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2011 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

EPO Activity: Undergraduate Education

Project Progress

This section of our E/PO report covers key elements of undergraduate education in Astrobiology operated under the auspices of the New York Center for Astrobiology:

1) The upper-level undergraduate 3-credit course “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” (, taught at RPI by Doug Whittet, and the minor degree in Astrobiology at RPI.
2) The undergraduate 3-credit course “The Search for Life beyond the Earth”, taught at U Albany by John Delano.

Note that RPI and U Albany bear the cost of these activities, as approved components of their curricula, so there is nothing to report in the “costs” section. Two further related elements (undergraduate research in Astrobiology, and the Origins of Life Seminar) are described in separate sections.

The 3-credit course ASTR 4510 “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” has been taught at RPI for many years (since the mid 1990s) and has evolved in that time from a “special interest” topic in Astronomy to a fully-fledged interdisciplinary course in Astrobiology. It is aimed at upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students. A total of 15 students (14 undergraduates + one graduate) took the course in Spring 2011 – somewhat disappointing numbers compared with those for 2010 (21 + 4) but nevertheless consistent with the average enrollment over the past 5 years. Majors represented in the enrollment included Physics, Chemistry, Electrical, Mechanical, Civil and Biomedical Engineering. Enrolled students attended the weekly Origins of Life Seminar (see separate section) as an integral part of the course. All course materials were accessible on-line using RPI’s Learning Management System (LMS). The on-line material included lecture slides, weekly reading and homework assignments, discussion topics, links to current news items, and reviews for the mid- and end-of-semester exams. The LMS also provided communication tools used for on-line discussion and student feedback. The students submitted their homework assignments online and received feedback online. Students were required to review lecture slides and an accompanying list of discussion topics prior to each lecture, to facilitate interactive in-class discussion (in preference to the traditional lecture/audience format). All 15 students enrolled in the course received a passing grade and 11 (73%) received a grade of B or above. A formal student evaluation of the course was carried out using the IDEA system employed by RPI, resulting in an overall “excellent course” rating of 4.0/5.0. Anonymous student comments included the following quotes:

“I really enjoyed this course, and I think I now have a firm understanding of some of the fundamental questions and areas of research in the field of astrobiology.”
“I really like the way the homeworks are designed. They are set up so that we are calculating real things like the habitable zone of the solar system… It makes everything feel more real and it is very satisfying and exciting to get the right answer.”
“The homeworks were enjoyable to the point of spending extra time on them to procrastinate doing other work! The open-endedness of the questions and lack of hard answers allowed us to theorize and then go find facts to support our theory.”

The RPI curriculum includes a minor degree in Astrobiology, open to students majoring in interdisciplinary science or any individual science discipline. The number of students graduating with this minor is currently very small (one in the last 3 years and none in 2011). We hope to ramp this up in future years, in line with a general trend of increasing enrollment in sciences at RPI, and with active promotion amongst those selecting astrobiology-related courses.

The 3-credit undergraduate course AGEO 110 “The Search for Life beyond the Earth” (final enrollment: 160 students; 87% first- and second-year students; <5% of students have declared any STEM disciplines as their intended major) and the optional 1-credit discussion section AGEO 111 (6 students) were taught at U Albany for the second time during the Fall 2010 semester. This course had been reviewed and approved at all levels, including by the State University of New York central administration, as a Natural Science General Education course. The course used the textbook “Life in the Universe” by Bennett & Shostak (2007), as well as numerical homework assignments from and other timely resources to provide students with conceptual and quantitative experience with key topics (e.g., Kepler’s Third Law applied to exoplanets; estimations of planetary surface temperatures; radiometric age determinations; Doppler and transit methods for exoplanet detection). The course also employs a student response system (iClickers; ~120 responses per student during the semester) in order to more fully engage the class. John Delano took full responsibility for this course (i.e., no role for graduate teaching assistants) in order to ensure that the content, rigor, and organization are optimized. The end-of-semester student assessments indicated that the course was intellectually challenging (4.3/5.0), stimulated students’ interest (4.1/5.0), and had high standards of performance (4.5/5.0). These scores are in the top tier for large, General Education courses at the University, but were not caused by grade-inflation, as indicated by the grade-distribution. The instructor’s overall rating was also high for an undergraduate, general education course (4.3/5.0). The course, which will continue to be taught by John Delano every Fall semester through Fall 2013, was formatively assessed by the professional educational consultants (Association for the Cooperative Advancement of Science and Education: ACASE) associated with this NAI grant. The instruments and results of those assessments (formative and summative) are the subject of a 22-page report that will be submitted to the E/PO group at NAI Headquarters, and its results will form the basis for an abstract on EPO for submission to the upcoming 2012 AbSciCon. In addition, a proposal to teach an Astrobiology course in the Honors College during future Spring semesters was submitted and approved. That new course will be offered for the first time in the Spring 2012 semester, and is limited to an enrollment of 25 Honors students.