school positively correspond to completing a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. While the VPL works to engage citizen scientists of all ages, we place special emphasis on young, would-be scientists.

From designing interactive computer-based content, such as the popular iPad app, Journey to the Exoplanets, and the online Extreme Planet Makeover activity (below); to developing astrobiology content for UW undergraduates, students at Lakewood High School (Arlington, WA), and the Night Sky Network, the VPL has successfully developed and implemented a variety of E/PO products. Our team has also led or participated in many events, such as “Science in the Streets” in Mexico City (Antigona Segura Peralta, UNAM), “Science on Tap” in Seattle, WA (Ty Robinson, Univ. of Washington), and “Adventures with Robots” in Silver Spring, MD (Pan Conrad, Goddard Space Flight Center), and has delivered a “TED Talk” (Lucianne Walkowicz, Princeton) on the search for exoplanets. Below we describe some of our recent E/PO activities and products.

Collaboration with the Pacific Science Center

One of the ways we are working to engage the public is through the development of exhibit spaces at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington. The E/PO portion of the VPL team, led by Dr. Erika Harnett, is developing two "Science on a Sphere" shows discussing Astrobiology and highlighting VPL research. The first show will explore the idea of Earth as an Exoplanet (What are the signatures of Earth being a habitable, and inhabited, planet, and how would those appear from light years way?). The second show will look at the Earth through time (How has the evolving Earth gone from uninhabited to inhabited, and how would the signatures of the changing nature of life on Earth vary to an observer on an extra-solar planet?). Hands-on activities will be developed to complement the shows, and allow visitors to reinforce the concepts discussed in a fun, engaging manner after viewing a show. These shows will be made available to other museums and science centers upon completion.  The capstone project for the E/PO portion of the VPL team will be the creation of an exhibit for the Portal to Current Research space at the Pacific Science Center. This exhibit will highlight the research being done by the VPL team, allowing visitors to meet (in a virtual sense) the researchers and learn about astrobiology concepts.

Extreme Planet Makeover

Extreme Planet Makeover is an immersive, interactive game for students and the general public. The player’s goal is to shape the formation of a planet, from a rocky planetestimal into a fully-developed world, by changing the planet’s vital attributes—such as distance from its star, atmosphere, and volcanic activity. At the completion of the game, the player can download and print a picture of their unique world.

Astrobiology Toolkit for the Night Sky Network

NASA's Night Sky Network is comprised of over 300 amateur astronomy clubs around the United States that engage students and the public with hands-on activities. Working with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the VPL team developed an astrobiology “Outreach Toolkit” designed to assist amateur astronomy clubs in conducting outreach and education events related to astrobiology. The kit contains easy-to-use activities that explain science and technology concepts related to astrobiology in engaging ways, enriched with real-life examples from NASA astrobiology-related missions and science programs. The kit also contains video clips and/or animations, still images (digital images from which photographs, slides, and transparencies can be produced), and written content tutorial materials and/or web-based tutorials. It is designed to be used in a variety of settings, including the classroom, youth group meetings, and community college events, as well as outside under the stars. Kits have been distributed to all qualified member astronomy clubs by the ASP.

Artists Rendering of Photosynthetic Life on a Planet Orbiting a Star Similar to our Sun.
Artists Rendering of Photosynthetic Life on a Planet Orbiting a Star Similar to our Sun. Image Credit: www.mondoart.net