Alien Minds: The Challenge of First Contact Revised Fall 2008 Course Description

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Syllabus - Alien Minds: The Challenge of First Contact Revised Fall 2008

Course Description:

Designed for grades 7-8, this course explores some of the challenges humans and aliens might encounter upon first contact. Human communication and understanding is often hampered by different ways of thinking, sensing, feeling, and expression. How much more difficult will it be to communicate and understand an alien race significantly different from our own? The class will consider ways science fiction authors have bridged the communication gap between species and brought differing species into alliances. Students will create their own alien species and develop a communication method to bring understanding between their extraterrestrials and the inhabitants of earth.


Required Reading:

The Uplift Wars - by David Brin (Brin Website: http://www.davidbrin.com/)

A Fire Upon the Deep - by Vernor Vinge

Foreigner - by C.J. Cherryh (Cherryh Website: http://www.cherryh.com/)

Various Articles & Stories - Online



Optional Reading for Extending Understanding:

Speaker for the Dead - by Orson Scott Card

Xenocide - by Orson Scott Card (Card Website: http://www.hatrack.com/)

Startide Rising - by David Brin

Contact - by Carl Sagan

Vinge Interview: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2003/20030915/vinge.shtml



Google Images – Unknown Artist - Original painting Oil/canvas 1997

Wisconsin Curriculum Standards:

Standard A – Students will use effective reading strategies to interpret and critically analyze literature. Students will read to acquire information. Students will compare, contrast, and evaluate ideas within literary works.

Standard B – Students will use writing to communicate complex ideas. Students will write an expository piece with sufficient evidence to support its assertions, and sufficient detail, language, and organization to effectively communicating a difficult idea. Students will write creative fiction that includes characters, a coherent plot, effective imagery, descriptive language, and concrete detail.
Standard C – Students will orally communicate information, opinions and ideas effectively in class discussion and in class presentations.
Standard D – Students will use vocabulary commensurate to the level of the course.
Standard E – Students will use online technology to communicate with other students and to post assignments for the course.
Standard F – Students will compile, organize, and evaluate information collected in researching information to answer questions posed in the course.
WCATY Benchmarks

(73) Student’s work contained multiple, intriguing details closely connected to a clear theme/thesis. (All Work)


(79) This student not only provided high quality feedback to others, but also used feedback to develop their own thought process and writing style. (All Work)
(18) This student envisioned items, sounds, places, or events in his/her mind, which helped him/her to add detail and quality to his/her end product. (Alien Species Development)
(25) This student matched known procedures, systems and/or principles together to create a new process, outcome, or product. (Alien Species Development)

(19) Through an understanding of function and projected outcome, this student asked ‘what if’ and deviated from known rules/procedures to see what alternative outcome would happen.

(Short Story)

(43) By gathering and organizing historical evidence, this student extrapolated theories and concepts about the patterns that exist in human experience. (Short Story)
(53) This student used knowledge of large trends to predict outcomes in smaller, more localized settings. (Short Story)
(23) This student employed the best format, tools, and materials to create his/her concept.

(Final Presentation)


All work - Thought Provokers, Weekly Writing Assignments, and Major Projects – will be evaluated with Benchmarks (73) & (79).
Coursework: A high level of thinking and writing is expected in ALL coursework!
Weekly Assignments
Thought Provoker – Each student will post a response to the weekly Thought Provoker. The response will answer the question posed and then support the answer with evidence, examples, explanations, or illustrations. When responding to each Thought Provoker, the student should answer the question then expand the answer in response to the ever-present second questions –WHY? Or HOW? Students are required to respond to at least one other student’s Thought Provoker posting each week.
Reading Assignments – A portion of the three required books will be assigned each week. Online reading will also be assigned. If a Thought Provoker or Writing Assignment requires research, additional reading to gather information will be expected.

Writing Assignments – In addition to the two major writing assignments for the course, weekly writing will be assigned. Weekly Writing Assignments will require full sentence, full paragraph, essay type responses. Most will be prompted by the reading assignments. Students are required to respond to at least one other student’s Writing Assignment posting each week.

Responses – Each week students need to respond to at least one other student’s Thought Provoker posting and one other student’s Writing Assignment posting. This response may be to ask the student a clarifying question, to offer further supportive evidence or examples, or to challenge the student’s answer. If the response is to challenge the other student’s ideas, the challenger needs to provide sufficient evidence or examples to support the challenge! Bring on the challengers!!!
* Students should post their own assignments first before responding to others!

