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Alien help makes science homework fun 

Monday 2 March 2020 5:19pm

While it’s unlikely an alien will actually help them with their homework, an Otago academic and her PhD student hope the premise for their new science learning book makes the subject accessible for young terrestrial readers.

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Professor Lisa Smith

Professor Lisa Smith, a former Social Sciences Head and College of Education Dean, has teamed up with her PhD student Kimberly Arcand (Visualization Lead for NASA's Chandra Xray Observatory) to produce An Alien Helped Me With My Homework!

The book has recently been released via Amazon, Nook, and Apple.

“Kim and I brought in 10 years of our research in aesthetics and astronomy to make an engaging and factual story for readers aged between eight and 12 years – well, factual except for the alien part,” Professor Smith says.

The book’s premise is that 11-year-old Jackson Bishop, better known as Jax, has left writing a report on space until his school break. On starting his laptop he connects with Zaria from the planet ZX55A. Zaria has to interview an Earthling for a report about Earth.

The two decide to collaborate, with Zaria telling Jax about space and Jax telling Zaria about Earth.

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“Along the way, they make the science come to life. Zaria turns Jax’s room into a black hole and demonstrates exploding stars, and Jax shows how a volcano erupts and creates a hurricane in a bottle. They continue to go back and forth, and come to realize that the events they are describing for each other are not happening in isolation but mutually affect the Earth and the Universe.”

Other characters in the book include Clara, Jax’s widowed mother; Gwen, his 13-year-old sister and her best friend, Ellie; Jax’s best friend, Jefferson; and Ollie, Jax’s big shaggy dog who can communicate with Zaria.

Lighter moments and banter between the characters balance well with its educational content, which includes 35 high-resolution images from NASA and other organizations, and black and white comic-style illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

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Kimberly Arcand

The book’s science information has been fact checked by a leading astrophysicist and important words and concepts – such the categories of black holes – are italicized in the text and defined in a glossary.

Thought-provoking concepts and interesting additional facts are provided in star-shaped inserts in the margins.

“Each chapter ends with a simple simulation that the reader can try. By drawing on our research and expertise as science educators and communicators, along with some amazing resources and illustrations, we hope young readers see that science can be very accessible, engaging, and fun,” Smith says.