How to use problem-based learning to catalyze student engagement in classes that explore exoplanets, habitability, or astrobiology

Monday 2:45pm Weeks Geo: 140
Oral Session

Session Chairs

Ronald Daly, Brown University
Stephanie Bouchey, Brown University
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an active, student-centered pedagogy wherein students learn by tackling a complex, real-world problem. PBL is proven to cultivate more than content knowledge: it improves problem-solving, metacognitive, critical-thinking, and communication skills. PBL therefore empowers students with valuable skills that will serve them throughout their lives (MacKinnon, M.M., 1999, doi:10.1002/tl.7805).

We use PBL as the basis for a class called "Habitable Worlds: Possible Places for Life in the Solar System and Beyond". The class uses PBL to help students explore key concepts of planetary habitability. These concepts include exoplanet detection, exoplanetary systems, planetary interiors, planetary atmospheres, the habitable zone, extremophiles, and potentially habitable worlds in our Solar System (Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Titan). Habitability and exoplanet research have high media visibility and cut across disciplinary boundaries, which helps the class appeal to a broad range of students

At the start of the class, we assign pairs of students a recently-discovered exoplanet and task them with deciding whether it is habitable: a place with the ingredients and conditions for life as we know it. Students use the same peer-reviewed data (freely available on that professional scientists use, which adds a thrill of authenticity. However, a recognized weakness of PBL—cognitive load—can make the project quite difficult. To combat this issue, we gradually equip students with the quantitative and qualitative tools needed to assess their planet, and we give students time to practice and explore examples in our own Solar System.

The challenging, real-world problem at the core of this course motivates students to work beyond their academic comfort zone. In the process, they evolve from novices to semi-experts about their planets. The overwhelming majority of students in this PBL-based class report learning more than they thought they would (2015 = 94%; 2014 = 77%; 2013 = 100%).