Ancient signs of life: inspiring the next generation of scientists in the outback

As Perseverance sets off on its six-month journey to Mars, two UNSW PhD students look back on a field trip that gave Indigenous high school students a behind-the-scenes look at the rover’s mission.

 

Inspire and excite students by showing them what can be learned in the Australian backyard, get involved in live workshops hosted by UNSW as part of National Science Week, and download your own hands-on activity for your students below.

 

Word Count: 1255

Students in Pilbara crouched looking for ancients signs of life and fossils
Image credit: UNSW

“I want to be the first human on Mars!” says high school student Bethany after a day spent searching for fossils in Pilbara, Western Australia.

Bethany was one of 16 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students from nearby Port Hedland who went on a camping field trip with scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and UNSW Sydney last year.

The international team – which included key scientists from NASA’s Perseverance mission – were visiting Pilbara for clues on how to search for ancient life on Mars.

“The Pilbara contains one of the oldest fossil sites in the world,” says astrobiologist Bonnie Teece, who is completing her PhD at UNSW Science’s Australian Centre for Astrobiology. She organised the student field trip with fellow PhD candidate, Luke Steller.

“The rocks in Pilbara are three-and-a-half billion years old – roughly the same age as the rocks that might hold signs of life on Mars,” she says. “In many ways, the Pilbara is the closest place on Earth to that period in Mars’s history.”

NASA’s Perseverance launched from Cape Canaveral on Thursday 30 July 2020.

When on Mars, the rover will look for signs of ancient life on Mars while collecting rock and soil samples to hopefully bring back to Earth.

NASA hat and laptop used by the scientists to give students a behind-the-scenes look at what the Perseverance rover will get up to on Mars
Image credit: UNSW

The NASA and ESA visit gave Teece and Steller a special opportunity to engage with the local community.

“We don’t want to be scientists who just look at the fossils and then go back home,” says Teece. “We want to connect with local kids and build a sustained and involved presence in the community.”

The duo organised for the students to join the visiting NASA scientists on the field trip. The students we given a behind-the-scenes look at some of the tools used on the Perseverance mission, like replicas of the Mars sample tubes and a digital tour of what’s inside the rover.

“The scientists were showing us the insides of the rover and what’s going to happen on Mars,” says Bethany. “It was a really cool experience.”

Sara Finn, a teacher from Hedland Senior High School, says the students had an incredible time meeting NASA and ESA scientists.

“The students were really excited to learn that their backyard is essential to scientists from all around the world,” she says.

“It was also special for them to see that their land, and their families’ land, is integral to these space programs.”

Searching for signs of ancient life

Pilbara is home to some of the oldest-known evidence of life on Earth.

The life comes in the form of ‘stromatolites’ – fossilised layers of microbial build-up in rocks – that look like squiggles or wrinkles to the untrained eye.

Steller, who is well-trained in finding fossils, taught the students what to look for. He gave each student a small microscope to attach to their phone to help them investigate.

“At first, many local students were surprised NASA were so interested in their backyards,” says Steller. “One described it as a ‘bunch of hot rocks’.

“Once they knew they were looking at some of the oldest evidence of life on Earth, it didn’t take long for the excitement to spread.”

Searching for fossils was a highlight for student Dakota.

“The fossils were my favourite,” she says. “They were really old – older than dinosaurs. We found out how they formed and how they were named.

“It was cool to see what was here millions of years ago.”

Like the students, NASA and ESA scientists were familiarising themselves with the rocks and fossils in Pilbara – which are the same kind of rocks they will look for on Mars. Their specialist training was led by UNSW Science Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology.

“When Perseverance reaches the red planet, it will look for rocks are a bit older than three-and-a-half billion years old – a similar age as the rocks in Pilbara,” says Teece.

“Rocks that age will be the most likely candidates for life on Mars.”

Lessons by the campfire

Fieldwork aside, Steller and Teece were eager to show students just how fun life as a scientist can be.

“Being an astrobiologist isn’t just about looking at rocks, but the whole experience of science,” says Steller. “Sometimes this includes camping around the fire, sleeping in swags and meeting amazing land caretakers.

“We wanted to show the students that side of science, too.”

The group camped at a sandy billabong close to the fossil site. Like most camping trips, there were hiccups during the day – like getting bogged – followed by a night of stargazing and late-night chats by the campfire.

“The kids asked really insightful questions, like how big the universe is and what else is out there,” says Steller.

“It was good for the students to see that science doesn’t have all the answers, but we could try to understand those big, unknowable questions together.”

An astronomer from the Australian Indigenous Astronomy (AIA) network visited the group to discuss the rich history of Indigenous astronomy. Under the night sky, the students learnt how elders read the stars and how to spot certain constellations.

They also delved deeper into questions about the universe.

“Learning is an ongoing thing – it doesn’t get switched off after a 45-minute workshop,” says Steller.

“It can emerge in the conversations that happen around the campfire while looking up at the stars, or while making aliens out of clay.”

Students get hands-on fossil hunting experience in Pilbara
Image credit: UNSW

Answering big questions

The students’ response to the field trip motivated Teece and Steller to bring similar experiences to a broader audience.

The researchers are partnering up again to deliver a series of free online science workshops as part of National Science Week (15-23 August 2020).

“Our next project, Praxical, is based on the philosophy that the best way to learn science is to do science,” says Teece.

“In our National Science Week workshops, participants will get hands-on experience and learn the same way scientists do.”

Ms Bonnie Teece and Mr Luke Steller at the NASA and ESA student workshop.
Image credit: UNSW

The workshops, in partnership with ANSTO and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, will explore questions like ‘What do scientists look for when trying to find other planets suitable for life?’, ‘What can air pollution data tell us about the world around us?’, and ‘How do ecologists decide what bushland to protect?’

There will also be a version of the workshop aimed specifically at teachers.

“Out in the Pilbara we saw the real educational value of students studying fossils firsthand,” says Steller.

“Actually doing science yourself – rather than just reading about it – can make such a difference.”

Years: 7 – 10

Login or Sign up for FREE to download an interactive student activity to accompany this article.

Topics:

Biological Sciences –  Evolution, Living Things

Earth and Space Sciences – The Changing Earth

Additional: Careers, Technology

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Interdependence and Ecosystems, Form and Function, Diversity and Evolution

Earth and Space Sciences – The Earth’s Surface