Science fiction inspires new university astrophysics class

In the beginning, a spaceship called the Yggdrasil is sailing through space to find a new home for its longtime inhabitants. Suddenly, the ship is hit by an errant asteroid that damages the hydrogen fuel supply. The humans aboard the Yggdrasil must use their knowledge of astrophysics to search for and extract new supplies of hydrogen.

That’s the story students enter in The Salvation of Yggdrasil: An Immersive Astronomical Experience, a new class developed by Sean Lindsey, senior lecturer in astronomy at the University of Tennessee. Lindsey, who is the current astronomy coordinator at UT and who teaches the department’s introductory astronomy class, has spent the past two years developing an engaging and imaginative astrophysics class based on an original science fiction narrative.

Something about the idea of ​​a generation ship — a ship designed to support multiple generations of passengers as it embarks on a journey that lasts more than a human lifetime — has always appealed to Lindsey. “I’ve always been fascinated by the origin stories, what I would call the deep cultural myths that exist among humanity,” says Lindsey. “The Intergenerational Spaceship is a place where we can hit reset and rethink what we think society should look like.”

The idea of ​​reinvention and innovation is deeply embedded in Lindsey’s project. He wants to change the way science is taught.

Together with physics student Adam Tilley, Lindsay has developed a science fiction arc for the class to follow. Tilley wrote a series of vignettes to accompany the curriculum and set the scene and characters for the class.

“I need you to look up our latest survey data to find a suitable hydrogen collection star,” says Captain Liu, one of the characters in Tilly’s first story, describing the initial crash and urging the ship’s crew into action. “And to all, I want you to hold your heads high to ensure the salvation of Yggdrasil. Our story does not end here.”

Lindsey’s class is divided into three separate chapters, in which students must complete various sub-objectives to keep the spacecraft moving in its mission to replace the lost hydrogen fuel.

In the first chapter, students learn about stellar properties and then have to identify a star they can reach in 30 years before they run out of fuel. In the second chapter, students arrive at their chosen star and must figure out how much fuel they need to collect to complete their journey. Finally, in the final chapter, Yggdrasil is lost in a molecular cloud and the students must find a way out so they can continue their migration.

Lindsay and Tilly made sure every part of the story was backed up with science. “One of the most challenging aspects of developing this class was figuring out how to combine an engaging story, accurate physics, and educational material,” says Lindsay.

Chapter 3 was particularly challenging, Tilley says. “I remember spitting out a lot of different ideas before we had the molecular cloud idea. We spent maybe eight hours or something drawing everything on the whiteboard.

Lindsay says it was worth the extra effort to try and get the right balance between engaging and educational. “Learning happens best when you create opportunities for students to be self-motivated,” says Lindsay. “A lot of what I’ve done with the design of this class is implementing new teaching philosophies that will really strengthen intrinsic motivation.”

There are three psychological needs that must be met for self-motivated learning to occur, says Lindsey. First, students must have autonomy, the ability to make choices and do work that is consistent with their interests. Second, students must be able to relate to the material. That’s the goal of presenting all homework problems in the context of a sci-fi world, says Lindsey. “Students see how the material is applied outside of the classroom.”

Finally, for there to be self-motivated learning, students need to feel confident in their work and feel capable of working at the required level. Lindsey’s creative curriculum aims to meet each of these needs and provide students with a safe environment to learn and make mistakes. “I’m a strong advocate of learning from our mistakes, that’s how people naturally learn,” says Lindsey. “I want to create a space where my students can really learn from their mistakes.”

To achieve this, Lindsay implements an unconventional grading system. Instead of taking exams, students submit reports on solutions to the dilemmas facing the Yggdrasil crew as they complete each chapter of the course. Lindsey then gives them the green light to move on to the next chapter or points out where they went wrong. “If I give you a thumbs down, it’s not like you’ve failed; I won’t grade you. I’ll just look at your work and give you a little push in the right direction.

In the first full semester of the class Lindsey is teaching this spring, he will also try out alternative assessment strategies. Through written decision reports, project portfolios and reflection, students will assess the quality and progress of their own learning. They will have to give themselves a letter grade and justify to Lindsay why they received that grade in both a written report and an oral defense.

“There are a lot of educators who have adopted this kind of self-assignment system, and the most common thing they have to do is adjust grades up, not down. Most students’ harshest critics are themselves,” says Lindsay.

For evaluating the success of the class itself, Lindsay has a different set of criteria. He will conduct IRB-approved educational research with this class using pre- and post-course surveys. Secretly, though, he says, “a more realistic measurement is just whether students are enjoying the class.”

According to those who took a month-long pilot of his new class, Lindsay seems to have succeeded in that regard. Raghav Chari, one of Lindsey’s former students, says, “His class is one where I felt really motivated to come to class and really enjoyed what we were doing. I didn’t bother to make a certain assessment. I learned the most in this class and I wasn’t stressed out in what is the perfect learning environment.”

Lindsey has even bigger aspirations. “This class that I will be teaching in the spring is just a small part of what my dream class would be,” says Lindsey. “Ultimately, I want to create a curriculum that is highly interdisciplinary and taught by multiple instructors. We could have an astrophysicist, an engineer, and maybe things like sociology and botany. You will be able to see how everything interacts and see that no academic discipline is isolated.”

The focus of the class shouldn’t remain in the sciences either, he says. “We could invite more creative writers to build the world of science fiction and create new storylines. We can teach journalism by having students write newspaper articles about this society.’

The success of the class depends on a big community effort, both Lindsay and Tilley say. “We can’t stress enough that the overall vision for this is a very large community-style project,” Tilley says.

Lindsay hopes his students will help expand the world he’s built, contributing new stories and taking the spirit of the class outside the classroom. “I want this class to be one that lasts,” says Lindsey. “I want the students to look back in ten, twenty years and remember, ‘That was a really fun, cool, educational experience.’

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