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James A. Petrait

Type of entry:

  • project.

Type of activity:

  • hands-on
  • simulation
  • inquiry lab
  • group/cooperative learning
  • community outreach/off-site activity

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology

Background Information:

This project helps students answer the question of how to search for life in outer space. It is done as an infused activity in my biology class. This type of activity takes place over several months at various times during the regular lesson sequence in my biology class, under the topic of exobiology. This activity also includes some astronomy and radio astronomy. Students obtain background information from videos, books, and magazines and write reports on them. Then they help with making the actual SETI proposal. After receiving the results, students analyze them and give their results. Some reports are required by all students while others are given as extra credit.

I have access to the use of the 40-foot radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia and I am able to access requested data from it over the Internet. The data back in the form of a graph. Other teachers may be able to use the publicly available files from the VLA radio telescope or make use of simulated graphs.

Abstract of Activity:

Students learn about how to search for life in outer space and make use of the 40-foot radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia. Request that the telescope be pointed at a particular location and time and receive data back from it through the Internet. They analyze the data to see if there is any type of intelligent message that may have come from extra-terrestrial life.


Materials Needed:

Books and magazine articles on SETI and radio astronomy, Videos ("Quest for Contact" from NASA is a good one), materials for writing reports and analyzing graphs, access to Internet (at least by the teacher), simulated graphs if necessary, Morse Code chart, information about information and codes.


As an infused learning activity that is both required and also given as extra credit, its actual sequence and time requirements can be highly variable. First, the teacher needs to become familiar with the subject and then select those background materials that can be provided to the students. A short lecture can be included during this phase or, perhaps, a field trip could be arranged to some local resource connected with the topic (for instance, on St.Croix, I could take students to the VLBA Radio Telescope). Then students can write reports suggesting the best place to look for life in outer space.

The first time I did this, one student's suggestion of looking at Sagittarius "A" in the center of our galaxy was the one that was actually followed. I have access to the 40-foot radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia and I am able to send the right ascension and declination of the desired radio source to its operator and receive the graph files back over the Internet or even by mail as I actually did for this search.

It is important to keep this activity on a scientific but interesting course. Because of the limited information that could be available from the observations, I constructed an hypothesis that is similar to a null hypothesis. In short, my hypothesis stated that there is probably no intelligent life in outer space. So to show the opposite, my hypothesis would have to be rejected. It is important also to point out the differences among natural radio signals, random signals, noise, and information. Also, it needs to be known that this search is very limited compared to the multi-channel searches being conducted by several groups.

I had 2 graphs of Sagittarius "A" taken on 2 different days to see if there was any difference in the natural signals on the 2 days. Close inspection showed that there were some minor variations in the 2 graphs but not in the main natural signal. These were all due to random noise variations but students can attempt to see if there is any information in them. A method we used was to equate the peaks and valleys of the graphs with Morse Code dots and dashes and then to see if there were any recognizable patterns for letters. Students need to know that this is most likely not a real message but one possible way of interpretation of the information. In fact using this method in another class and with another graph, I surprisingly came up with the letters "IMET". This can result in a good investigation into the nature of information.


The main evaluation in this project is the students reports. Some of these were mandatory for all students and others were based on some students doing them for extra credit. Also some basic questions connected with the project background information is included on several tests.

This idea has great potential to lead to all kinds of related projects, not only in biology but also in astronomy and electronics. Although I have not used that source yet, the public is supposed to have access to an all-sky survey made by the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescopes in New Mexico. Teachers can try contacting Dave Finley, the NRAO Public Information Officer, at: dfinley@aoc.nrao.edu or they can link to the NRAO homepage from my home page at http://hudson.idt.net/~jpetra29/for more information.

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