I created and taught a new course in the Cornell Astronomy Department called Astronomy 109: The Birth of the Universe that employs a unique approach for improving science literacy among first-year college students through writing. The Cornell Knight Institute awarded me a year-long fellowship for my original curriculum design. 250 students signed up for only 17 slots (!) and Astro 109 was the most requested course (of more than 150) in its semester. Using this course as the foundation, I did a study on how changing the language in the course catalog could attract more female and minority students, the results of which I presented at the AAAS meeting in February 2013.
Birth of the Universe (Astro 109: Cornell University)
In my life as a scientist, I have spent many evenings attempting to fend off the powers of sleep as I struggle through a scattered and confusing scientific paper. Writing skills are seldom a significant part of a scientific education, and poorly written papers are not only inconvenient for their readers but also harmful to the progress of science. No matter how high the quality of an individual's research, if that person cannot communicate her or his ideas to others, the contribution will be lost. So out of a desire for clearer, more interesting papers to read and a concern for the vulnerable art of science writing, I decided to teach a writing seminar on the topic of cosmology out of Cornell's Astronomy department. I chose the texts, designed the curriculum, and formulated the essay assignments. Based on my course design, I was awarded the Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship to teach the seminar.
The texts used were Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, Michael Rowan-Robinson's Nine Numbers of the Cosmos, and Carl Sagan's Billions & Billions. The description I wrote for the university's course catalog is below. For more information, lectures, or assignments, please contact me.
Course Description: Our knowledge of the universe has been revolutionized by discoveries in the past century and is very much a work in progress. The history of the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the entire universe (collectively known as cosmology) is full of instances where a widely accepted belief was shown to be most likely false. Our current cosmological theories are also riddled with many issues that are not yet fully understood. We will read popular texts by such authors as Carl Sagan and Alan Lightman to learn what we know about some recent burning cosmological questions: What happened after the Big Bang? What exactly are dark matter and dark energy? How do we know that the universe is expanding? What does the future hold for our universe? Students will have an opportunity to participate in some of the many currently heated debates in cosmology through writing and in-class discussions.