Extrasolar Lesson Plans

Extrasolar isn’t quite like any game out there. On one hand, it’s a realistic simulation of what it might be like to explore a planet with life outside of our solar system. On the other hand, we keep players on the edge of their seat by weaving in a story of conspiracy where you’re forced to choose allegiances between the fictional company running the expedition and Kryptex81, a mysterious hacker who gets you into the program.

If you buy Extrasolar for your classroom through Edmodo, you can take advantage of new tools that we've added to help you track the progress of all the students in your class.

Since you can play all of season 1 for free, I encourage you, as a teacher, to take a peek so that you know what you’re getting into. You can sign up now at https://extrasolar.com.

  • What to expect

    The core mechanic in Extrasolar is simple: Using a map interface, tell your rover where you want it to go, what time of day you want your photo, and what direction you want to aim your rover’s camera. Hours later, when your rover arrives at that destination and transmits the image data back to Earth, you’ll be asked to tag areas of interest in your photos to identify species and alert the science team to new discoveries.

    In the same way that NASA explores Mars, exploring Epsilon Eridani e will require time and patience. At a minimum, it will take your rover an hour to reach its next destination and transmit the data back to Earth. Some of the tools that you’re using to gather information will fail and the research team will be forced to fall back on old fashioned observation techniques to learn about entirely new biological kingdoms.

    We expect that Extrasolar will be fun for players from about 7th grade and up, but I should warn you that some of the blog posts, in particular, are written with a college-level vocabulary, including a lot of biological terms. It’s not critical that readers understand every word. These posts are never more than few paragraphs and a 7th grader should understand enough to get the basics. These blog posts should serve as a gateway to discussion questions, listed in a later section.

  • How to Play

    When new players first sign up, a typical gameplay session lasts about 20 minutes. Later gameplay sessions can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how many new messages are triggered by the player’s actions.

    If you’re playing Extrasolar in your classroom, I suggest setting aside a 20-minute session during class the first time your students start playing and a 10-minute session at the end of future class periods.

    Some messages from the characters will include audio and video files, so I recommend having headphones on all computers.

    It’s also possible to play the game with a single account -- you can even share a free account. If you take this approach, you can read messages and watch videos together. At the end of each session, encourage students to help plan where they want to send the rover next.

  • Tools for teachers

    If you purchase Extrasolar for your classroom through Edmodo, then you’ll get a special monitoring interface when you connect to the app. By clicking the “Class” tab at the top of your screen, you’ll be able to see stats for all of your students.

    The last 4 columns reference blog posts that players will encounter within the game. These posts are written by a real biologist named Jane Van Susteren, who plays a character named Jane Eastwood within the game. When most of the class has seen the blog post, we encourage discussion on the topic that’s covered. Use the next section as a guide to get you started.

  • Discussion topics

    At the start of the game

    Q (Astronomy and Physics): A mission to an extrasolar planet would be so cool! Why haven’t we done this in real life?

    A: We can’t get there fast enough. Our planet orbits Epsilon Eridani, which is about 10.5 light years from here. If we were to travel at the speed of the Voyager probes -- 17km per second -- it would still take about 180,000 years to reach that star system. The closest known exoplanet orbits Alpha Centauri at a distance of 4.36 light years. At the speed of the Voyager probes, that’s still 77,000 years.

    Also, communications would be a big problem. Radio communications are limited at the speed of light, so a round-trip message to Epsilon Eridani would take 21 years and a round-trip message to Alpha Centauri would take 8.7 years.

    After most of the class has seen blog post 1, an introduction to exobiology

    Q (Biology): What are the essential characteristics of life that we might expect to see if we were to find creatures on another planet?

    A: The ability to harness energy (could be through photosynthesis, chemical reactions, or something else), the ability to grow, and the ability to reproduce.

    Follow-up Q (Biology): Where do species on Earth get their energy? Are there species on Earth that violate the energy patterns that we typically see?

    A: Plants get their energy from the sun and animals get their energy by eating plants or other animals. But even on Earth, creatures can get energy from a variety of different sources. For instance, there are extremophiles (organisms that live in extreme conditions) that get their energy directly from inorganic mineral compounds.

    Q (Biology): In one of your first missions, the team biologist Jane Eastwood explains you that it would be incorrect to refer to any of the species that you see on Epsilon Eridani e as “plants” and encourages you to instead use a term that she makes up -- “photobionts”. They look like plants, so why isn’t it scientifically correct to call them plants?

    A: Species in the plant kingdom on Earth are all related to a common evolutionary ancestor. Since the species on Epsilon Eridani e have evolved independently, they don’t share any of the ancestors of the plant kingdom.

    Q (Biology): Almost none of the species on Epsilon Eridani e are green in color. Why is this surprising and what might be your hypothesis about how species get energy for life?

    A: On Earth, chlorophyll a is one of the principle molecules used for photosynthesis. It reflects a green color, giving plants their characteristic green look. Since we don’t see green on Epsilon Eridani e, we can hypothesize that the species get their energy from somewhere else -- it could be a different molecule that they use for photosynthesis, or it might be that they get their energy from some other source entirely.

