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        Extreme Living

        Using cards that show extremophiles and some of Earth’s extreme environments, students match a microbe to an extreme environment in which it could live.

        Lesson Summary


        Using cards that show extremophiles and some of Earth’s extreme environments, students match a microbe to a place where it could live. They discuss whether life could exist beyond Earth, based on the idea that Earth has organisms that live in conditions comparable to ones found elsewhere in the solar system.

        This activity was adapted from:
        Where Does Life Live? | NASA
        Activity 6 in NASA’s Astrobiology Science Learning Activities for Afterschool Educator Resource Guide, pages 22–24.
        Produced by the American Museum of Natural History for NASA.


        • Learn that on Earth, microbes thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions
        • Understand that since similar conditions have been detected or inferred on other planets or moons, microbes might live there as well

        Grade Level: 1-6

        Suggested Time

        • One class period (approx. 15 minutes)

        Media Resources



        One set per team of 2 to 4 students:

        Before the Lesson

        The Lesson

        Part I: Engage

        1. Ask:

        • What’s the hottest place you’ve ever been to? Coldest? Saltiest? (Possible answers include: A place in summer, a hot tub, a hot climate, a desert, a boiler room; a place in winter, a cold climate, a walk-in freezer; the ocean, the Great Salt Lake, a bath with bath salts.) Use the Extreme Living presentation slides to visually accompany your presentation as you engage your students.
        • Name some organisms that live in hot, cold, and salty places. (Plants, animals, microbes.)

        Part II: Facilitate

        2. Tell students that some organisms thrive in places with amazingly harsh conditions. Some of the hardiest ones are microbes. Microbes are tiny—only as big as one cell. Students might be familiar with the term bacteria, which is one kind of microbe. Most microbes are harmless. In fact, many help us in important ways, like helping us digest our food. We call microbes that make us sick germs. In this activity, students will explore some harsh environments and meet some microbes that live there.

        3. Play the game:

        • Use the Extreme Living presentation slides as you explain how to play the game.
        • Give each team a set of Can Living Things Live Here? (PDF) cards. Ask them to sort them into two piles: “Life could live here” and “Life could not live here.”
        • Once sorted, have teams discuss what pile they assigned each card/location to and why. Are there places that teams didn’t agree on?
        • Hand out the Extreme Life (PDF) cards. Have students match the microbe to its environment.

        Check for Understanding


        • Which life forms matched up with which environments?
        • Did any matches between the environments and life forms surprise you? Why or why not?
        • What kinds of organisms seem to be tough enough to live in extreme conditions? (Microbes)
        • What do you think finding life in these extreme environments on Earth means with regards to where we can look for life on other planets and moons of the solar system?

        Show the related NOVA video resources and use the provided discussion questions to visit some extreme environments on Earth and join in the search for life.

        Keep Exploring

        Play concentration (Optional)

        Shuffle two sets of cards and place them face down in rows. The person to the left of the dealer turns over two cards. If the cards show a life form and the environment in which it lives, the person takes the pair and turns over two more cards. If the cards don't match, the person turns them face down again and the person to the left continues the play. Play until all cards have been matched. The winner is the one with the most pairs of cards.

        Play the "Life on the Edge" card game from NASA's Astrobiology Institute (Optional)

        This game is similar to "Extreme Living," but it adds a third kind of card—examples of conditions on Mars and Europa that may be similar to conditions on Earth. Students play concentration, making books of three kinds of cards: an "Organism" card, an "Earth Habitat" card, and a "Possible Extraterrestrial Habitat" card. Find the instructions and cards on pages 45-48 of the Astrobiology Institute's Life on Earth... and Elsewhere? Educator Resource Guide.


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