Socratic Seminar & The Big Ideas: On Mars, Wonder, Colonization & Imperialism

Google Mars

Google’s animated Mars drinks water to celebrate NASA’s recent findings.

What are the implications of hunting/searching for life on Mars?

With the discovery of flowing water on Mars, many ethical issues are likely to arise as we consider, “What are the implications of hunting/searching for life on Mars?”  As educators, I think we are responsible for helping students understand, analyze, and evaluate what’s at stake with discoveries like this to ensure they become responsible and curious citizens.

We can do this by bringing the Mars announcement (liquid water!) to the classroom through Socratic Seminar.  Through Seminar, we can connect the news to some of the “big ideas” that run through some of the texts we teach.  This would make students think about the implications of the current event while also helping them understand connections and patterns among various texts, eras, etc. and create a larger context in which they could understand the big ideas in the texts they’re reading.

For resources on Socratic Seminar, check our the Socratic Seminar page

Here’s a quick sampling of some of the issues the news has covered with this finding:

Ian Sample, in his article in The Guardian, “NASA Scientists Find Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars,” quotes John Bridges:

John Bridges, a professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, said the study was fascinating, but might throw up some fresh concerns for space agencies. The flows could be used to find water sources on Mars, making them prime spots to hunt for life, and to land future human missions. But agencies were required to do their utmost to avoid contaminating other planets with microbes from Earth, making wet areas the most difficult to visit. “This will give them lots to think about,” he said.

And Jonathan Amos’s article on BBC, “Martian salt streaks ‘Painted by Liquid Water‘,” raises a similar issue:

An interesting consequence of the findings is that space agencies will now have some extra thinking to do about where they send future landers and rovers.

Current internationally agreed rules state that missions should be wary of going to places on Mars where there is likely to be liquid water.

A UK space agency expert on Mars landing sites, Dr Peter Grindrod, told BBC News: “Planetary protection states that we can’t go anywhere there is liquid water because we can’t sterilise our spacecraft well enough to guarantee we won’t contaminate these locations. So if an RSL is found within the landing zone of a probe, then you can’t land there.

And here are some issues that we can discuss in conjunction with this current event:

  • 10th & 12th Grades: Colonization: (What happens when we introduce something foreign into a culture/society?  What happens when one culture overruns another? What responsibility to we have to other cultures/lives/places?) – with texts like Things Fall Apart or conflicts with Native Americans
  • 11th & 12th Grades: Language & Bias (AP Language): (Why are each of these news accounts providing different perspectives? What is the impact of their differences in word choice? What can we learn from their differences? Similarities?) – each of the articles below are different.  The CNN article, for example, is hopeful about the “search” for life and includes nothing about the potential sterilization issues that are discussed in both The Guardian & BBC articles.  The Guardian refers to the search for life as a ” hunt.”
  • 10th & 11th Grade: Manifest Destiny & Imperialism (American & Western Studies): (What right does one have to invade or expand its borders? What are the potential benefits and dangers of such an expansion?) – would work nicely after students have some background and in conjunction with political cartoons or other images/texts from the time 
  • 11th Grade: The Unknown: (What is our relationship with the “unknown”? How can not knowing impact how we perceive and react to it?) – pair a discussion of what Beowulf’s Grendel, who represents much of the uncertain and unknown of the times, with “Why are we obsessed with Martians?”
  • 10th Grade: Nature & Wonder: (Why do we go to nature? What happens when we over-turn nature?  What are the implications to interfering with nature? What value is there in “wonder”?) with The Secret Life of Bees & the moon-landing scene (August wants to turn it off . .. some things should be left to wonder – thanks to Sherrie E for this connection) or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” John Muir & excerpts from the National Park documentary might also fit nicely here . . . in terms of the importance of preserving of nature (should we?). 
  • 9th Grade: “The Butterfly Effect” (What happens when we introduce something foreign into nature? What are the possible long-term effects?) – with the short story, “Sound of Thunder.”
  • All Grades: Perspective: Will we become the evil, power-hungry, & destructive aliens of science-fiction fantasies if we seek out life on Mars? (thanks to Sherrie for this one!)

Finally, here are some texts on the Mars findings to pair with the literary:

There are many more possibilities for bringing the issues with Mars to the English classroom. If you develop any of your own, please share them in the comment section below or via email.

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