Fantasy Universes: Inquiry Learning in Astrophysics On-Campus and Massive Open Online Courses

Paul J. Francis

Abstract


Problem based learning, and its variants such as project-based learning and case-studies, is a widely used and highly effective type of inquiry learning. In this paper, I present a case study of applying this method to the teaching of astrophysics. There are two main novelties in my approach. Firstly, traditional problem-based learning gets the students to solve real problems, but my exercises ask them instead to solve fantasy problems. I make up a universe which is interestingly different from our own, but physically self-consistent, for example, a universe with bubbles rather than stars in the sky, that didn’t have a Big Bang. The students are given the task of discovering some interesting things about this universe. Each week, the students discuss the data they have in hand, and make proposals for future observations. The data they requested is then generated and returned to them. Week by week, the students learn to analyse their data, formulate hypotheses and propose observations. Because the universe is a different one from our own, the students cannot just look up the answers on Wikipedia. They have to apply the methods and thought processes taught in lectures to this different context. The second novelty is that these exercises were used in a series of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), in addition to more traditional on-campus courses. These online courses have restricted options for assessment, which makes inquiry learning challenging. Student feedback suggests, however, that these exercises were highly effective in driving deep student learning and engagement, for at least a sub-set of the online students.

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