Rita Karl, Lunar and Planetary Institute
Leslie C. Hunt, University of Houston at Clear Lake

Integrating Space Science Research into an
Interactive Web-Based Curriculum:
Implementation and Evaluation

In support of the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s goal to provide educators and students access to on-line space science activities as a part of it's educational mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, the development of an interactive web-based curriculum has been undertaken.  The education staff is working with graduate students in the University of Houston Clear Lake's Instructional Technology program to design, development, implement and evaluate a series of on-line multimedia activities.

Utilizing the research, data, theories and expertise of the planetary scientists at NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute, an interactive web-site has been developed focusing on the planet Mars.  The site will be featured as part of the education programs available for K-12 educators and students accessing the LPI web page.  The Mars curriculum will be targeted to students in middle and high school (grades 5-12) and will be presented as part of LPI's support of the White House Mars Millennium Initiative which challenges students to imagine a human colony on Mars in the year 2030.  The materials will be tested with the LPI gifted and talented 5th grade students who attend a weekly "Exploring the Planets" class and with educators at the LPI summer workshop, 'Liftoff 2000: Mars'.

A need for scientifically accurate inquiry-based materials to support education about the planet Mars has been identified by the Institute, the White House and educators who are interested in the future of human space exploration and colonization of Mars.  Students and educators entering into the study of Mars often have preconceived ideas and biases based on popular entertainment and misconstrued scientific data.  This curriculum addresses this by having students learn and apply the scientific method, review past and present scientific theory, research and data about Mars, and explore the requirements of Mars mission design.

The on-line activities focus on having students design a series of missions in preparation for a human colony on Mars utilizing the scientific method and current information known about the planet.  The final projects and mission designs are submitted to the web site for evaluation, comments and posting.   As part of the groundwork for this project students are able to research and explore the history, evolution and geology of Mars, and learn to identify geologic features and weather patterns on Mars by using Earth analogies and 3-D imagery on-line.  The Lunar and Planetary Institute is one of the world's largest Regional Planetary Image Facilities (RPIFs) which catalogues and stores all of the planetary mission imagery on-site, much of it in digital formats.

Students have the opportunity to practice discriminating between theory and fact by applying the scientific method through a series of interactive on-line activities comparing and contrasting historical examples of unsubstantiated theories about alien civilizations on Mars (Percival Lowell's canals, Richard Hoagland's Face on Mars).  Exploring current cutting-edge scientific theory and research based on mission data; students are able to debate the previous existence of oceans and rivers on the planet and the theory that a subsurface aquifer may still exist on the planet.    Digital video, animation, graphics and text are used to allow students the opportunity to investigate the scientist's theory and the missions that support it.  Navigating through the web sites and out to NASA mission sites, students are able to discover what implications that the discovery of water on the planet will have for a human colony.  Students review in situ resource utilization, the making of fuel, air and water for human survival in an on-line chemistry lab.   They also review the implications that the discovery of water on Mars has for the possibility for the existence of life (past or present) on the red planet.  Students survey NASA's current plans for robotic and human missions to the red planet in preparation for their own designs to be submitted for posting at the web site.

In response to the stated need for teachers and students to have access to current information about the planet Mars, and activities to support an inquiry-based approach to learning via technology, the education staff of the Institute entered into a partnership with the University of Houston Clear Lake.  Students in the Instructional Technology program at the University with the educational staff at LPI have developed a prototype for this web site.  Collaborating with students in this degree program which emphasizes the use of appropriate technology in a variety of learning applications (including the web) helps the Institute to envision and implement a broad range of developed multimedia activities utilizing the scientific data and research done by the Mars' scientists.

This paper will present information on the process used for the formative evaluation and delivery of this curriculum, as well as examples of the on-line instructional activities created to facilitate learning.  The curriculum designers will outline how the team members will systematically evaluate the curriculum using students and educators groups.   And, the designers will illustrate how evaluation of the curriculum will impact the redesign and final implementation of the on-line web site.
Formative evaluation techniques for this prototype will be done at the Institute with a group of 5th grade students who attend the Institute's gifted and talented outreach program, Alpha.  It will also be evaluated by a group of master astronomy teachers who will attend the summer 2000 workshop LiftOff: Return to Mars.  The curriculum will be implemented on the web using a variety of technologies including downloadable curriculum, interactive on-line labs, imagery and video, and e-mail communication.  It is intended that this paper will serve as a document for other curriculum designers and educators to use, should they encounter a similar need for interactive web-based activities based on scientific theory and data and developed using a variety of emerging technologies, Internet tools and innovative instructional strategies.