Cultures of the Imagination
COTI Junior High School

Smithsonian Funds "COTI Jr." Project
Greg Barr [© CONTACT Newsletter, Vol 1, # 2, March 1990]

The Office of Interdisciplinary Studies of the Smithsonian Institution has agreed to provide a $6250 grant to CONTACT in order to fund a pilot educational project to develop the Cultures of the Imagination simulation as part of an intermediate school level curriculum.

CONTACT would like to acknowledge Wilton Dillon, Neil Kotler and George Robinson of the Smithsonian Institution for their support and interest in this project. CONTACT participants are Darlene Thomas, Consulting Anthropologist, Barbara Sprungman, Science Curriculum Specialist, and Greg Barr, CONTACT CEO. Rely Rodriguez, Science Supervisor for Area Two, as well as Math and Science Department Chairmen, Kim Cox, Louise Morello, James McMillan, and Kitty Lou Smith are making the project a reality for the children of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.

A Motivational Tool:

Cultures of the Imagination is unique in its ability to stimulate cross-disciplinary research and co-operation in a single exercise. The creation of a futuristic human culture and an alien life-form demands a synergistic effort from both the so-called "soft" and "hard" sciences. In addition, it requires the support of creative individuals from all artistic disciplines to construct the visible image of both the human and alien cultures.

To participate in COTI, students are asked to specialize in a particular discipline while maintaining a high level of awareness of how their discipline interacts with others. They will become more and more involved in preparing for the final role-playing simulation where they will tangibly experience how all the elements they have created come together.

Cultures of the Imagination is a highly exciting learning process which can be used effectively to stimulate latent student interest in every discipline. In order to devise believable future human and alien civilizations, the students must learn and apply the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. In creating these future human and alien cultures they will acquire a basic understanding of the principles of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. They will need to master the concepts of history and language. They will become familiar with space-age technologies. Finally, students will be encouraged to develop their creative and artistic abilities to illustrate the beings and cultures they help to design. In the process of making contact between the cultures of their imagining they will be stimulated to learn how to learn and they will learn the values of cultural diversity, positive communication and teamwork.


CONTACT is working with the teachers and administration of Fairfax County Public Schools to develop a pilot program which could be used to bring the Cultures of the Imagination experience to students at the intermediate school educational level.

The purpose of this pilot is to understand the best mechanisms by which COTI can be integrated into a school's curriculum and obtain the maximum involvement from students and teachers in all fields of study. In order to achieve this understanding, a teacher's guide, objectives, procedures, materials, and evaluation process will be developed. The pilot COTI Jr. program would establish the criteria by which pedagogical values could be evaluated by faculty, administration and parents. In addition, we would be creating the foundation materials for publications and audio-visual aids that could be used to distribute the program nationally.

It is also the intention of CONTACT to make a videotaped documentary of the process of creating the COTI Jr. pilot program and the actual implementation of the program itself in a classroom situation. This production would serve to chronicle and evaluate the program, make fundraising presentations, and provide an introduction to the educational applications of the curriculum materials.

Curriculum supervisors and teachers from the Area Two Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have already agreed to introduce COTI Jr. to a selected group of pupils beginning in early 1990. Fairfax County has introduced a seventh period hour to their intermediate schools starting in September 1990. Administrators have already indicated that COTI Jr. may be an appropriate year-long, elective course if our Phase I pilot proves successful.

COTI Jr. Pilot - A Success:
Greg Barr [© CONTACT Newsletter, Vol I, #4, September 1990]

The COTI Jr. pilot program involved twenty-five eighth grade students and four teachers from both Frost and Poe Intermediate Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia from January to June, 1990. Participation in the program was entirely voluntary and involved extracurricular research and numerous group meetings during which alien planets, extraterrestrial life-forms, multi-generation fusion starships, and even a six-city lunar colony were developed. The children prepared drawings, reports, and science fair quality presentations in preparation for their final face- to-face contact between human cultures of the future and hypothetical alien cultures.

Each meeting reflected the unique blend of personalities and cultural backgrounds of the participating students. The group from Frost were unable to establish conclusive communication within the time allowed for their encounter. On the other hand, the smaller group at Poe, after arousing the curiosity of the alien natives with a series of probes and offerings, succeeded in having their cautious two-man contact team captured by the aborigines as food-providers. Throughout the project the students maintained a very high level of interest and enthusiasm which carried through to the final dramatic encounter. Their group meetings were characterized by animated discussion of the issues. At least one student who had exhibited a reluctance to do library research changed his attitude in order to bring new knowledge to his teammates.

