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Science fiction opens world of research to students

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Posted: Sunday, July 3, 2011 12:00 pm

By Todd Martin

Special to the Daily Herald

A class of Reeces Creek Elementary School fourth-graders spent the last few weeks of the school year visiting alien cultures in their space probes.

Kelly Snyder's fourth-grade class visited Alien Rescue, an online learning environment created by University of Texas graduate students for students to creatively solve problems in a cool, science fiction world.

On the last Friday of the school year, the elementary students presented their findings about the fictional alien species. They described the space probes they designed and launched to help safety relocate the aliens.

Three UT students made the drive to Killeen to hear the younger students give presentations.

The Reeces Creek students presented in six groups, each taking one alien species. The graduate students made up the alien ministry and provided feedback to the students.

Each group identified their species and described its biological needs and then matched those needs with atmospheres of various planets and moons they discovered through research.

One alien species, called Jakala-Tay needed a planet to grow insects and plants, so students came up with an atmosphere rich in nitrogen.

Another group, called the Kaylids, seemed designed for life on Mars. The Sylcari, requiring pure water, would be destined for Europa, a moon of Jupiter, according to one of the fourth-grade groups.

Lucas Horton, a UT education student serving on the alien ministry, credited the students for weighing the survival requirements of their species, designing probes to search space and organizing their information.

As part of the presentation exercise, the graduate students agreed to further fund the alien research project, just as a university committee might approve funding of an actual science project.

"My favorite part was the research," said fourth-grader Michael Chambers.

"I liked seeing what they looked like," he said, "I liked all of it. We got to design probes and be creative."

"It was all discovery learning," said Snyder, the teacher who found the project and set her students loose on it.

"I logged them on and they did the rest," the teacher said. "They were engaged. They were talking about it in class. Their parents heard more about this than anything we've done."

Any project that gets students excited the last weeks of school is special, Snyder said.

Fourth-grader Nehemiah Carter clicked through the alien website, showing the virtual research lab and alien database filled with data on the various creatures.

"What I liked was designing the probes to go to the different planets and moons," Carter said. "We could select different probes and launch to the moons and planets and figure out the temperature, earthquake activity, all about the atmosphere."

Speaking to the fourth-graders, Horton said, "You provided justification for the planets you chose. We're impressed with the work you've done."

To explore Alien Rescue, go to http://www.edb.utexas.edu/alienrescue/tour.

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