Extraterrestrial life is not the first option to come to mind for most students attempting to fulfill their natural science general education requirement, but one professor has made it possible to do so.
Dr. Arthur Spivack named the course “Life in the Universe”, and teaches it as an honors course this year. The course, HPR 109, is listed as a natural science in the Honors Program. Spivack is able to teach a wide variety of students the wonders of the universe around them and the science that goes along with it.
The course started 10 to 11 years ago when the university received funding from NASA for their research program. NASA wished for the university to not only conduct research but to also provide a more general influence in the education of similar material.
“This course is structured around the concept of what is the probability of finding intelligent life in the universe,” explained Spivack.
They look at topics that include the formation of stars, the age of the universe, the formation of planets, how evolution works, how technology has helped us discover new things in the universe, what makes the earth habitable and many more. The Drake Equation (a probabilistic equation used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy) is a major organizing principle for the class.
Because it fulfills the natural science requirement, Spivack sees a wide variety of students each year, as many of the students who partake in this course are not science students. But Spivack has found that that does not dissuade them from the wonders brought up in the class.
“I’ve found that people who thought they weren’t interested in science are actually interested if you pose an interesting question,” Spivack said.
In his course, Spivack also makes use of the recent scientific discoveries and incorporates those into his lessons.
“I try to see what the particular group is interested in” Spivack said.
He adjusts to what his students seem to want to learn most. He added that he takes the wide array of students’ interests into account when planning the course, so no two classes are the same in what is taught.
This year the focus is more on the evolutionary aspect and how we as humans got to where we are today. With the socio-biology textbook, “The Social Conquest of Earth”, and assistance from Professor David Fastovsky, Chair of the Geosciences Department, the students as well as Spivack are broadening their intellect to include more than just general science concepts and looking at how human evolution would assist in other civilizations around the universe.
For this course, Spivack explained how he likes to be able to “start with the big picture of why things are interesting, rather than the nitty-gritty, the details. If you start with just the details, the equations, you lose people right away.”
In this way, Spivack is able to present a vague point of interest at first, and then follow up with all the facts and scientific concepts to understand how and why these things happen.
The class is then different from a typical science course where one might only learn about theory and scientific principles. In this course, the students learn all of these concepts and are then able to connect them to something interesting like extraterrestrial life.
What Spivack said he hopes most to get out of his course is to influence these generally non-science students into gaining an interest in science. Lauren Black, a freshman in this course said that even though she does not have a solid science background, the class is understandable for her.
“I like what it makes me think about,” she said.
Since this course is in the Honors Program, students must be enrolled in the program to take the course. It requires no prerequisite or prior scientific knowledge and is open to anyone in the Honors Program.