PlanetQuest: an RPG-based course on planetary exploration
PlanetQuest is an asynchronous online course that uses mathematical models to explore how planets are created, and what characteristics of planets makes them habitable. Students work through sequential modules in which they use computer models (coded in spreadsheets or in apps) to analyze a dataset or explore how size, solar system position and other variables affect a planet. Module topics include determining a planet's mass and orbit from radial velocity measurements of stars, condensation of solar systems, composition and layering of terrestrial bodies, internal heat generation behind tectonics and magnetic fields, and the ethics of planetary colonization. While the math behind each process is provided, the focus is on developing physical intuition, so the course should be accessible for early-career non-science majors.
The modules are motivated and linked together by a role-playing narrative: the student is a crewmember aboard a colonization spaceship on a long-term mission to find a new planet to terraform and inhabit. The student begins as a junior science officer, who is tasked with recommending a target planet. The student receives instruction through video messages provided by this ship's artificial intelligence program (the instructor). As students complete modules, their characters are promoted and gain access to more data and more influence over decisions on the ship. Ultimately the student chooses a particular planet for colonization. A large set of potential solar systems to explore is synthetically-generated and a sample is randomly assigned to each student, so there is no single "right" answer for students to share. Decision points are introduced periodically (which promotion path to pursue, which side to take in a mutiny) and they are eventually teamed up with other student-players, so the experience is slightly different for each student.