Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Teaching scientific concepts using UFO reports and other aspects of the UFO phenomenon
Teaching scientific concepts using UFO reports and other aspects of the UFO phenomenon
Students have a strong interest in UFOs and “space stuff” because of the prevalence and prominence of those concepts in pop culture. Because of this, UFOs may be the ultimate teaching resources since students already have an inherent interest in pop culture.
Whether or not UFOs are “real,” they figure prominently in our society, selling us products on television commercials, are featured in major movies and books and have encroached on everyday life through common expressions and dinner party conversations. If UFOs are not a physical phenomenon, they are definitely a psychological and/or sociological phenomenon. In either case, they are of scientific interest. What’s more, they should be of great interest to educators because talking about UFOs can be an excellent way to teach students basic principles in many fields, including the physical and social sciences.
Scientific Disciplines Teachable Through a Study of UFOs
For the purposes of this presentation, let’s not even get into the debate over whether UFOs are or are not alien spacecraft, but talk in terms of possibilities and the implications of extraterrestrial life.
This isn’t necessarily as obvious a connection as you might think, since UFOs are not necessarily from outer space. But if they are, where could they be from? This question leads us into many facets of astronomy. What kind of star is our Sun? Is it bigger than average? Smaller? Hotter? Where is the Sun in relation to other stars in the sky? Then there are some specific exercises that can lead to an understanding about distances in the universe. For example, one star system said by some people to be the origin of aliens visiting Earth is Zeta Reticuli. (Some students may have heard of this already!) Where, exactly, is it? Can we see it from your city? How far away is it? A good way to get across the scale of astronomical distances is to make a scale model of the Solar System and then extend it to a model of the nearest stars. If you use a pea as a model of our Sun, how far away will the next nearest pea be? Across the room? Down the hallway? Across the street?
This topic leads naturally from a discussion of stars and their differences. How do planets form? How did the Earth get its oceans? Are planets common or rare in other parts of our Galaxy? How likely is it that other star systems will be suitable for life?
Many people have seen shooting stars. But what are they? How big are they? I sometimes get a grain of sand and place it in a vial to show and pass around as an example of the true size of a typical meteor. What are bolides?
This topic can spin out into a discussion about constellations and mythology. There is so much richness for learning opportunities here, you really can’t go wrong. But a real shocker for most students will be that they don’t need a telescope to do basic astronomy. How many planets can you see with the naked eye? Why do stars twinkle, but not planets? What are comets? Galaxies? Nebulae?
Physics and Engineering
Okay, you want to get there from here (or vice versa). How? Would aliens use rockets or a Space Shuttle? An overview of rocketry is perfect here. What were the first rockets? How do rockets work? What are
’s Laws of Motion? How did we get
people to the Moon? Is a trip to Mars feasible? Why does the Space Shuttle not
burn up? Then, you can get into the history of space exploration. What was the
first satellite? Can we see satellites in orbit? What does the far side of the
Moon look like? What were the Voyager and Galileo space probes? Where are they
now? One exercise I sometimes use (depending on the age and maturity of the group)
is handing out a copy of the plaque attached to the Voyager spacecraft,
intended for use and analysis by aliens. The International Space Station is a
topic all on its own. How is it being constructed? Is there really a “railroad
in the sky?” How does it get its power? What will it look like when it is
finished? What about interstellar travel? How could we travel between stars?
What are light sails? Bussard ramjets? How long would a trip take? What is the
Theory of Relativity? Newton
Many kinds of weather phenomena can look pretty weird. Noctilucent clouds glow brightly long after sunset, and lenticular clouds look like giant flying saucers. Sundogs are neat, and most people don’t know they are simply a kind of rainbow. One mysterious (and thankfully rare) phenomenon is ball lightning, which can seem to move with a mind of its own. A stepping-off point here would be weather observation and forecasting, which many students will find interesting, especially if they test the accuracy of weather forecasts.
Many science teachers are aware of an exercise called “Invent an Alien,” adopted by many schools for teaching exobiology. The idea is to make students think about the necessary characteristics of an alien living on a planet in our Solar System. We can get students to ask some serious questions about the physiology of aliens speculated to live on other planets. How could an alien breathe on Mars or Jupiter? How would it move around? What would it eat? What would it look like? Communicate? Reproduce?
