Origins of Life in the Universe: Big History, Done Big

Origins of Life in the Universe: Big History, Done Big

Dr. Cornelia Lang

If you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory and listened to that show’s catchy theme song, you have at least some idea of what big history is all about. If not, I suggest you YouTube History of Everything, courtesy of the Barenaked Ladies, before you go any further. I apologize in advance if the song stays with you the rest of the day.

That song, which starts slow and accelerates to dizzyingly quick lyrics replete with technical and scientific terms and cultural allusions, performs artistically what big history seeks to understand empirically; that is, it’s a multidisciplinary approach that starts with the big bang and traces the whole arc of cosmic time, using whatever disciplinary lens is most useful to whatever specific question it encounters along its trajectory. In short, it’s the story of everything, with humans important but recent additions to its fascinating narrative.

Not surprisingly, then, any course approaching such a big topic has to go big. This is what Professor Cornelia Lang hopes to do with her upcoming Student Success Initiative-funded course Origins of Life in the Universe, a course which will involve faculty from the Departments of Geoscience, Chemistry, Biology, Anthropology, and, of course, Astronomy, all under one big, multidisciplinary umbrella.

Just like the universe, Origins of Life took time to form. It began in 2011 at one of the first TILE Faculty Institutes, before these evolved into TILE: Essentials. Lang, along with Astronomy colleague Robert Mutel, became emboldened to transform astronomy lab courses with the features of student-centered active learning in mind. They knew the old recipe model, where students sit clustered in groups, working over the same worksheet following the pre-designated route, was not always effective. “The hands-on laboratory sections for an astronomy course should be exciting and really further interest in the subject for students,” explains Lang, “but the revised team-focused curriculum has to be carefully executed because students may have had previous bad experiences with group learning and we don’t want them to be turned off by the idea of working in teams.” To counteract this, Lang developed modular lab experiences that changed the approach. “It had to be a total transformation.” By systematically changing labs, including time for active inquiry, self-directed discovery, and defined individual roles to keep all team members engaged, Lang and Mutel noticed improvements in the overall student experience.

Further propelled by these successes, Lang identified ways to systematize the TILE experience for astronomy students. Taking an old dark room and money from an ITTA grant, Lang and her colleagues created a “TILE-esque” space that met the unique teaching and learning needs of the department while also doubling as a public lecture and observatory room. Lang beams proudly as she shows me around the room, and the space is indeed an impressive look at how the TILE-oriented technologies can be as adaptable as the pedagogical philosophies that undergird them.

Now Lang, like the universe she studies, continues to expand her scope, moving the TILE model into new horizons. In this spirit, Origins of Life in the Universe was born. The course will offer a one year long learning odyssey as faculty rotate into units which will benefit from their unique perspective, beginning with Lang's astronomy perspective on the Big Bang and moving towards anthropology as humans make their entrance onto the cosmic stage, taking detours at chemistry, biology, geoscience, and a host of others to explain how it all came to pass. 

In addition to the big history approach, the course incorporates TILE methods to provide a unique learning experience, merging multidisciplinary studies and active learning pedagogy to form what is now appropriately being called a TILE-Constellation course. Appropriate not just because it will study real constellations, but because it provides a rare opportunity for meaningful and productive exchanges: faculty-to-faculty across disciplines, faculty-to-graduate student within the course and its unfolding, and faculty-to-undergraduate and graduate-to-undergraduate as students become interested in specific disciplinary approaches and seek deeper learning in each lens respectively.

The spring semester of the TILE-Constellation course will also include a 1 s.h. lab component, thus making the one-year long course fulfill the undergraduate GER requirements in natural science. “In the spring semester, probably after spring break, students will have an opportunity to choose a more focused project that will focus on one of the disciplines they've found most interesting,” she explains. “The big hope is to get students interested in many disciplines, and moreover, life long learning.”

Lang's passion for students is undeniable. It comes off of her like a solar wind, and like the real sun, you can't help but feel a little gravitated to it. “The primary goal is not to make students want to become science majors. We're happy if that happens, but the real goal is to give students a powerful and unique learning experience.” She also notes that the course is not intended to replace other large lecture undergraduate courses that introduce students to hard science disciplines. “We hope students will become interested, and will pursue additional courses.”

In the long term, Lang hopes the TILE-Constellation model can start a chain reaction in undergraduate education, expanding across the universe of student learning opportunities. The express outcome is clear – meaningful and student-centered learning. But Lang also hopes that the approach can have an impact on the culture of the University. “It gives faculty an opportunity to interact, starting multidisciplinary conversations.” She also imagines synergies with campus museums, public lectures, and educational displays, creating year- or semester-long educational themes that can ignite student interest and focus the community on areas of inquiry.

For now, the TILE-Constellation remains in its hot, dense state, but with Lang at the helm, it won't take 40 million years to expand.

Lang invites faculty and campus partners who might be interested in this initiative, or who might want to draw on her experience to start their own initiatives, to contact her at cornelia-lang@uiowa.edu