Talking Exoplanets with Elementary Schoolers

NASA/BMSIS research intern Palmer Fliss engaged a group of thirty 5th graders at Fammatre Elementary School in San Jose, CA. Nina Hyatt, the teacher of the class, expressed “It was so great for my fifth graders to have an opportunity to talk to a “real live scientist! So many fascinating questions were asked, and conversations shared! And, after the bell rang, they were so immersed in their drawing projects that I needed to practically chase them out of the classroom!”.

Palmer’s engagement was part of his Communications requirements for the NASA/BMSIS Internship in Space Biology Certificate of Accomplishment. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. The NASA/BMSIS Internship Program in Space Biology at NASA Ames continues this tradition by engaging the local community in the vicinity of NASA’s Silicon Valley center.

Read ​P​almer’s impressions​ below​:

“From the initial suggestion that I help to teach a 5th grade class, I knew I’d have to choose something in my wheelhouse. Children are notoriously good at matching energies, and if I had chosen something that I knew a lot about, but wasn’t over-the-moon excited about, they’d match that energy and be bored for an hour and a half straight. If I wanted to help the creative spark in these students, their experience would have to be one that engaged them all in their general scientific knowledge while at the same time specifically allowing them to ask their burning questions and explore those corners of scientific investigation that they were drawn to.

“Emergent curriculum is a fantastic method of creating an environment that is shaped by the learner instead of the experience of the teacher, and creates a classroom environment that is open to discussion and creativity. In lesson planning, I decided to intertwine two central aspects of astrobiology, the study of exoplanets and the study of adapted lifeforms. By using real exoplanets that were hopefully far beyond what they had considered or heard of, (diamond planet, hot super Jupiters, quick-spinning rocky planets, gas giants with silica winds) I hoped to inspire the students with the exciting, cutting edge Astrophysics discoveries while concurrently giving them an arena to flex their creative muscles by designing creatures that may already live on these weird planets.

“I created a matching worksheet to preface their creative endeavor to get the students in the right observational and free-thinking mindset, wherein I had them match the prior mentioned exoplanets to 8 aliens that I had chosen from a popular compendium of illustrations from science fiction novels. As a group, we went through each alien, noting some of their unique and strange features–for example: do they have eyes? gills? legs? wings? thick skin? mouths? webbed fingers?

“Admittedly, I was worried that the exercises planned would not take up the full hour and a half allocated, but after my introduction, I was inundated with questions regarding space from every aspect of human spaceflight, our knowledge of the big bang, science versus religion, and whether or not there are rock spiders on the moon. This question and answer portion of my lesson went on for almost 45 minutes, and I had to stop answering questions because we were running out of time for our planned activities.

“Long story short, the group of 5th graders that I had the pleasure and privilege of spending time with this past week are curious, engaged, intelligent, well-informed, and eager for answers. They had already heard of the MESSENGER mission to crash into Mercury, the New Horizons Pluto flyby, the presence of water on the moons of the gas giants, and extremophiles. They hungrily devoured the idea of astrobiology, exobiological organisms, exoplanets, and alien creatures.”