Cultures of the Imagination
COTI High School

At CONTACT XV in 1998, Chris McKay, Don Scott and Jim Funaro organized a collaborative project (NASA and CONTACT) with Principal Larry Payne and a group of teachers from Oroville High School in California, to develop a pilot curriculum for teaching the sciences at the secondary school level.

The project focused around CONTACT's COTI simulation, which involves students in the creation of a world, lifeform and culture and then allows them to experience inter-cultural contact. The simulation offers students a chance to learn and apply principles in the physical, natural and social sciences within an exciting, innovative educational context.

This compact and self-contained version of the simulation allows us to standardize the instructional modules and still cover the full range of the sciences; it also allows us to address the problems and possibilities of an encounter between these two species as a metaphor for intercultural contact. We feel that COTI Hi is an innovative project with bright hopes for producing a generation of Americans who are once again excited about space and the future.

The Oroville teachers were so enthusiastic about the possibilities of COTI as an alternate curriculum that they have developed, with financial help from NASA, a long-term instructional program designed to teach the sciences, humanities and arts in their high school. The project is now in process of classroom testing; and its progress is reported each year at CONTACT's "Education for the Future" symposia and the teachers and students "perform" their latest version of COTI HI for the audience. This continues to be one of the highlights of the annual CONTACT conference.

Educators' Workshop at CONTACT XV

At the 3-day conference in 1998, we put together a workshop to show teachers how we "do" COTI. The goal was to give teachers the basis for presenting the principles of the sciences and applying them in this "hands-on" experiment, as a model for developing a curriculum for their own students. The rule that makes it work: Using science as a guide to the imagination.

On Friday we offered sessions on world-building and lifeform- building, coordinated by NASA's McKay and Mal Cohen and science fiction writer Poul Anderson; and on Saturday we offered sessions on culture-building and intercultural (and interspecific) contact, coordinated by anthropologists Funaro, Jim Moore and Doug Raybeck. In the afternoons, we presented 2-hour "instructional modules" to the high school teachers (who were the participants in the simulation -- as a preparation for teaching it themselves). The teams created two alien life-forms and their ways of life and, for the climax on Sunday, simulated an unrehearsed, real-time cross-cultural encounter.

Educators' Critique of the First Experience

Ten teachers from Oroville High School (OHS) attended CONTACT XV. These teachers represented disciplines that included English, Social Studies, Mathematics, Science, Art and Library-Media Technology. These teachers are highly skilled professionals - some of the best at Oroville High School. It would, therefore, take a lot to impress them. They have, after all, attended numerous workshops, seminars, conferences and inservices or one type or another.

The purpose of having the Oroville High School teachers attend CONTACT XV was three-fold: 1) to participate in a Cultures of the Imagination exercise; 2) to determine whether the Cultures of the Imagination exercise might be adaptable to high school students; and 3) to assess the potential for developing an appropriate curriculum should this be desirable.

The teachers actively participated in numerous activities during the three-day conference. They listened to and watched presentations by various experts in anthropology, astrobiology, nanotechnology applications, geology, miniaturization and science fiction. Each OHS faculty member was engaged as a team member in one of the two Cultures of the Imagination teams. In addition, formal and informal discussions were an integral part of the conference.

General Critique

To a person, the Oroville High School teachers felt CONTACT XV, their first attendance ever, was the best conference they had ever attended. There was much anxiety prevalent at the beginning of the conference. Part of this came from their principal, Larry Payne, telling them this would be a great conference. The other portion of their anxiety came from the lack of a clear explanation and understanding of what was expected of them.

It should be clearly understood that most teachers, who have been in education for several years, can predict and come to expect certain outcomes based upon the title, or sponsor, of the conference. The CONTACT conference was something new, different and unpredicatable for the teachers. Being involved with NASA and CONTACT for the first time was exciting and a cause for wonder. The teachers felt that not having much in the way of background information hampered them initially.

The Oroville High School teachers believe that the Cultures of the Imagination activity could be developed into a unique, challenging and creative curriculum. It is their belief that high school students would enjoy the integrated nature of Coti as well as became more literate about the future. A time and place should be scheduled, a plan developed to address curriculum design, resources gathered, and individuals selected to put together a high school curriculum.


The team of teachers from Oroville High School met and discussed the CONTACT XV Conference following their return home. The purpose of this critique was to identify what they felt worked well and what didn't. It is the intent of the OHS staff to provide guidance for conference organizers in their proposed expansion of Coti to high school teachers. Their critique included the following:

  • Background reading materials should be provided ahead of time. These materials need to be succinct and readable by individuals not familiar with professional areas related to space scienceented by additional research data, could be made available to team participants for reference.

  • OHS teachers believe that, besides the tremendous resource base NASA Ames can provide to teachers, consideration should be given to providing Coti-related workshops, conferences, tours and special events for teachers. Also, opportunities for students to become more familiar with the real world work of scientists and others could easily be done. This would include job shadowing experiences and conferences for -students who participate in Coti-Hi. Basically, involvement with NASA Ames should be used as reinforcement for participants.

  • Every effort should be made to utilize the Oroville High School teachers in developing a cross-discipline curriculum which uses Cultures of the Imagination as its focus. This team could also become trainers who could hold workshops at educator conferences, other high schools and future CONTACT conferences.

This paper summarizes the positive experiences of Oroville High School teachers who participated in CONTACT XV: Cultures Of The Imagination. Suggestions for improvement of CONTACT to encourage future participation by more educators have been presented. I hope this critique will be used to guide a cooperative effort between CONTACT, NASA Ames and Oroville High School.


Larry Payne,