By Michelle Waring
Recently, we were given the opportunity by One Giant Leap Australia Foundation to spend a day with internationally renowned astrobiologist Mike Malaska (National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] Jet Propulsion Lab [JPL]) on a private, small group field study tour to learn about the possibility of life in outer space, especially looking at Saturn’s moon Titan, and Mars. The location was a cave system at Yarrangobilly in the New South Wales Kosciuszko National Park. At first glance, there seemed to be no direct relationship in the ideas whatsoever. However, after spending the day with Mike, my perception changed, my confidence grew and my views on the importance of creating inquiring young minds were strengthened and validated.
As a K–6 teacher, I have always sought opportunities to inspire and engage my students through the inquiry process and the use of real-world problems. Open-ended questioning, critical thinking and experimentation play important roles in helping students think outside the box and adapt to change in a fast-paced and ever evolving society.
In the past, I found the teaching of geology somewhat of a challenge. Most of my ideas were limited to creating models of volcanoes and learning about the earth’s tectonic plates. I mean, how could the mere study of rocks and soil be linked with the future of space exploration and the possibility of life on other planets? Furthermore, how could the study of cave systems on Earth possibly help students become problem solvers of the future and develop a greater understanding of life in outer space? A day at Yarrangobilly Caves, observing the scientific process conducted by Mike, opened my eyes to opportunities we could be giving our students to explore their natural environment through inquiry processes and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education.
The slow traverse down to the cave system with Mike and a guide from National Parks and Wildlife was both inciteful and engaging. I had decided to bring my 13-year-old son along to gauge the level of interest and understanding from a child’s perspective. Lachlan was already excited by the prospect of meeting a person from NASA JPL and whose job was to study the probability of life in outer space.
On our journey down to the caves, it was fascinating to see Mike absorbing the environment around him. He readily asked questions about outcrops of Australian plant life protruding from rock formations, encouraged Lachlan to make inferences through questioning and then briefly stopping to analyse unusual rock formations. In true scientific method, he was already making connections and developing his own hypothesis on how the environment may have been formed millions of years ago.
With the use of a simple geological mapping app on his phone, Mike regularly checked his theories. My immediate thinking was, “How often do I give my students time to just be immersed in what they see around them?” Just taking a simple walk around their school, local area or park and looking beyond the infrastructure in front them. It would be great to give students the opportunities to come up with the questions, make hypotheses, collect samples such as rock and soil and test their thinking. A simple geological app on a device could then assist with further clarification or confirmation of understandings. Some farmers already employ geologists to map out the resources on their land to better manage and utilise their natural environment. This would be equally important if we were to travel and colonise other planets in space.
Mike revealed NASA JPL were using this knowledge to develop technology that can study the possibility of life on other planets and moons. The InSight lander and Curiosity rover on Mars are already collecting and analysing rocks and soil samples on the Martian surface and in underground caves to gain a better understand of what the planet was like in the past and whether the planet could sustain life in the future.
Upon entering the vast cave system at Yarrangobilly, I was in awe of the rich colours of red and grey in the rock formations. A mixture of iron and limestone formed intricate details around the southern and northern Glory Cave. We carefully navigated our way through the large mouth into a narrow tunnel system, our low-lit torches held carefully in front to gather perspective of our surroundings.
As we encountered a large opening, an immense spectacle of stalactites, helictites and stalagmites hung precariously, looking both beautiful and lifeless. It was known as the Queen’s chamber. It certainly was breathtaking; however, at first glance, one would think that cave systems are devoid of any life form. Mike promptly produced a small torch from his backpack. It contained an ultraviolet (UV) light which he shone at a stalactite that had caught his attention. A small soda straw, created from the dissolving of calcium carbonate, protruded from its centre. Unusual patterns formed around the limestone. The rock appeared to glow a green and purple iridescent colour, as if it was alive or perhaps from a science fiction movie. My son’s reaction was one of wonder and confusion. How could rocks be alive? Mike revealed how micro-organisms are more active when exposed to UV light. The conditions created by the crystallisation of limestone made it excellent for the harbouring of microscopic life. He encouraged Lachlan to think further, by posing questions about the unusual pattern formations on the rock surface and discussing why they may have been formed in this way. Mike then urged my son to predict where the organisms may move to next.
Mike, an expert on Saturn’s moon Titan, was eager to discuss how important it was to learn about living systems and micro-organisms on Earth and the role of an astrobiologist. Through the knowledge gained from studies on Earth, we could better understand how life could be supported on other planets or solar systems. If we could predict the behaviours of certain micro-organisms, we may be able to find essential resources needed for survival. Who knows, below Titan’s icy shell, an ocean of methane gas could possibly harbour alien lifeforms yet to be discovered.
The last part of our journey took us alongside a small underground stream. Mike encouraged Lachlan to test the water temperature and PH using a small digital meter he had brought with him. We made several stops along our walk before making predictions about the next readings.
As we headed up the narrow stairwell to depart the caves, I realised the importance of asking students deep questions, getting them to predict, experiment and solve problems. Developing inquiring, creative minds helps students prepare for jobs of the future.
Lachlan’s feedback from the Yarrangobilly Cave adventure was, “It was an awesome experience. I learnt so much about the creation of caves and how this relates to Saturn’s moon Titan. I enjoyed the hands-on experience. I never knew the importance of astrobiology to space exploration and would like to do a job like this in the future.”
While the walk through the caves was only a few hours, it has certainly left a lasting and positive impression on us. We are so grateful to the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation for this life-changing opportunity.
This led me to the question, “How could living things survive without light?” Was there a way I could replicate or demonstrate this in the classroom? Since my trip to Yarrangobilly Caves, I have used this type of questioning with a Year 4 class and was amazed by their creative responses. One group suggested using aluminium foil to wrap objects and another wanted to create small models out of plasticine to replicate the conditions of a cave environment. The prototypes were then stored in a dark place in the classroom. The students then used small UV torches to track the level of micro-organism activity over several days. The class drew images, created hypotheses, discussed the results and made further predictions.
To further the class’ imagination and creativity, I encouraged students to design robot prototypes that could drive on Titan’s icy surface, penetrate its frozen crust and take readings of the ocean below. Mike will teleconference into my classroom and further fuel students’ ideas and STEM activities in the not-too-distant future.
Michelle Waring is a K–6 primary school teacher in New South Wales