In "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," everything had to be just right for Goldilocks. Her porridge couldn't be too hot or too cold. Her chair couldn't be too high or too wide. And her bed couldn't be too hard or too soft.
Earth is the perfect planet for Goldilocks, bears and many other forms of life. It's close to the sun, but not too close to the sun. It's warm, but not too warm. And it has water, but not too much water. Everything on Earth is just right for people, animals and plants to not just survive, but also thrive.
How did Earth get so lucky?
In Astro-Venture, a collection of interactive Web modules developed at the NASA Ames Research Center, students in grades 5-8 learn about the unique qualities of Earth that make it habitable to humans. They also discover what life-supporting characteristics nearby planets are missing, and they design a new planet that is different from Earth but also able to support life.
Narrated by Astro Ferret, a space-age cartoon character, the Astro-Venture consists of training and mission modules focused on four areas -- astronomy, atmospheric science, geology and biology -- as well as the culminating Design a Planet activity. Students are introduced to real-life scientists from the various fields, what they study, and the instruments and methods they use:
Students discover how changes in stars, planetary orbits and Earth's mass would affect life on Earth. Then they make hypotheses about the chances of finding a star system similar to our solar system. Next, they learn how astronomers study the color and brightness of stars, how they determine the size of a planet and shape of its orbit, and how they gauge the distance between a planet and its star.
-- Atmospheric Science:
Students discover how increases or decreases in the amounts of certain gases -- water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, oxygen and nitrogen -- would affect life on Earth. Then they make hypotheses about whether the atmospheres of Mars and Venus could support life. Next, they compare the temperature, pressure and composition of Mars and Venus with those of Earth.
Image to right: Students can the see the effects of making changes to Earth's core in the Geology Training module. Credit: NASA
Students discover how changes in Earth's outer core, mantle and crust would affect life on the planet. Then they make hypotheses as to whether the geology of Mars and Venus could support life. Next, they compare the magnetic fields and surface geology of Mars and Venus with those of Earth.
Students discover how changes in the amount of energy Earth receives from the sun, or in the makeup of Earth's food chain, would affect life on the planet. Then they make hypotheses about how scientists search for life on other planets. Next, they explore how the search is helped by studying extreme environments on Earth, including a volcanic lake, deep-sea vents and frozen lakes.
-- Design a Planet:
Students apply lessons learned from the previous modules as they attempt to design a new planet that is habitable to humans. Design options vary from the type of star the planet orbits, to the planet's mass and the presence of liquid water.
Image to right: In Design a Planet, students select features of their planet and the star that it orbits to create a life-sustaining planet. Credit: NASA
During each mission, students log their observations in an online journal and later have a chance to revise their initial hypotheses. The journal and a newspaper article detailing the mission results can be printed out at the end of the mission. Personalized training certificates are also available for print.
The modules demonstrate the interconnectedness of different branches of space science and address an array of science and education standards, according to Holli Joyal.
"What most people, teachers particularly, don't understand is that space science is all of the sciences combined," said Joyal, a middle school science teacher in Indiana. "Instead of just hitting a standard and crossing it out, [Astro-Venture lays] the groundwork for future years where many of these curricular areas ... will be a focus."
Interspersed throughout the modules are interesting science facts, movies and information about NASA observatories. Other features on the Web site include educator guides, details on correlations with national and state education standards, fact sheets on NASA careers, and periodic webcasts in which NASA scientists answer questions from students.
Astro-Venture Web site
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Dan Stillman/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies