Invent an Alien    

General information

This activity is what I would consider as the logical follow-on to the "Is It Alive" activity. While there is hard science underlying this activity, it's really a chance for the kids to be creative and could be made into an art lesson. All I can say is that every year I am amazed at some of the concepts that the kids come up with.

This exercise is from ASP's Family ASTRO "Stars Planets Life" book. There is an earlier version of it here but it's not as good as the version in Stars Planets Life book (as that version has a good way for the kids to 'pick' their planet and I think gives you a better idea of the what and why of the exercise).

The Invent an Alien activity as written was designed for single evening. Here it's done in multiple parts to better match the flow in a 4th grade class.

Though not covered at this level, the exercise could obviously be expanded to cover adaptation and natural selection. Some groups do that by coming up with information about the creatures environment, usually with respect to its food and how the creature has adapted to maximize the food source. Probably if doing this with middle school students one could really cover a lot of ground, if desired.


Nasa's Astrobiology Magazine is a good place to pick up "what's new" type information.

The presentation I've created (see below) uses materials from these two books. You'll need to pick up a copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials so that you have the text descriptions of the creatures. Barlowe's ideas are good as they follow the general plan of this lesson in that there has to be what I call "plausible physics" for the creatures (well, OK, so there are mind-reading aliens so maybe not that plausible overall).

Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials by Wayne Douglas Barlowe. This one is the one to get.
The ALIEN Life of Wayne Barlowe by Wayne Douglas Barlowe. Some more artwork in this one but also has a lot of his other early work.
Expedition looks interesting but I haven't picked up a copy (yet...) is his home page

Scientific American ran a cover story on alien plant life in the April 2008 issue. The story is here, and there's a link to the pictures used (which are in the presentation as well as an optional postscript to the presentation).



General plan



Presentation materials

Handout (word doc) sheet copied from Stars Planets Life. (one per team)

Handout (word doc) to guide the presentations (one per student)

Dice (one per team)

Art materials - if your school is like mine then they don't have supplies. I keep a big plastic tub of "stuff" and refill it each year as needed.

  • clay (colored 'rainbow' packages, find 'em cheap at Walmart) - one box per group, or buy large blocks and divide
  • feathers
  • eyes
  • colored pipe cleaner
  • foam pieces
  • puff balls
  • small pieces of fabric
  • Anything else that would make good alien body parts

Power point

There's been a steady stream of exoplanet announcements so I work that in to give them a "place" to imagine their alien lives. With 220+ known planets it's not to tough to imagine that somewhere out there is a planet that will be like the one that they roll the dice to get.

I've added a section on doppler shift. Originally I just had the police siren example. Then I added a car horn example (there are several on YouTube). However I've come up with a simple way to actually demonstrate it to them in class. It's a bit off topic from the actual aliens topic but I think it's got some fun factor to it. Details of that are below.

Doppler shift demo

This is totally optional, but it's a nice way to show how something like finding aliens leads to finding planets leads to "how do we find planets" leads to doppler shift.


Sonalert style beeper (9V) - constant tone (2 to 3 kHz range) ; not too loud and you want one with a constant pitch. For example this one:

9V Battery clip & Battery

nylon rope (6' or so)

Duct tape

optional: small switch to avoid having to unclip battery. Dog clip to allow beeper to disconnect from the rope.

FFT and spectrogram software.

There are a number of free packages out there, but I found this one (Spectrogram) to be pretty good for the objectives here.

Here's a list of a lot of different ones.

Assembly directions & Use

See this page for details on the doppler shift demo

Building the aliens

This part is pretty much just following what's in the guide book materials.

Once we've discussed exoplanets, etc., each team gets a copy of the worksheet are rolls their dice to define their world. They then should sketch out on paper what features it should have. At this point I bow out and leave it to the teacher to facilitate the creation of their creature and work out a presentation. I think typically the kids will spend about 2 hours on the project and presentation over the next several days.

There is a one page outline document that helps keep them focused. Though the first thing on the list is to name the alien, that's probably something they will want to do at the end. The main point of the handout is to keep them on the science aspect of how the creature is adapted to its world.

I then come back for a presentation (5 min per group is plenty) that each team gives to the class. I try and take pictures for the teacher as well. Some teams kind of read off of the outline document, others invent an entire script for the aliens. They all seem to grasp the need to have it adapted to its world to survive. Some do come up with some "questionable" features on their alien; I never criticize as really this is an exercise in creativity and as long as the science part is close then that's good enough.

Also when the team presenting comes up with something that sounds "out of this world" I encourage the class to point out some things on Earth that actually do that. For example, in one recent activity, a group's alien had a "night vision helmut." Now we didn't disallow technology, but I made the comment that night vision is really just seeing InfraRed light, and what creature on Earth is adapted to sense IR? (snakes). Another team's alien could shoot out acid to incapacitate its food; one student immediately pointed out the bombardier beetle did that.

Anyway, I present these ideas to encourage exploring all the possibilities; do not treat the above as a recipe that must be followed.




The guide in Stars Planets Life calls out playdough. However since this exercise is done over a 1 week period playdough simply doesn't hold up (as the kids found out the first year we tried this). A package of "rainbow" modeling clay is not that much more money and won't fall apart. I looked at other modeling materials but they seem to be more pricey and the clay can be sculpted in a variety of ways.

Almost without fail the groups each come up with some "bizarre" feature of their creature. A lot of times you can come up with some Earth creature that actually exhibits that behavior/feature and draw them into a discussion of the adaptation.

link to pictures from various years