    After most of the class has seen blog post 2, visual techniques for biological classification

    Q (Biology): What might a microscope be able to tell us about life on another planet?

    A: It will help us determine if the life has a cellular structure and possibly if different cells within an organism are specialized.

    Q (Biology): In the absence of sophisticated scientific tools and using only simple visual observations, is there much that we can learn about a species?

    A: Tons! With careful observation, we can learn where a species gets its nutrients, how it reproduces, how its appearance changes as it ages, whether it has any predators, and much more. After all, there was a time before scientists had DNA sequencers and spectrometers and they still managed to learn a great deal about life on Earth.

    After most of the class has seen blog post 3, species variation

    Q (Biology): It appears that there may be two different variants of bristletongues on the island -- on variant with long necks and one with short necks. Why might each variant be better-suited to a particular ecological niche?

    A: A long-necked species may have an easier time getting nutrients from high places, whereas a short-necked species might be less vulnerable to attack and better able to get nutrients from low places.

    Q (Biology): What role does geographic isolation play in allowing a species to split into two variants?

    A: Different geographic locations may have different evolutionary pressures that cause a species to evolve in different ways. For instance, as discussed in Jane’s blog post, Darwin theorized that when finches were introduced to a new island of the Galapagos, there were several plants with large seeds that weren’t being consumed by any species. Finches with larger beaks that were big and strong enough to eat these big seeds had an evolutionary advantage that allowed them to fill an otherwise unoccupied niche on the island.

    After most of the class has seen blog post 4, an convergent evolution

    Q (Biology): If the species on Epsilon Eridani e evolved independently from species on Earth, then why do some of the photobionts look so similar to Earth plants?

    A: The evolutionary pressures on Epsilon Eridani e are similar to those on Earth. Species need to harness energy, replicate, conserve resources, and defend against predators. The result is that species on both planets may evolve similar structures. This is known as convergent evolution.

    Q (Biology): If we observe thorns on an Earth plant or an alien photobiont, can we make any assumptions about the evolutionary pressures that may have driven the evolutionary process to result in that feature?

    A: Thorns might mean that the plant or photobiont had predators. The thorns could have evolved as a defense mechanism. There are also other possible explanations -- features that look like thorns may help collect moisture from the air, allow for more efficient gas exchange by increasing surface area, or provide some other benefit.

    Discussion topics for any time

    Q (Astronomy): If you look closely at your night photos, you may recognize some familiar constellations that look almost identical to the constellations that you would see here on earth. That may seem surprising since the planet that you’re exploring orbits a star -- Epsilon Eridani -- that is nearly 10.5 light years (100 trillion kilometers) away. Why would the night sky look so similar to ours?

    A: 10.5 light years may seem like a huge distance -- and it is -- but relative to the size of the milky way galaxy, it’s hardly any distance at all. The Milky Way is more than 100,000 light years across. By comparison, the closest star to Earth -- Proxima Centauri -- is 4.2 light years away. If you were to travel 10.5 light years, only a few stars would appear to noticeably change their position.

  • The Story Arc

    If you're using Extrasolar in a classroom setting, then you probably want to know up front what will unfold in the story. This section will be jam-packed with spoilers! Are you absolutely certain you want to continue? You've been warned.

    From the very beginning, nothing goes quite as expected. When you apply to be a rover driver, you get a notice saying that the system is over capacity and that you should keep an eye on your email for openings. A few minutes later, a mysterious hacker emails you with an offer to get you in through a back door. In exchange, the hacker expects you to be their "eyes and ears on the inside."

    Within the science team, there are 2 primary characters who are assigning missions to you. Dr. Robert Turing tasks you with exploration missions and biologist Jane Eastwood gives you biology missions. Jane's missions contain a lot of the science content but are not essential for completing the story.

    In one of your first missions, Turing asks you to check out a reflective object. But once you arrive and photograph the bizarre object, Turing seems to be quite uncomfortable and sends you in a different direction. It's not clear at first, but it soon starts to become clear that this planet has remnants of an alien civilization.

    Your exploration has its share of complications. In the process, you end up destroying a couple of rovers and Jane accidentally damages some of the scientific equipment on the landing module. You make do with what you have and, as is often the case with real science, you end up learning quite a bit from your mistakes.

    Over time, you start to learn more about the hacker who got you into the program. You first learn that they believe that their father was killed when he stumbled on information about how Extrasolar was financed. He believed that it had been funded as a government defense initiative with ulterior motives. You later learn that the hacker is a young woman and, when you see her for the first time in a video message, that she's African American.

    At the conclusion of season 1, there are some big reveals -- one having to do with the hacker's father and another having to do with the possibility of intelligent life on the planet. But I'll save those for when you actually play Extrasolar yourself.

  • Contact Us

    We’re passionate about science and hope to inspire a new generation of young scientists! If you find errors in our lesson plans, you’re using Extrasolar in a different way, or you have ideas about how we could improve the game or this document, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Send an email to Lazy 8 Studios founder Rob Jagnow at rob@lazy8studios.com.

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