Hands-on learning at the Astrobiology Summer Academy

Today, a hot summers afternoon was of course best spent at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, where 15 high school students had put on a fantastic astrobiology outreach event called “Life Among the Stars”, drawing in the wandering crowds passing through the John Hope Gateway.

Astrobiology students demonstrating science ranging from life in ice to the physical effects extreme conditions have on proteins.

Astrobiology students demonstrating science ranging from life in ice to the physical effects extreme conditions have on proteins.

Over the past week, the students have been learning all about the prospects of life elsewhere at the Astrobiology Summer Academy – a week-long summer school run by the UK Centre for Astrobiology in collaboration with NASA and the UK Space Agency. Using their new-found knowledge about life on earth, planetary systems, and the basic chemistry of life, the students produced a series of talks and hands-on experiments that proved incredibly popular with kids and their (not-so-grown-up) adult counterparts.

Experiments included…

….finding brine-pockets within ice cubes using food dye – demonstrating how these salty micro-environments provide a temporary habitat for microbial life in frozen conditions, and building mini-spectrometers out of cardboard and old CDs to split natural sunlight into its visible spectral bands…

LEFT: comparing how blue dye travels through ice. The cube on the left is freshwater, and has no pockets of liquid brine, whereas the ice cube on the right is made from salt-water, letting the dye pass through its liquid brine channels that resist freezing. RIGHT: a visible light spectrum produced by a home-made mini spectrometer.

LEFT: comparing how blue dye travels through ice. The cube on the left is freshwater, and has no pockets of liquid brine, resulting in the dye flowing over the surface and pooling at the bottom, whereas the ice cube on the right is made from salt-water, which lets the dye pass through its many liquid brine channels that resist freezing due to their saltiness. RIGHT: a visible light spectrum produced by a home-made mini spectrometer.

….and matching up extreme conditions, planets, and life using a big inter-disciplinary jigsaw, whilst building complex organic molecules from the basic building blocks of life itself (Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous, and Sulfur):

Experiments2

…and finally, combining my two favourite things: volcanoes and Mars rovers šŸ™‚

Experiments3

This was the first-ever Astrobiology Summer Academy, and it has proved a great success, with lots of support locally, and by the University of Edinburgh, where the UK Centre for Astrobiology is based.

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