2009 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

EPO Activity: Undergraduate Education

Project Progress

This section of our E/PO report describes two key elements of undergraduate education in Astrobiology at RPI: the upper-level course “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” (taught by Doug Whittet) and the minor degree in Astrobiology. Note that RPI bears the cost for the course and minor as approved components of the curriculum, so there is nothing to report under “costs”. Two further related elements (undergraduate research in Astrobiology, and the Origins of Life Seminar) are described in separate sections. Note also that the undergraduate course “The Search for Life beyond the Earth” is being taught by John Delano at the University at Albany for the first time in fall 2009: a detailed report will be made next year, but we highlight here the fact that this course has an enrollment of 187 students.

The 4-credit course “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” is aimed at upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students and has been taught at RPI for several years. A total of 21 students (20 undergraduates + 1 graduate) took the course in Spring 2009, a 60% increase compared with the previous year (a fact that may be attributed in part to publicity accompanying our NAI selection). A wide range of majors were represented in the Spring 2009 enrollment, including Biology, Physics, Computer Science, Interdisciplinary Science, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, and Electronic Media, Arts and Communication. Enrolled students were required to attend the weekly Origins of Life Seminar as an integral part of the course. All course materials were taken on-line for the first time this year, 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). This format proved to be highly successful. All 21 enrolled students completed the course with at least a passing grade, and 16 received grades of B or above. The formal student evaluation score for the course was 4.5/5.0.

The Astrobiology minor at RPI is open to students majoring in interdisciplinary science or any individual science discipline. To obtain the minor, a student completes the 4-credit course “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” described above, two additional 3 or 4-credit courses selected from an approved list (must be outside of the major field of study for single-discipline majors), a 4-credit interdisciplinary research project, and a minimum of two semesters attendance at the Origins of Life Seminar. Although the number of students taking the minor is currently small (average ~1 per year), we consider it to be a valuable component of our curriculum because of the quality of the students it attracts. In Spring 2009, we had an especially promising young astrobiologist (Elizabeth Frank) graduate with a major in Interdisciplinary Science and a minor in Astrobiology. Elizabeth was admitted for graduate study at all four of the schools to which she applied: she decided to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she is now doing astrobiology-related research in the Department of Geological Sciences.