Astrobiology in the Secondary Classroom Project: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum Developed by a Collaboration of Scientists and Educators from Three Different Minority Communities

This project is designed to enhance an existing interdisciplinary high school science curriculum—Astrobiology in the Secondary Classroom (ASC)—in an innovative way and conduct research to determine the effectiveness of these materials in three different underrepresented student populations—African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americas—experiencing an achievement gap in STEM areas at five sites. Improvements will focus on program alignment and increased use of data sets made available by research scientists.

Project Evaluator
Dragonfly Enterprises
Full Description

     The intent of the Astrobiology in Secondary Classrooms project is to establish a successful model for creating the scientists of tomorrow by bringing powerful technology tools and current scientific data into an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on reaching all students. Goals for students participating in the ASC curriculum in their classrooms include:

- An understanding of the research pursuits and findings of key astrobiology researchers

- An appreciation for scientific research and the current knowledge base available in astrobiology

- A high degree of scientific and technological literacy

- A desire to continue their studies in STEM areas, particularly in areas pertaining to astrobiology  

The ASC curriculum tackles many of the current problems in science education by addressing curriculum issues as well as minimizing classroom limitations that affect science instruction, particularly in classrooms containing high numbers of students underrepresented in science careers. Many science curricula, including textbooks, lack connections among different academic disciplines and do not provide students with a coherent framework for both science literacy and content knowledge. The ASC modules are being developed using research-based teaching strategies designed to diminish achievement gaps and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
    The ASC project began in 2003 with a team of university faculty from minority serving institutions and teachers selected by members of the Minority Institution Astrobiology Collaborative (MIAC). Working with scientists at the Goddard Center for Astrobiology, the team developed the ASC curriculum framework. Now, through this network of minority-serving institutions, the ASC staff seeks to enable middle and high school teachers across the United States to include astrobiology-related activities in their classrooms. Major partners during the field-testing phase of the materials are sites designated as NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academies (SEMAA). Partnerships with SEMAA programs and other minority serving locations allow for a focus on diversity when field-testing and developing the ASC curriculum in both formal and informal educational settings. There were field-testing sites in eight different locations where more than 80 percent of the students are members of the Native American, African American, or Hispanic American communities.

Theoretical Framework and Influences
      Research supports the use of astrobiology as a framework for increasing science literacy (Astrobiology Design Project Team, 2002; Carrapiço, et al. 2001; Rodrigues & Carrapiço, 2005; Slater, 2006; Staley, 2003; Tang, 2005) because of its interdisciplinary nature. Furthermore, partnerships between curriculum developers, teachers, professional scientists and NASA researchers will provide the “real-world” contexts that are recognized as a vital part of science literacy and increasing student interest and understanding of STEM areas.
    The pedagogical side of the ASC curriculum has been grounded in three evidenced-based practices shown to increase achievement among all students and specifically among ethnically diverse students:
The Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy developed by the Center for Research on Education Diversity and Excellence (CREDE) provide a framework for culturally relevant instruction (Tharp, et al., 2003).  The ASC Curriculum incorporates these principles in each of the modules in recognition of the importance of cultural awareness and the dynamics of learning in diverse settings (Lee & Luykx, 2006; Aikenhead, 2001; Lynch, et al., 2005).
The ASC Curriculum includes differentiated instruction that provides teachers with strategies for scaffolding that is a necessary part of effective teaching with varying levels of prior knowledge and understanding.
In their work with the NSF funded VISIT Teacher Enhancement Project, Hunter and Xie detailed the barriers for teachers accessing and using the vast amounts of data on the Internet (Hunter & Xie, 2001). The ASC project worked to partner curriculum developers and teachers with astrobiology researchers to develop scientific data sets that are user-friendly in the high school classroom as well as provide much needed materials and laboratory supplies in order to overcome these barriers.

Program Evaluation
    Evaluation of the ASC curriculum includes web-based collaborations among teachers, scientists and curriculum developers to enhance the modules. Research data is currently being collected and analyzed as part of a three year pilot study funded by the National Science Foundation. The activities and resulting research is looking at a broad spectrum of variables including change in confidence levels of teachers in the use of research-based instructional strategies, their comfort level in new science content knowledge, and teacher perceptions of change in student academic behavior along with science achievement. In addition to teacher self-report surveys and interviews the project staff gathered student survey data on science interest and performance scores on end of module assessment questions. The intent of evaluating these areas through both teacher and students data is to measure the impact of the ASC curriculum on diverse groups of students using a variety of assessment instruments and work samples. The project staff uses this formative evaluation information to revise the ASC curriculum.
        A variety of instruments are used to gather data  on the ASC curriculum. Initial findings during year one and two of the grant were designed to determine the success of the ASC materials in meeting the goals of the grant. There are two main types of instruments employed: instruments geared towards teachers and instruments geared towards students. Teacher instruments included surveys completed on paper and mailed in, surveys deployed online, teacher lesson plan feedback, and teacher interviews.
      In addition to formal assessments of student content knowledge and interest in areas of science, analysis of work samples of students have been valuable in assessing changes in student and teacher thinking through the course of the three years of this pilot-testing project.  Data about the community of learners were also obtained through analysis of electronic communication and collaboration with the teachers, students and scientists.
 Summary of Research Efforts
    The final phase of data gathering and analysis is currently underway, with data obtained from teachers and students at each of 4 sites. Student data gathered consists of student work samples, attitude/interest surveys, and practice questions from the ACT test of Science Reasoning. Data gathered from teachers consists of curriculum maps combining state standards and ASC curriculum activities/assessments, teacher retrospective surveys of confidence and impact, self-report classroom observation forms, and written feedback on individual ASC lessons. These sources of data will be combined to produce a final ASC curriculum product suitable for NASA review (in order to become an official NASA curriculum product) and research on the effectiveness and impact of this curriculum upon diverse groups of students.

Preliminary Results from Teachers:
Teacher self report data indicate that the ASC curriculum has a coherent framework that is aligned with research-based pedagogy for diverse students (qualitative data from structured interviews).
Teachers reported that the ASC Curriculum had a major impact on student interest and performance
The ASC curriculum contains activities and professional development opportunities that allow teachers to educate diverse groups of students. Teachers had a high degree of satisfaction with the professional development giving the ASC training a perfect rating of 4.0/4.0 on the end of session surveys.
Feedback from teachers suggests that they were able to teach the ASC curriculum to their students and in so doing gained confidence in scientific knowledge and the use of instruments

Research Questions: Student Impacts
- Did the ASC curriculum supported student understanding of core STEM content and basic STEM concepts in formal educational settings (high school classrooms) as well as in informal educational settings after school as measured by educator feedback?

- Does the ASC curriculum increased science literacy in diverse groups of students as measured by scores on a practice version of the ACT test of Science Reasoning?

-Does the ASC curriculum provide unique questions that increased student interest in STEM areas as measured by student interest surveys?

For more information about the ASC Curriculum development program visit the website:

    The ASC modules will provide a web-based interdisciplinary curriculum in astrobiology that is free and easily accessible by the public. The curriculum is designed to supplement existing state curricula by providing a framework that draws all areas of science together through engaging activities, providing teachers with activities that meet both state and national standards along with encouraging science literacy. Accomplishing this goal will involve modification of modules based on feedback from teachers during professional development and implementation with students in formal and informal educational settings. Research during the field-testing phase of the project is currently assessing the impact of these crosscutting activities on student performance and attitudes about science along with student interest in STEM careers.


Project Materials