I remember battling sleepiness as I slouched in a large lecture hall, squinting to make out the writing on the blackboard during my freshman introductory physics course in college. My difficulty staying alert in class was not the fault of the subject—I went on to major in physics—or even the teacher. Instead, I think it had to do with the passive format of the class and the “boring basics first” approach that introductory science courses often take.
Arizona State University (ASU) astrobiologist Ariel Anbar shares my frustrations. “I started thinking there’s got to be a better way to do this,” he says. “I envision a future where the basic intro courses are not lectures, but interactive online courses.”
Anbar and ASU staff member Lev Horodyskyj designed a course along these lines called “Habitable Worlds.” The class is an introductory science course for non-majors that covers basic biology, chemistry and physics by way of the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Students are introduced to the topic by looking at a star field. Their task, over the course of the semester, is to determine how many planets within that field might host intelligent life with which we could communicate. To figure this out, the students use the Drake equation—a formula designed in 1961 by early SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) proponent Frank Drake that calculates a number by multiplying many factors, such as the average rate of star formation in the galaxy, the percentage of stars with planets, the percentage of these that are habitable, and so on.
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