Sightings of UFOs bring up the subject of perception. This would be a good way to introduce optical illusions and show that things are not always what they seem. Autokinesis can be demonstrated to show that stationary objects can seem to move in the sky. It’s very difficult to judge distance and velocity of an object in the sky, especially without a reference point. But exactly how difficult? Another branch of psychology is clinical psychology, which includes hypnosis. Does it work just like on TV and in the movies? What about belief systems? Does believing in something sometimes make you think it is real? What is a psychosomatic illness?
What are the conditions which allow life on Earth? Are we damaging our ecosystem? Are we in danger of becoming extinct? This question is important to any discussion about aliens because it sheds light on the precariousness of life on a planet. How quickly can species become extinct? What is adaptation? Why do animals look different in different parts of the world? If there was life on another planet, what would it look like? (This brings us back to Invent an Alien.)
Is there water on Mars? If not, what are its ice caps made of? Why does Mars look red? Could we breathe the air on Venus? What is our air made of? Why are Jupiter’s bands different colours? These are all questions relating to the chemistry of planetary atmospheres, and can give students an idea of what we need to survive on this planet.
These are more of the “fun” questions to ask. We can get into all sorts of speculative ideas by trying to imagine what aliens would be like. The best way to do this is to compare our own behaviour with that of how we might imagine aliens to behave and interact. What would a truly alien civilization be like? What would its government be like? How would it educate its young? If an alien landed on Earth and said to you, “Take me to your leader!” ... to whom (and where) would you take it? How would you explain to an alien the concept of war? Money? Love?
These are just some of the subjects which could be taught using UFOs and aliens as a starting point for learning. All of these areas use straightforward scientific principles as a way to understand a popular topic. There is no “pseudoscience” here - just good science. This is a positive and enjoyable way to help your students grasp scientific concepts and apply them to the UFO phenomenon in all its varied aspects.
But wait! There’s more!
We’ve just covered the scientific disciplines teachable with UFOs as a topic. But what about other disciplines?
I’ve been contacted by ESL instructors who were using UFO books as texts for reading. Again, the students were interested in the topic, so the instructional materials worked well. Paranormal subjects and magic really have a way of catching the imaginations of young readers. (Just look at the popularity of Harry Potter, Goosebumps and Animorphs, to name a few!) Stories about aliens can be found in most popular fiction series, and juvenile science fiction is an ever-growing market in the book publishing industry. Using a scenario such as “I was abducted by an alien” can be a lot of fun for a creative writing assignment, and students will enjoy letting their imaginations run wild.
Twice now I have been asked by electronics dabblers to evaluate “UFO Detectors” on their operating principles. It’s a fairly simple project, basically something which detects magnetic fields. (This assumes, of course, that alien spaceships generate such fields.) So, with that in mind, why not get your students to design such a device, and have them explain the theory behind it? Oh, and if they actually detect anything, let me know.
I once had the cooperation of the teacher of a grade school class in a fascinating comparative experiment. Two of the students in the class had reported seeing a UFO several days earlier, and their parents were convinced they had a real experience. When I visited the school to talk with the students, their homeroom teacher asked me to talk to his class about UFOs in general, but I had a better idea. I gave all the kids an assignment to draw or colour a picture of what they thought an alien spaceship looked like. What they handed in at the end of the hour was pretty interesting. They all drew elaborate aliens with their spaceships, many of which were modeled after spacecraft on TV shows like Star Trek and movies such as Star Wars. Except for two drawings, by the two students who had said they had actually seen something. They both drew dull, boring pictures of a grey, disc-shaped object hanging in the sky. It didn’t have any windows or flashing lights or any aliens peeking out. It didn’t seem like they used their imaginations at all.
Have your students make a video of a newscast about a UFO sightings or an abduction. See if they can interview someone in their community who has had an experience.
Finally, here’s an older article about putting UFOs in the classroom that has some interesting (although perhaps a bit outdated) ideas:
Rocker, Donald E. It worked for me. Grade Teacher, Dec. 1968, pp. 24, 26.
So, you now have some ideas on how to motivate your students. If their heads are going to be in the clouds anyway, at least they can get some good learning done!
“Second star to the right and straight on till morning...”