2010 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

EPO Activity: Undergraduate Education

Project Progress

This section of our E/PO report covers three key elements of undergraduate education in Astrobiology operated under the auspices of the New York Center for Astrobiology:
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1) The upper-level undergraduate 4-credit course “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” (http://www.rpi.edu/dept/phys/Dept2/Astro/Origin/index.html), taught at RPI by Doug Whittet in collaboration with other members of the NYCA faculty;
2) The undergraduate 3-credit course “The Search for Life beyond the Earth”, taught at U Albany by John Delano;
3) The minor degree in Astrobiology at RPI.
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Note that RPI and U Albany bear the cost of these courses, and of the minor, as approved components of the curriculum, 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.
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The 4-credit course ASTR 4510 “Origins of Life: A Cosmic Perspective” has been taught at RPI for several years and is aimed at upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students. A total of 25 students (21 undergraduates + 4 graduates) took the course in Spring 2010 (for comparison, the enrollment was 21 in 2009 and only 14 in 2008). A wide range of majors were represented, 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 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). This format proved to be highly successful. 22 students completed the course with at least a passing grade, and 18 received grades of B or above. The formal student evaluation score for the course was 4.5/5.0.
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The 3-credit undergraduate course AGEO 110 “The Search for Life beyond the Earth” (enrollment: 168 students) and the optional 1-credit discussion section AGEO 111 (11 students) were taught at U Albany for the first time during the Fall 2009 semester. The proposal for this course had been reviewed at several levels by faculty and administrative committees and been approved at all levels, including by the State University of New York central administration, as a Natural Science General Education course. The course uses the textbook ‘Life in the Universe’ by Bennett & Shostak (2007), as well as numerical homework assignments from http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov 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 has taken 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 high assessments 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 be taught by John Delano every Fall semester, is currently (Fall 2010) being taught and formatively assessed by the educational consultants (ACASE) associated with our NAI grant. The assessment instruments and results of those assessments (formative and summative) will be reported to the E/PO group at NAI Headquarters, as well in next year’s NAI annual report.
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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. The number of students taking the minor is currently small (average ~1 graduate per year, but none in 2010). We expect to significantly increase enrollment to the minor in future, in line with a general trend of increasing enrollment in sciences at RPI, and with active promotion amongst those selecting astrobiology-related courses.