screen grab from Habitable Worlds course

Students in the Habitable Worlds course learn what goes into making a planet. Credit: Anbar/Horodyskyj

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.

The course is primarily taught online through a video game-like interface with rich graphics and narrated video explanations. Professors interact with students often via discussion boards, and sometimes face-to-face question sessions as well. The students can even take “virtual field trips” to sites around the world through websites that offer interactive panoramic views.

More than 1,500 ASU students have taken the Habitable Worlds course already, and so far it has received glowing reviews. “Best class I have ever had,” one student attests on the course’s website. It has also been taught at McGill University and at Arizona community colleges. “Habitable Worlds is a science class for non-science majors designed to teach them how to solve problems like scientists do,” education technology consultant Michael Feldstein wrote on his blog e-Literate. “Is this skill set one that would be useful in the workplace for people in non-science careers? You bet it would.”

Anbar thinks the course succeeds because it does not try to simply transmit the body of existing scientific knowledge, but to engage the students’ curiosity by focusing on the questions science has not answered yet. “Science is not about mastering what’s known, but a process for mastering the unknown,” he says.

Anbar plans to use the Habitable Worlds framework to design dedicated physics, biology and chemistry classes that each tackles a different facet of the overall search for habitable planets topic. For example, the chemistry course could drill down into the chemistry required for water and for life, while the physics class could focus on the laws dictating how stars and planets form.

And Anbar does not plan to stop there. On Friday ASU and Australian technology firm Smart Sparrow are launching the Inspark Science Network to develop more courses like Habitable Worlds and share them with other universities around the world. The initiative will be based at the new Center for Education Through Exploration (ETX) on the ASU campus and supported by a $4.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Personally, I have been wary of many schemes to revolutionize education through technology. It takes a rare technological tool to be better at connecting with students than a live human teacher, and I worry that the students of today already get far more “screen time” than is good for them. But I admit the Habitable Worlds approach is unique—and sounds so fun even I want to take the class—and Anbar has good answers for all of my questions. For example, if kids are already addicted to screens, he says, “why shouldn’t we leverage that for education?” Plus, his courses don’t cut out human interaction—in fact, they may require just as much time from a teacher as a traditional class, but that time will be spent answering questions and interacting with students rather than lecturing.

Ultimately, Anbar hopes more appealing classes will get more students to take science in college—especially those students who will not major in science and might have skipped the discipline altogether. “If you’re worried about having a scientifically literate society,” he says, “we need to teach the non-majors.”