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Lyons Township High School teachers prepare to share extra terrestrial experience

Lyons Township High School science teachers  Kevin Murphy, left and Mark Kienzynski, take a break with Dana Backman, the author of a textbook the teachers are using.  | Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy
Lyons Township High School science teachers Mark Kienzynski, left, and Kevin Murphy attended a summer conference on astrobiology, or the study of extraterrestrial life. | Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy
Lyons Township High School science teacher Mark Kienzynski workis in a lab during a summer program on astrobiology. | Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy
Lyons Township High School science teachers Mark Kienzynski, left, and Kevin Murphy work in a lab during a summer program on astrobiology. | Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

Even without the chance to meet Hollywood’s E.T., two Lyons Township High School science teachers found a summer conference on extra terrestrial life enriching.

Kevin Murphy and Mark Kienzynski, who teach physics and astronomy at LT, were selected in May to attend the Astrobiology Summer Science Experience for Teachers in California.

“There are a few topics students always want to talk about — black holes, the Big Bang and life in the universe,” Murphy said. “The field of astrobiology is rather new, so Mark and I both wanted to learn more.”

The summer program included daily lectures and discussions with prominent scientists involved in the Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, NASA and the California Academy of Sciences.

One of the speakers was Jill Tarter, the astronomer on whom Jodie Foster’s character was based in the film, “Contact,” Murphy said.

“I was surprised at the variety of scientists involved in the SETI program,” he said. “We met people involved in geology, genetics, history, engineering, etc.”

The two teachers also said they were pleased to meet Dana Backman, the author of a new textbook adopted for LT astronomy students this year. Backman is director of outreach for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory of Infrared Astronomy at the SETI Institute.

“We spent a great deal of time discussing his ideas of an introductory course, and we continue to correspond with him,” Murphy said.

Hollywood’s many images of aliens likely come to mind when students think of extra terrestrial life.

“Our point is to show how unimaginative most portrayals are,” Murphy said. “Life elsewhere is likely far stranger than we can imagine.”

But for the record, there is no evidence of extra terrestrial life, he said.

“Science is a process by which we try to answer that question, ‘Are we alone in the universe,’” he said.

Murphy, a teacher at LT since 1991, and Kienzynski, who came to the high school in 1995, said they are adjusting their astronomy course to make room at the end for an expanded unit on astrobiology.

One of the tasks students have been undertaking for the unit is analyzing data from the Kepler mission, NASA’s search for habitable planets. Discoveries so far have documented hundreds of suitable planets outside our solar system.

“While we spend some time on what life elsewhere might look like, we spend more time on the conditions necessary for life,” Murphy explained.

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