In this blog post oLife fellow Vera Dobos shares her experiences in teaching in the first lecture of a highly interdisciplinary course called ’Life and Information’. First, she will introduce to the topic of the course and highlight the bits that are unusual for her in this education style as a foreigner. Then, she will share the main topics that the students were interested in. Spoiler: aliens!
About the course
Some of the oLife fellows lecture a course called Life and Information. This course is part of the prestigious Honours Programme for Bachelor students at the University of Groningen. The topic is highly interdisciplinary, and it aims to investigate a variety of approaches of life, information and their connection. Life in this context covers both bacterial and human life, while information might be anything from DNA to getting data for scientific researches. Inheriting molecules, or generating and interpreting data is a connection between living organisms and information.
Not just the topic of the course is wide, but also the students come from very different backgrounds: from pharmacy studies through programming to astronomy. In each lecture two lecturers give insight to topics that are related to the lecturers’ researches. Because of this, the topics are relevant and timely.
Artist’s impression of Mars having water ocean four billion years ago. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
My experiences in teaching this course
I am an astronomer studying the habitability of extra-solar planets (exoplanets for short) and moons (exomoons): those objects that are outside our Solar System and belong to stars other than our Sun. Mine is a fully theoretical work, in which habitability is basically defined by the possibility of the presence of water on the surface of a planet (or moon). For this course, I chose to talk about the possible number and fraction of habitable planets in our Galaxy, and how this number expands if we also consider moons as possible environments for life. The tough part is that there is no confirmed exomoon detection to date. So what did I bring as an example? The moon Pandora from the movie Avatar. At least we know there is life there! (You know, the Na’vi, the blue people with the funny tails.) I was a bit concerned that maybe the students are too young and have not seen this movie, but luckily, it turned out (as I made a quick survey) that most of them saw it. Phew.
In teaching, the most unusual thing for me was that the students, too, had to prepare for the lecture by reading all the material that the lecturer chose. This seems very efficient, because this way the students build some basic knowledge and learn about the context of the specific topic before the lecture. As a result, their understanding during the lecture can be deeper, which is especially important in this case where the students have so diverse backgrounds.
A group of students also have to prepare three questions they ask at the end of a lecture. To select the best questions, they have to discuss the material among themselves, which reinforces the learning process. They also had the chance to come up with new questions on the spot, after listening to the lecture. This lead to some interesting discussions…
Pandora: a habitable, Earth-like moon orbiting around a blue gas giant planet from the movie Avatar.
Although my lecture was about the habitability of exoplanets and exomoons, I got some funny, less-related questions. In my talk, I focussed on the importance of water on the surface of planets and moons, but not surprisingly, there are much more interesting aspects if you are studying engineering, for example. The most popular topic for the students was the possibility of different life forms from ours. For example, instead of carbon-based life, could we consider silicate-based life? Or instead of using the water as the solvent for life, what if organisms on other planets use something else, like methane?
My favourite question was about „nuking a planet to make it more habitable”. As crazy as it may sound, this idea indeed came up in connection to Mars, which is too cold for us to have a pleasant evening walk. With some explosions, we could locally change the red surface to black, which would reinforce the greenhouse effect, because less heat would be reflected back from the surface. (Have you ever experienced that black cats are warmer on the sun than other coloured cats?). Also, carbon dioxide could be released from the ice caps which would strengthen the greenhouse effect. While the efficiency of this idea is debated, my main concern would be ethical. Do we have the right to do such a thing? What would we destroy in this attempt to shape this planet to our liking? And how could we make sure that we know exactly the full consequences of our action?
For me, teaching at this course was a nice experience and it was fun. It could have been only better, if it was in person, seeing the faces of the students, to have a better understanding on which parts they like and at which topics I should give a more thorough explanation.