Exploring Exoplanets

Exploring Exoplanets

Class 6 students spent a recent Thursday traveling lightyears away to visit new and fascinating planets…thanks to our Virtual Reality (VR) headsets! Inside the Hayot Center for Innovation, the girls took turns donning the headsets and immersing themselves in an unknown world – one created entirely by their classmates.

During the fall term, with guidance from Class 6 science teacher Dana Leibowitz, the sixth graders first studied the solar system extensively and then studied cells. The students learned how to use microscopes, discussed various organelles and reviewed the specific functions each performs to keep a cell alive. The girls also studied extremophiles – organisms that can survive in severe heat, cold or salt – and observed an example (tardigrades) under a microscope.

From there, students began to learn about exoplanets, a planet outside of our solar system that orbits around other stars, and how scientists find them. Some examples included: “Kepler-22b,” a potentially rocky super-Earth that could be covered in a super ocean; “55 Cancri E,” a lava planet with sparkling skies; and “GJ 436 b,” a Neptune-like planet known for “burning ice.”

After selecting an exoplanet to further research, students were tasked with inventing their own organism (or “alien”) to live on their chosen planet. While students were encouraged to use their full creativity in their design, they were required to make it realistic. If someone selected a gas planet with heavy gravity, for example, the alien would need to possess specific attributes in order to survive in that kind of atmosphere.

The girls began by sketching their ideas. Whether an extremophile, bacteria, plant, animal, protist, fungi, or their own imaginative lifeform, the students excitedly selected their alien’s body parts and features such as segments, appendages, size and number of eyes. Ms. Leibowitz also asked the students to consider how the alien would get its food, its relationship to other life forms, how it moves and breathes, how it will reproduce, whether it’s unicellular or multicellular and more. Once finalized, the sixth graders used Tinkercad to bring their alien to life through 3D design.

Students were then put into groups of 2-3 based on their planet to begin constructing that planet’s environment using Co-Spaces, a web-based platform that supports augmented and virtual reality. 

Creativity and fun abounded as the students created their virtual spaces and integrated their unique aliens. Using their coding skills to incorporate interactive elements, one group had the viewer follow their alien around the planet while another prompted their extraterrestrial to produce facts about itself when clicked on. Another trio coded one alien to eat another to depict the planet’s food chain.

“They’ve been building on these skills throughout the year,” explained Dr. Jon Olivera (Director of the HCI). “The programming side of this project is way more intricate.”

“The kids are so intuitive,” added Ms. Leibowitz. “And so innovative. If they wanted something done, they’d figure out a way to do it.”

The students were also required to write a CER (Claim, Evidence and Reasoning) to explain why, exactly, their alien would live a successful life on their planet. For the project’s culmination, the students gathered in the HCI to showcase their vibrant creations.

Explore a few of our scholars’ planets by clicking on the links below:
Exoplanet 1
Exoplanet 2
Exoplanet 3
Exoplanet 4