How can we transform science teaching to focus more on “ways of knowing” and less on memorizing facts? How can we encourage middle school students to ask big questions about life outside their own immediate circles of interaction (family, school, neighborhood) & expand that sense of wonder to include their home planet, solar system, and place in the universe? Our proposed Life in the Universe (LITU) project aims to develop and test an out-of-school model for engaging young learners in scientific processes while cultivating their curiosity around “Big Questions”. As states and school districts work to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, formal education environments leave little place for innovative inquiry-based activities. Less formal experiences are becoming critical to teachers and students. LITU offers an opportunity for students to estimate the likelihood of Life elsewhere in our Universe, using real methods of modern science applied to up-to-the-minute data about humans’ knowledge of planets outside our Solar System. The labs will encourage middle school learners to "problematize" the activities and methods scientists use to make sense of our Universe in the context of a guided inquiry lab where they will explore the question, "Could humans (ever) communicate with sentient life on other planets?" Students will be given a "toolbox" that blends data-rich visualizations (e.g., WorldWide Telescope), with carefully designed hands-on activities and simulations. The research team includes experts in astronomy, data visualization, design and research of learning technologies, science education and research, and software development. This Life in the Universe (LITU) Inquiry Lab will be tested in semi-structured, out-of-school environments with small cohorts of middle-school learners during the two-year project, and will ultimately be made available to many thousands of students through strategic partnerships with national networks of after-school programs.
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