Overview of the Project

What is BioBLAST?

NASA's Classroom of the Future has brought together education and biology experts and high school teachers from across the United States to develop a narrow and deep "slice" of biology for high school communities. The six-week curriculum called BioBLAST (Better Learning through Adventure, Simulation, and Technology) will engage students in explorations of the interrelatedness of all living things.

How will these explorations intersect with those of NASA?

Over the next twenty years, NASA plans to launch manned spacecraft that will venture to Mars and beyond. To supply astronauts with sufficient food, oxygen and water for these prolonged missions, NASA will build self-sustaining, plant-based, life-support systems. Crews will depend on the reliable production of food, water, and oxygen from engineered plant-growth chambers and on the total recycling of human and plant waste products. To accomplish this feat--to build Earth-like ecosystems in a tiny, closed space--will require a depth of understanding of the relationship between humans and plants never before realized.

Active participation by high school students in this NASA mission is the kind of learning scenario prescribed by the national science education reform guidelines. By accessing authentic science data sets and mentors on-line at NASA, students will gain ownership in the domain of science itself. By performing bench-top and simulated experiments, students will develop a meaningful understanding of the scientific process and issues central to the study of global science such as the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles. By deeply comprehending the contingent relationship between plants and their own bodies, it is hoped that BioBLAST students will develop an active dedication to preserving healthy ecosystems on Earth.

The Scenario

Students begin with a virtual "lift-off" to the Moon. En route, they receive a video briefing from NASA Mission Control introducing them to the special mission that awaits them. They will help NASA design a CELSS (Controlled Ecological Life Support System) for prolonged space exploration. They will learn more about the assignment when they land on the lunar surface and tour the research station there. The video message ends, and students spend the remainder of their voyage playing the Cycles Game, a computerized, abstract puzzle requiring them to balance an increasingly complicated system of inputs and outputs. The Cycles Game is a training program for the kinds of problem-solving skills they will soon need in order to create a plant-based system that can support a crew of six for at least two years.

When they land on the lunar surface, students tour the research facility where they will live and work over the next six weeks. They learn that they will use this electronic, virtual environment to access computer-based research tools and to access their NASA mentors on Earth. Students also visit the virtual labs inside the lunar base: Plant Production, Human Requirements, and Resource Recovery. In each lab they are presented with introductory research questions that they answer by conducting computer-simulated experiments. Finally, a bench-top experiment in the students' real biology lab introduces them to the steps in scientific inquiry and completes the orientation phase of BioBLAST. In real time, students have now spent approximately five class sessions on BioBLAST.

Following their orientation, each student joins one of three lab groups and focuses on a problem related to that group's research mission. For example, they may investigate how to grow food crops efficiently, how to keep optimal levels of oxygen in the living quarters, or how to convert nitrogen to a plant nutrient. At the same time, each student joins a mission team, a small group of "expert" teammates from the other two labs with whom they collaborate on designing and balancing a CELSS system. Using interactive simulators, mission teams conduct trial runs of their CELSS designs to see how long, and thus how far, their designs will carry them into space. Some designs may carry them all the way to Mars. But students will be tested along the way; simulators will confront them with failure scenarios to be overcome. For example, the oxygen levels decline because a food crop has died. What should be done?

To solve this and other problems, students will communicate on-line with BioBLAST students across the United States and with scientists at NASA space centers. Students will keep science journals, and they will defend proposals for original experiments that will be peer-reviewed and posted to the BioBLAST Web serve.

How will BioBLAST help reform science education?

Each year nearly two million high school students enroll in biology courses. Biology is required by nearly every school district in the United States. Yet research on achievement in this course reveals low standardized test scores, inadequate textbook materials, limited laboratory-based instruction, and poor assessment measures. How can BioBLAST succeed when many reform efforts have failed?

The designers of BioBLAST are guided by the curricular suggestions made by the National Research Council on Science Reform. Accordingly, BioBLAST incorporates the following features:

  1. A fascinating topic. Students play roles as real NASA scientists helping to design a CELSS for extended space exploration.

  2. Manageable lab activities. High school labs will be able to support the kinds of bench-top experiments suggested in the BioBLAST curriculum.

  3. Challenging problems. Students will be facing the same challenges and use many of the same research resources that practicing scientists and engineers use.

  4. Real scientific inquiry. Like practicing scientists, students will work in teams, collect data, form hypotheses, test hypotheses using proper experimental and control groups, report their results, and respond to peer reviews.

  5. Support from the research community . Students will receive support from NASA scientists and engineers currently engaged in CELSS research.

  6. Student-teacher research community. Teachers will act as mentors and collaborators.

  7. Appropriate assessment tools. To properly evaluate BioBLAST's impact on learning and to measure performance on a variety of tasks, BioBLAST will combine existing and new assessment tools.

BioBLAST's ultimate success will be measured by the extent to which it has a positive impact on the teaching of biology for as many students as possible.

Please mail comments or questions about BioBLAST to BBteam@cet.edu.
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This page was last modified Tuesday, November 19, 1996.

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