Course Projects


Alien Species Development – (18) (25) An expository essay, due by the second f2f, will describe the discovery of an alien species. Students will develop distinctly alien beings. These sentient beings will be unable to use universal translators to communicate. Students will compare their extraterrestrials to earthlings and propose possible ways to bridge communication challenges between the two groups.
Short Story – (19) (43) (53) The second major writing project will be a creative story, due by the third f2f. Students will take the information presented in their Alien Species Development essay and use it as the inspiration for a short story about first contact between their alien species and human beings. The story will include two problems that must be overcome. The first will be a difficulty in basic communication and the second will be a challenge due to cultural differences.

Final Presentation – (23) During the final f2f all students will present their alien species to the class. Students may use a variety of creative avenues to present their extraterrestrial beings. Students, as representatives of their alien races, will be presented with an impromptu challenge. They will address the challenge as part of their presentation.

Weekly Outline

Week One: Jan. 26th-Feb. 1st
Thought Provoker – Which of the major senses – sight, hearing, touch, speech – when removed would cause the most challenges in communicating with other people? Why?

If you had to loose one of your major senses, which would you choose to loose? Why?


Respond to another student’s Thought Provoker post. You may ask the student a clarifying question, offer further supportive evidence or examples, or challenge the student’s answer. If the response is a challenge, the challenger needs to provide sufficient evidence or examples to support the challenge!
Reading Assignments – Read Chapters 1-42 in The Uplift War by David Brin,

Read: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/solresol.htm


Writing Assignment #1 DUE MIDWEEK!

Part A - David Brin does an amazing job of succinctly presenting a variety of aliens in the Prelude and Chapters 1-3 of The Uplift War. In paragraph or list form, describe the similarities and differences (physical, emotional, mental, or method of communication) between humans and the briefly introduced aliens; Gubrus, Synthians, Chims, Thennanins and Tymbrimis. This should not take you an inordinate amount of time. In addition to obvious similarities and differences, try to find subtle differences not mentioned by other students.

Part B - In Chapter 2, Athaclena is referring to humans when she thinks, “It might have helped if they were more alien… less like hulking, narrow-eyed, awkward versions of Tymbrimi.” Write a paragraph in response to the following question: After reading the prelude and first three chapters of the book, which species do you think you would be most comfortable being around? Why?

Writing Assignment #2 – Forum

Read about Solresol: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/solresol.htm



Choose one option:

#1. Research Francois Sudre. Provide two paragraphs of information about his life and work. DO NOT PLAGARISE! USE YOUR OWN WORDS AND IDEAS OR CITE YOUR SOURSES!!!! Describe the impetus behind Solresol. Describe ways Solresol could be used for people who are deaf, blind, or mute.

#2. Research Esperanto. DO NOT PLAGARISE! USE YOUR OWN WORDS AND IDEAS OR CITE YOUR SOURSES!!!! Describe the benefits and the disadvantages to Esperanto. How would you adapt Esperanto for people who are deaf, blind, or mute?

#3. Describe a universal language you would like to create. Which sense(s) would you use? Why? How would you adapt your international language for people who are deaf, blind, or mute?


Respond to another student’s Writing Assignment post. You may ask the student a clarifying question, offer further supportive evidence or examples, or challenge the student’s answer. If the response is a challenge, the challenger needs to provide sufficient evidence or examples to support the challenge!

Week Two: Feb. 2nd-6th
Thought Provoker – Humans claim to understand what their pets are communicating. How do animals communicate their needs and desires so humans can understand? Provide examples to support your claims.
Respond to another student’s Thought Provoker post. You may ask the student a clarifying question, offer further supportive evidence or examples, or challenge the student’s answer. If the response is a challenge, the challenger needs to provide sufficient evidence or examples to support the challenge!

Reading Assignments – Read Chapters 43-67 in The Uplift War by David Brin,

Read the main page: http://lifeboat.com/ex/alien.shield

Writing Assignment #1- As the book, The Uplift War, progresses and you get to know the aliens, which aspects of the different alien races seem most alien and which aspects seem most familiarly human? Why? Please explain your answer in depth! (Provide examples to illustrate your reasoning!)
Writing Assignment #2 – On the main page of the Lifeboat Foundation AlienShield website http://lifeboat.com/ex/alien.shield – several communication types are presented. First, explain which of the communication methods seem most promising and why. Second, suggest a procedure or order to try different communication methods upon first contact with aliens.
Respond to another student’s Writing Assignment post. You may ask the student a clarifying question, offer further supportive evidence or examples, or challenge the student’s answer. If the response is a challenge, the challenger needs to provide sufficient evidence or examples to support the challenge!
Week Three: Feb. 9th-13th
Thought Provoker - Research linguistic communication and paralinguistic communication. Which type of communication do you use the most? When? How?
Reading Assignment – Finish The Uplift War by David Brin,

Optional Reading Assignment - Read the Introduction - Test Challenges for Alien Encounter by Anthony Judge: http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien.php

Writing Assignment #1- Write and submit a draft (edited for spelling and grammar) of the development of your own alien species. Your alien species must be sentient. It must differ from humans physically, emotionally, and mentally. Your alien species must communicate differently than humans. Be creative in your ideas and detailed in your description. Add to the description of your aliens a way to bridge the communication challenges between your aliens and humans. Provide an example of this bridge by presenting a need the aliens have and a way your aliens might communicate that need upon first contact with humans.

