Lakewood students learn about universe

Lakewood High School student Sean Kustra dons special glasses at the University of Washington that demonstrate refraction of light, a key in studying the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system. - Courtesy Photo
Lakewood High School student Sean Kustra dons special glasses at the University of Washington that demonstrate refraction of light, a key in studying the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

LAKEWOOD — The first astrobiology course for high school students in Washington state started this year at Lakewood High School, and on Dec. 7, those students got to meet with experts in the field at the University of Washington.

Lakewood High School teacher Dani Leach explained that astrobiology is a junior- and senior-level elective science course for which students can also earn college credit through Everett Community College’s “College in the Classroom” program for “Life in the Universe.”

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe,” Leach said. “The University of Washington is one of the premier hubs for astrobiology in the country, as it is a NASA Astrobiology Institute center.”

After corresponding with Victoria Meadows, principal investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Leach was able to secure $15,000 in grant funding from NASA, not only to cover the course materials and her own FTE hours to offer the astrobiology class as a science lab credit course at LHS, but also to pay for the students’ field trip to meet with Meadows and other astrobiologists at UW.

“It’s important to encourage students to pursue careers in science, and we find astrobiology to be a particularly engaging science,” Meadows said. “Searching for life in the universe is challenging and fun.”

Meadows and her fellow astrobiologists presented their current research to the students over the course of three hours on Dec. 7. As Leach noted, astrobiology is a field that encompasses a number of other fields, and the day’s speakers included oceanographer Rika Anderson discussing hydrothermal vents, astronomer Rory Barnes demonstrating the computer codes he crunches to calculate planets’ formations and habitability levels, and fellow astronomer Ty Robinson discussing how habitability is detected on planets outside of our solar system by looking for the light reflections caused by liquid water.

As with Anderson’s work in the ocean, atmospheric specialist Mark Claire spoke about how he uses his studies of Chilean deserts to research life forms known as “extremophiles,” which can survive in extremes of heat, cold, dryness or acidity that would be unlivable for humans.

“Another one of the oceanographers that day talked about digging into ice and finding living bacteria,” Leach said. “This could point to the possibility of life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Astrobiology brings together astronomy, geology, biology and chemistry under one roof.”

“The hydrothermal vents off the coast of Puget Sound that they use to study extremophiles are so close to us,” said LHS senior Danika Welty, a member of the astrobiology class. “Some of the extremophiles that they’ve studied in Chile can survive off salt and chlorine, which isn’t that far off from what they found on Mars.”

Like Welty, fellow LHS senior Karlie Stevens is taking the astrobiology class because of how unique the course is in the state. While Welty hopes to understand life on Earth better through astrobiology, Stevens finds the search for life on other planets more appealing.

“I’m not sure these studies will apply to my postgraduate career specifically, but the discovery of life out there in the universe applies to everyone,” said fellow LHS senior Taylor Edwards.

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