Final Presentation:

To fulfill our co-sponsorship role with the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, CONTACT presented the results of the COTI Jr. pilot at a day-long seminar in the teacher briefing room of the National Air and Space Museum. Over forty intermediate school teachers and supervisors from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, along with representatives from the National Science Foundation and National Science Teachers Association were in attendance.

The program began with an outstanding lecture on astronomy by Jeff Goldstein from the Laboratory for Astrophysics of the museum. His clear and excellent illustrations of the scale of the universe and the types of stars that populate it provided the teachers with the context in which the students must operate in order to satisfy the objectives of COTI jr.

Kim Cox, the teacher who led the COTI Jr. program at Frost Intermediate School, discussed her experience in the classroom. She fielded questions from her peers and made a strong case for the benefits of creating a formal curriculum from this project. The teachers were then shown a short video presentation of the children in action as well as responding to interview questions about their reaction to COTI jr.

The program concluded with a presentation by COTI Jr. advisor, Mr. George S. Robinson, Associate Legal Counsel of the Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Robinson is the author of Envoys of Mankind in which he discusses the ethical and jurisprudential aspects of humanity's migration into space. Mr. Robinson endorsed the goals and objectives of COTI Jr. and stressed the program's ability to introduce ethical values into the learning process.

As a result of this final presentation, Betty Shea of the Washington Irving School in Springfield, Virginia, and Dr. Russell Wright, science supervisor for Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, are undertaking COTI Jr. programs within their schools. In addition, CONTACT has been invited to have a COTI Jr. workshop at the math and science teacher's academy reunion sponsored by the Maryland State Board of Education in October.

COTI Jr. Toolbox:

CONTACT is currently seeking funds to prepare instructional tools that can be used as resources for teachers and students who are undertaking the COTI Jr. curriculum. The centerpiece of these elements is a set of looseleaf documents providing guidelines and resources supporting the course objectives. The two main sections are the Teacher's Master Guide and the Student Resource Handouts. Each of these sections is organized into educational units matching the course outline.

The Teacher's Master Guide will contain suggested student activities and a set of questions and answers designed to stimulate discussion. It will also include a suggested bibliography and a guide to available resources on the various topics. The Student Resource Handouts will contain an outline of each area the students are expected to cover before moving on to the next unit. It will also provide a list of materials that the students are expected to produce. This document would be written by experts in all the fields covered, reviewed by an educational psychologist, and edited for publication by at least two educational specialists in the fields of space science and anthropology.

CONTACT is currently producing a newsletter which publishes columns that are written for teachers and students and treat subjects such as how to build a realistic planetary system or how to create a model globe using easily available resources. As an additional resource, CONTACT is proposing a science fact and science fiction anthology that can serve as a primer. The idea is that a collection of fact articles about world-building and culture creation would be illustrated by related fiction stories that show how altering certain building blocks can affect the overall structure being created. Student readers are given immediate examples of how a single change in the environment can affect a total system.

Another element in the toolbox that CONTACT is proposing is a series of video episodes which can be screened prior to moving the students into a new unit or major unit subdivision. This video series would be produced to engage the students enthusiasm for the next phase of the curriculum as well as give them living illustrations of the kinds of creations, both physical and biological, that meet the curriculum criteria of realism and faithfulness to the body of scientific knowledge.

Finally, efforts are underway to produce interactive computer software that would allow students to visualize and create elements of their simulation for their fellow teammates. These programs would present students with the basic knowledge necessary to their world-building and culture-creating exercises, allow them to attempt to integrate the elements they select, and point out problems and errors when they try to integrate disparate elements.

Notes on COTI Jr.
Louise Morello, Poe Intermediate School

The students were already involved in other activities when the project started. This caused several who were interested not to stay involved because this is not the type of activity which can be done on a "drop in" basis. Some of the students who stayed with the project were pulled between CONTACT and other interests; thus not as much work went into the project as would have been desired.

