Is There Other Life in the Universe?
A fantastic (and fun!) way to make connections
among different text types.
How has the idea of space captured our imaginations?
Using historical audio clips, take students on an exciting journey to 1938 to explore the events surrounding the famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which led thousands of Americans to believe the U.S. had been invaded by vicious aliens. Students will then read about the science behind the search for extraterrestrial life, and watch a short video about recent NASA discoveries. The lesson culminates with students writing a reflective essay.
• to build listening- and reading-comprehension skills
• to participate in class discussion
• to analyze texts, using textual evidence to support inferences
• to write a reflective essay
You will need:
• Radio broadcast (or transcript) of the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast from 1938
• “The Day Aliens Attacked America” from the January 10, 2011, issue of Scope
• NASA video clip, “Planets in the Distance”
• Discussion questions
• Writing prompt
1. Pre-Reading Discussion
Duration: 10 minutes
Ask students: Do you believe there is life anywhere but Earth? Why? What are some reasons we might want to believe we aren’t alone in the universe?
2. Play the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
Duration: 30 minutes, or one class period
Explain that this broadcast is a dramatization of an 1899 novel titled The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The broadcast, produced by Orson Welles, aired the day before Halloween in 1938. As students listen, instruct them to take notes about plot, mood, and character. Note: The broadcast is 55 minutes long. If you would like to abbreviate it, we recommend playing through 18:27.
After listening to the broadcast, ask the following discussion questions:
- Did you find the broadcast suspenseful? Why?
- How do the interviews with astronomers compare with the eyewitness accounts? What does this tell you about scientists’ attitudes toward space and the existence of alien life?
- What aspects of the broadcast made it seem real?
- Did you care about what happened to any of the characters? Why or why not?
- What other stories does this remind you of?
Alternate: Here is a full transcript of the broadcast. Rather than play the broadcast, you may have students choose parts to read.
3. Read the article “The Day Aliens Attacked America.”
Duration: 45 minutes
The article appears on pages 4-9 in the January 10, 2011, issue of Scope. You can read the article as a class, in small groups, or individually.
After reading, ask the following discussion questions:
- What happened in 1938 after the “War of the Worlds” broadcast?
- What challenges do astrobiologists face in their search for planets?
- Consider the sidebar “What Is An Alien Like?” What can you infer about the various ways we imagine aliens? Which category best fits the aliens from the broadcast?
- The broadcast discusses many “astronomical centers of the world,” like Professor Pierson’s observatory at Princeton. What “astronomical centers” are discussed in the article?
- How are the astronomers discussed in the article different from the astronomers in the broadcast?
- If astrobiologists discover life on a far-flung planet, what would the significance mean for humanity? How do you think the world would respond to such a discovery?
- Given everything you’ve read, do you think the scare could happen today? Why or why not?
- What is the purpose of this clip?
- What information did you learn in this clip that was not included in the article?
- Why is the discovery of planets significant?
- What are some of the challenges astronomers face in their search for planets?
- What techniques are used in the video to show how vast space really is?
- What feelings does this vastness evoke?
- Does it seem like scientists are making progress in space exploration? Explain.
5. Write a reflective essay.
Have students write a reflective essay in response to the essential question, How has the idea of space captured our imaginations?
BONUS WRITING CHALLENGE!
Great for your above-level learners.
Give students the following writing prompt: Imagine that NASA’s program to search for habitable planets is going to be cancelled. Write an essay arguing why the search for life in the universe should or should not be continued. In your writing, you may consider the following: Is the topic of alien life important to people? Does it seem like scientists are making progress in space exploration? How has the idea of alien life informed works of fiction?
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