EACH WEEK - Remember to respond to another student’s thought provoker and writing assignment(s).

Optional Assignment – In the Introduction -Test Challenges for Alien Encounters by Anthony Judge, http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien.php

Describe what you imagine to be the most likely scenario when/if humans encounter aliens. Describe or list ways humans should be prepared for dealing with an alien encounter. What would your ‘Manual for Alien Encounter’ include?


Week Four: Feb. 16th-20th
Thought Provoker – How might you be different if you had been raised on a different planet or on a star ship? Consider physical, intellectual, emotional and mental aspects.

In other words… how does the environment affect those aspects of who you are?


Reading Assignments - Read Chapters 1-16 in A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Read the Part I - Test Challenges for Alien Encounter by Anthony Judge: http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien1.php (Beware - Long Article! Please read the first four paragraphs which explain how historical encounters between different (earthly) alien cultures might help us understand the challenges created by future alien encounters. Next, skim through the rest of the article a couple times. Choose a few challenges that pique your interest to read.)

Writing Assignment #1 – Finish Alien Species Development Essay. There is no writing that isn’t improved by editing! You MUST choose one the following options prior to completing your final draft: Choose another student in the class and peer edit each others paper – OR – ask an adult (preferably a teacher) to conference with you and provide editing and revising ideas! Edit and revise as needed.

Writing Assignment #2 – Per Instructions - Read/Skim - Part I - Test Challenges for Alien Encounter http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien1.php by Anthony Judge.

Choose one option:

#1. How does the article relate to the book A Fire Upon the Deep? Choose two challenges from the article and use examples from the book to show how the challenges affected communications between different species in the book.

#2. Which three challenges from the article do you think cause the most misunderstandings between humans? Why? Provide examples. Write one paragraph per challenge. (It is no wonder there are wars, murders and a high divorce rate!)


Week Five: Feb. 23rd-27th
Thought Provoker – How would you explain the concept of linear time to a species that has no concept of time? Try to explain time in approximately 100 words.
Reading Assignments – Read Chapters 17- 32 A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Read William Sims Bainbridge’s essay Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Communication: http://web.archive.org/web/20000123184348/http://users.erols.com/bainbri/dl/ceti.htm


Writing Assignment #1- In the book A Fire Upon the Deep, the characters have a hard time trusting each other. Write one paragraph explaining your ideas on trust: What allows for trust? What prevents trust? Then write a second paragraph giving two examples of how trust was prevented between specific characters in the book because they couldn’t adequately communicate with or understand each other.

Writing Assignment #2 – In Bainbridge’s essay, Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Communication, the author presents a bleak picture of human future in the light of artificial intelligence. Choose one of the following:

#1. Write a three paragraph persuasive essay arguing for the survival of humans. Provide evidence or examples to support your argument.

#2. Write one paragraph describing the good that might be gleaned from encountering a more advanced alien race. Write one paragraph describing the bad that might befall humans from encountering a more advanced alien race. Write one paragraph expressing your opinion as to which option is most likely and why you think so.

*Paragraphs must have at least 3 (preferably 5) proper sentences!

Week Six: March 2nd-6th

Thought Provoker – Science fiction is not all about science. Although most science fiction takes place in the future, its focus may be more about human nature than science. Look up the definitions for psychology, social psychology and sociology. Share at least one example in the reading so far or from another science fiction novel that shows the use of psychology, social psychology or sociology as an element in the story.
Reading Assignment – Finish A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Writing Assignment #1 – Begin your creative story. By the end of the week you should have a pre-write and a beginning draft of your story. DO NOT WRITE VOLUMES!!!! These are to be SHORT stories. Try to succinctly and creatively present your characters, describe their alien natures, make first contact, overcome a communication challenge, and then overcome a cultural challenge. Put some tension into the challenges. Have fun! Private post an outline of your story ideas to me before the weekend. It must be in outline form rather than draft form. If you have already written a draft, please take your ideas from your draft and put them into an outline. I want to see your story ideas mapped out first before reading your draft.
Optional Reading Assingment - Read Marvin Minisky’s Communication with Alien Intelligence: http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/AlienIntelligence.html

Optional Assignment – Present your own critic challenge to Marvin Minisky’s ideas on Economics and Sparseness as the natural ends of intelligence and their use for human / alien communication. Considering his theories, how might he respond to your challenge? Write three paragraphs. In the first paragraph, labeled Critic Challenge, state your challenge to Minisky’s ideas. In the second paragraph, labeled Minisky-Like Response, answer the challenge as you imagine Minisky would. In the third paragraph, labeled An Alternate Response, answer the challenge as you imagine a brilliant scientist would.