Students who liked this project were students of at least high average to well above average ability. The majority were from the school based Gifted-Talented class. The others were from average classes but were the top students in the class. Most of the students were boys. I cannot explain this.

The students liked the creative part best. They liked being given very few guidelines, with little teacher direction. Since it was an after school activity and not part of a class, they felt that it should be fun. Resistance came when students understood that research was required. They had very little background information to build on because our program of studies does not include space science, astronomy, geology or basic biology until the ninth and tenth grades.


If this is done as an after school activity, it should be started as early in the school year as possible. It should have at least a science teacher and a social studies teacher as team sponsors. An art and music teacher would be good additions. Students should not be involved in many other activities so that they can attend all meetings and have time to work on their own to do the necessary research.

Students should work in teams. The team should not include more than four people. No one student should be allowed to dominate.

Teachers need sources for students to contact for information and advice. The process should be kept as simple as possible. Students at this age are still shy about contacting "experts."

CONTACT would fit well as a unit for a middle school or any school where "core" teachers work together (e.g. math, science, social studies, and English). It would be even better if the art, music, industrial arts, and home economics teachers could also be part of the team or at least be available to work with students when needed.

In some schools this might work best at the ninth grade level. All of my students were eighth grade. Several seventh grade students were present for the introduction but none chose to stay involved.

NASA Contracts Contact
Greg Barr [© CONTACT Newsletter, Vol II, # 2, Spring 91]

Dr. Eddie Anderson, Chief of Elementary & Secondary Education Programs at NASA, has provided a small grant to fund our Cultures of the Imagination (COTI) Junior High School project. CONTACT is currently running COTI Jr. at Earle B. Wood Middle School, Rockville, Maryland. Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of Mrs. Nell Jeter and Mrs. Sheila Shillinger, both science teachers, nearly 300 eighth grade students are creating human and alien cultures for a June contact.

After an initial presentation by Greg Barr, the students began working on the alien star system and planet. After a special presentation on astrophysics, Jeff Goldstein of the National Air & Space Museum will review what the students have developed. Leonard David, former staff member of the 1986 National Commission on Space, and Barbara Sprungman, science curriculum developer, will brief the students on space technology. From the National Museum of Natural History, Jake Homiak will talk about Rastafarian culture to illustrate cultural attributes that the alien design team should take into consideration.

The knowledge acquired during this trial program, coupled with last year's COTI Jr. in Fairfax County, Virginia, will provide the basis for a report on how NASA could incorporate Contact's curriculum into existing NASA educational programs that focus on space science and exploration.

Maryland Students Survive First Contact
Greg Barr [© CONTACT Newsletter, Vol III, # 1, Winter 1991]

Over two hundred eighth grade Earth science students at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville, Maryland, experienced the excitement and the challenge of making first contact with an alien culture. This CONTACT curriculum was initiated in the spring of 1991 by two dedicated science teachers, Nel Jeter and Sheila Shillinger. It was a continuation of the curriculum design effort co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Interdisciplinary Studies. This has now received additional support from NASA's Education Division.

This year's exercise differed considerably from the first pilot in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia. The 1990 activity was held in two different schools, Poe and Frost Intermediate, as an extracurricular elective. A total of forty students participated. Each school had one alien team and one human team. At Wood Middle School, the CONTACT simulation was integrated into the children's regular curriculum and was graded as part of their academic accomplishments for the year. This was the first time that young participants who were not all volunteers worked on CONTACT program.

Each teacher turned an entire class into either an alien or a human team. Alternating each of their science class periods as either alien or human, Nel would be having an alien team working while, in the other class of that same period, Sheila was supervising a human team. The actual CONTACT simulations, one for each class period, were held between these two teams from different science classrooms.

The pilot program began in early February as a once a week session. By the time the CONTACT simulation approached in May, the children worked on CONTACT twice a week and sometimes more often. Throughout the project, the children at Earle B. Wood middle school benefitted from an "Adopt-A-School" partnership with IBM Federal Systems Division. IBM employees were volunteering, under a program sponsored by the company, to serve as mentors to the science classes. These mentors had no prior knowledge of the CONTACT exercise and became enthusiastic supporters of the program. In fact, Maye Van Arsdel, a principal organizer of the IBM program, has initiated a complimentary series of exercises geared to helping students participating in the 1992 CONTACT exercise acquire better presentation skills, understand conflict negotiation, and learn the rudiments of project management.

