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Astronomy Students Study Extraterrestrial Life With Interdisciplinary Focus

While most people would imagine astronomy as a purely physical science, it can be interdisciplinary as well, if the topic is extraterrestrial life. Dr. Jeff Goldader’s junior and senior Astronomy elective this year has been focusing on the possibility of the existence and consequences of the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Based on a course he took in college, Dr. Goldader’s class builds on the latest discoveries in astronomy and uses connections with other fields to help students construct a picture that goes far beyond most astronomy classes. “When I took ‘Life in the Universe’ in college, we had not discovered any planets outside our solar system. Today, we know of more than 4,000 planets orbiting other stars, with thousands of candidates still being evaluated,” explained Dr. Goldader. Engineers are designing telescopes that will be able to search for evidence of life on many of these worlds. We need to think seriously about whether life elsewhere is likely, and what would happen if we found it.”
Many teachers generously gave of their time to spend a period with the astronomy class. History Department Chair Dr. Matthew Bunn used the conflict between the Aztec empire and Cortez as an example of what happens when civilizations with very different levels of technology encounter each other. If we one day encounter a species without language, Art teacher Kenny Delio showed how we can use art to communicate without words. English teacher Dr. Sherry Forste-Grupp talked about how we can “share our story” with other cultures, using episodes from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to prompt discussion of stories that transcend cultures. Languages Department Chair Josiane Mariette talked about common features of human languages. Upper School Head Christie Reed, who was a long-time biology teacher at Baldwin, visited to talk about early life on Earth.
Dr. Goldader reflects, “It’s been a dream of mine to teach a course like this. With knowledgeable colleagues willing to contribute their expertise, students in our class have seen the many ways disciplines need to collaborate to properly address such a fascinating topic.”