You do not need to respond to another student’s Writing Assignment post this week. The outline of your draft will be posted privately to the instructor and the Writing Assignment #2 is optional.


Week Seven: March 9th-13th
Thought Provoker – Explain the human concept of good and evil to an alien whose society does not distinguish between good and evil or right and wrong.
Reading Assignments – Read Chapters I-VII in Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh

Read – Is Morality Relative to Culture? http://www.mrrena.com/2002/relative.shtml


Writing Assignment #1 – Work on your story. Remember these are to be short stories, not novels. Eliminate unnecessary words and ideas. Balance important details with succinctness. Make sure all the required elements are included. The story will include two problems that must be overcome. The first will be a difficulty in basic communication and the second will be a challenge due to cultural differences.

Ask at least one person in the class to peer edit your story. Ask your classmate to look for specific things (i.e. creative solutions to problems, grammar, cohesion, etc.)


Writing Assignment #2 –Write three paragraphs. First, give your view on the question: Is morality relative to culture? (Yes/No - Why/Why Not) Second, compare and contrast the ideas in the article Is Morality Relative to Culture? to those in the book Foreigner. Third, answer and defend the question – Are the Atevi moral? Why or Why not?

Week Eight: March 16th-20th

Thought Provoker – Describe an event or encounter (historical or recent) between two cultures or differing groups of people that might provide strategic clues (what to do or what to avoid) for future first contact encounters with aliens. List the clues.

Reading Assignment – Finish Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh

Optional Reading Assignment - Read Part II by Anthony Judge: Strategic Clues for Alien Communication http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien2.php
Creative Assignment – Create a representation of your alien species to bring to the final F2F. Your representation can by 2D (drawing, painting, cartoon), 3D (sculpture, puppet, costume). Depending on the size of your alien, it can be scaled (up or down) to fit the limits created by human vision or size allowed by mode of transportation to F2F.
Writing Assignment #1 – Finish the final draft of your story. Make sure it is error free! Check spelling, grammar, flow of thoughts, consistency of characters, etc.. Post it for the enjoyment of the class. Print a copy to for your Language Arts teacher!
Optional Writing Assignment #2 – In the article, Strategic Clues for Alien Communication, Anthony Judge suggests that aliens may be beyond our understanding. He suggests that a reason for lack of communication by aliens might simply be “that human understanding of dialogue is profoundly boring to a galactic society”. Anthony Judge presents several ways aliens might be incomprehensibly different than humans. Choose one those ways and describe it in your own words. Then suggest possible paths that humans might take to bridge the differences and still communicate with the aliens.

Feel free to also editorialize on the subject. Obviously, your opinions will be based mostly on imaginative speculation. However, adding to your previous scientific knowledge, you have gained some knowledge through this course from people who have physical, chemical, and biological scientific backgrounds or have otherwise studied the possibilities of life throughout the universe. Thus, you can base a portion of your opinion on knowledge rather than just imagination.


Week Nine: March 23rd-27th
Thought Provoker – Compare and contrast two ideas of first contact from television or movies. Consider old sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, old Twilight Zone episodes, Star Trek episodes or movies (especially – the Borg!), television shows like My Favorite Martian or Mork and Mindy, movies like Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, Stargate, War of the Worlds, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, etc. As part of your comparison of the two incidents of human-alien first contact, list the challenges presented in the encounter. Then answer the question: Which scenario seems most likely? Why?
Reading Assignment –Read Part IV by Anthony Judge: Designing a Team for Alien Encounter - http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/alien4.php
Writing Assignment – Write a one-page (2-3 paragraphs) letter requesting to be on an international team for alien encounters. Referencing some of the ideas from Anthony Judge’s paper, explain why you would be a good choice to be part of the team. Defend your reasons with examples from your life.
First f2f – Jan. 30th: Communication

Brain differences – communication challenges

Multiple Intelligences activity

Learning styles activity

Group communication activity

Second f2f – Feb. 20th: Trust

Space exploration – the likelihood of alien life

Personality inventory activity

How alien is alien?



Group personality - trust activity
Third f2f – May 29th:

Presentations – Alien Species, communication challenge, solution


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