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The Great Animal Habitat Debate

A Collaborative Activity


The goal of this activity is for students to have a classroom experience that parallels the process used by US and International life scientists and engineers as they discuss, plan, and conduct joint science on the Neurolab Mission. Through this collaborative activity we hope to:

    Encourage use of science skills (observation, data collection, comparing and contrasting, communication, reasoning and use of evidence, design of experiments).

    Increase understanding of the benefit of using animals in research.

    Increase understanding of the many factors involved in the proper care and use of animals in space.

    Arouse enthusiasm, excitement, and interest in biomedical research in space.

    Facilitate cooperative learning in the classroom.

    Involve students in critical thinking/problem solving scenarios.

Key Questions
    What is needed to keep animals alive and healthy in space?
    What system is best for the care and use of animals in space?
    What are the primary types of research conducted with animals in space?
    What stressors effect animals in space?


    The use of animals as experimental subjects is an essential and invaluable component of space biomedical research. Many of the changes brought about by spaceflight arise within the brain, bones, muscles, heart, and other areas of the body, not accessible, or not within the bounds of accepted medical practice, for the use of human subjects.


Time Frame

    The complete design activity should take from about a week, to a month, depending on how much background the teacher wants to bring in.

Design Phase: Month of January

Classrooms around the world discuss and design animal care and use hardware, using the Internet to debate the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches.

First step

    Classroom discussion of care and use of animals on Earth, then discussion and design of what is needed to house animals in space.

Design Step

    Discuss various design ideas, debate good and bad points online with other classes, try to reach consensus. All designs must be submitted to NASA by 2 February, for evaluation. Designs will be posted online, and top designs will receive expert feedback.

Teachers: You do not have to build the hardware design in your classroom. We are looking for you to come up with a color diagram, along with a list of what is required, with reasons and justifications for each of the items. We are encouraging debate and discussion within the class originally, then with other classes online.

Suggestions for the Initial Phase of the Project

To better understand how to design for the proper care and use of animals in space, it helps to have students review what they know about care on Earth. Refer to these conditions as Earth-normal animal care

Directions to Students

    Think about how animals, such as rats, eat and sleep on Earth. List all the conditions you can think of that help keep animals healthy.

    Make a chart with three columns. Label the first column "Condition" and use one or two words to name the growing condition needed. Label the second column "Source." In this column name the source of that condition. For example, if light is named in the first column, you might put "sun" or "flourescent lights" as a source. Label the third column "How Helpful." In this column, jot down a few words telling how or why the condition helps the animal remain healthy.

    You will have 10 - 15 minutes to complete as much as you can on your own. Next, you will share your thoughts with a small group.

To the Teacher:
    After 15 minutes, move students into groups of three or five and instruct them to share their ideas. They should add to their individual lists the new ideas that others in the group had listed. Encourage students by suggesting that any group that can list 9 or 10 conditions is exceptional and that 8 is good. A list of six or seven is what most kids will come up with.

    Allow the groups about five to eight minutes to share answers. Then, using a large sheet of butcher paper or poster board entitled "Earth-Normal Animal Care Requirements," develop a class poster that will be posted throughout the remainder of the design activities.

    Possible answers: steady supply of food and water, proper disposal of waste, quiet, safe place to sleep
    Here is an example submitted by 5th Grade E.T. Math Class at Atholton Elementary School

To the Teacher on the Constraints and Guidelines
    Inside the space shuttle, in addition to serious concern for safety, everything must adapt to microgravity. The purpose of the Considerations and Constraints Section is to help students transfer their thinking from Earth-normal conditions to what is normal in spaceflight, or space-normal growing conditions for animals. Remember that the shuttle and space station environments are microgravity environments; the Moon has 1/6 gravity and Mars has 1/3 gravity. Growing conditions for habitats on the Moon and Mars would be somewhat different. For this lesson, we focus on shuttle and station "space normal" conditions.

    Discuss with students the term " microgravity." What are some of the differences they know microgravity makes for the astronauts' daily life in space? Many have seen TV coverage of shuttle flights or TV programming that demonstrates the weightlessness of microgravity. Help them apply those conditions to their own daily routine and what differences those would make in common activities such as brushing their hair, drinking water, etc.

    Have students review the Earth Normal Conditions list. Through small group work (use the same grouping that was assigned for Part I) have students decide which requirements are affected by microgravity. Have the groups discuss how and why they would be affected. Have each group select two of these conditions for explanation to the class. Each group should choose a spokesperson(s) for this oral reporting. As each group presents, discuss as needed.

Related Activities/Discussions
What other types of animals might go into space some day? On a long-duration mission to Mars, what sort of animals should we take?

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