Beginning with the outline in the CONTACT Cultures of the Imagination Curriculum - Proposal, which is currently seeking funding for development, the teachers guided the activities of student groups of aliens and humans. Greg Barr organized speakers to make presentations to the students, and Barbara Sprungman provided printed resource materials.

Applying the knowledge previously acquired in their studies of astronomy, students first selected a star. Students from the alien culture worked in groups to design their planet - location in their solar system, size, surface features and water-like substances, and the atmosphere's chemical composition.

Life forms - both plant and animal - and intelligent beings were then created, including their internal physiology and their interactions on the planet. A history was written, available technology outlined, and cultural aspects - including language, methods of communication, and traditions - of the aliens were discussed and decided upon.

Another group developed possible methods of communicating with the humans for when they made first contact. At the same time, classes that had taken on the guise of humans about one hundred years in the future were studying what technologies might be available at that time. They were designing their spacecraft, deciding on criteria for crew selection and necessary supplies and resources.

Each group presented their research and outlined their plans to the class. Visual aids were created, including three dimensional models of the planets. The culminating activity was contact between the two cultures. Some groups presented flowers to their new-found friends, others money. Students experimented with various methods of communication including sign language. (Several of the students in different classes use signing as their primary language.)

Overall the Rockville CONTACT pilot was very successful, but it also made obvious the necessity to acquire funding to write the background information, and design a more formal curriculum. The Wood Middle School teachers will be implementing another pilot of the CONTACT curriculum with their Earth science students again next spring. More specific printed and visual resource materials will be provided. The teachers are also requesting that knowledgeable people from various academic disciplines make themselves available for students to contact in a timely manner with questions about their projects.

Curriculum Evaluation:

The teachers and students in the Earle B. Wood Middle School program were asked to evaluate their experience with the CONTACT Cultures of the Imagination curriculum. The teachers made the following comments:

What was learned and what objectives were achieved?
  • An appreciation of one's own culture by considering a totally different culture.
  • Instilled a global view in each student
  • Students learned to work in a group and share responsibilities
  • Students gained experience working between groups and classes
  • Practical applications for astronomy, math, art, sociology, biology, technology and other disciplines were provided
  • Presentation skills were developed, both within groups and to the class oEveryone had fun while learning
Why do it again?
  • It provides stimulating challenges for both students and teachers.
  • The rewards of the experience apply to all skill levels, ethnic backgrounds and sexes.
  • It builds group skills and causes the students to rely on each other in order to make progress.
  • CONTACT catches the imagination of almost all associated in any way with the project.
  • Can accommodate almost any learning style.
  • Finding information on specific space topics, especially ship design, space law, life support systems, robotics, energy sources, artificial gravity, planetary biology, human logistics of space flight, space communication, alien communication, navigation, off-planet construction techniques (space station, Moonbase, etc.) in current readable texts is difficult.
  • Group work is time consuming for teachers and students. Not enough class time allowed for the actual contact betweengroups.
  • Coordination of meaningful interesting speakers and topics (specific information useful in solving CONTACT problems) is hard.
  • Finding speakers who can work within the classroom period schedule to give repeated presentations to manageable groups of students.
  • Creating grading techniques that can be adjusted to accommodate group work.
What students wrote about CONTACT:
  • "It's a fun, interacting project that helps you to look into the future."
  • "It teaches teamwork and you learn from it. For the actual contact it might help if the aliens made costumes of what they really looked like."
  • "It took too much time and it was sort of boring."
  • "It makes you want to go to science."
  • "It would have been better if there was more time on meeting the aliens."
  • "The groups need more time to meet and do research."
  • "Our school is the only one sophisticated enough to handle it."
  • "I don't understand what we were supposed to learn... I didn't learn anything."
  • "I learned a lot about space and space travel and I thought it was interesting and fun."
  • "It makes you think hard. It's not an easy grade."
  • "You learn how much stuff you need to create a society and culture and how hard it is."
  • "I found it to be a chance to be creative."
  • "It will be helpful to later projects and jobs."
  • "Other schools might enjoy CONTACT if it was set up and prepared for better."
  • "Even though the project was difficult, when you consider everything, it was a new and enlightening experience."

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