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Astro 001: Space, Planets, And The Meaning Of Life

The college years provide a liberating period of intellectual freedom that can be used to explore new interests, critique old opinions, and existentially explore the massive, constantly expanding, infinitely mysterious universe that contains you.

If the latter possibility excites and/or terrifies you, and you’re looking for an interesting gen ed, Astro 001 may be the class for you.

Astro 001 is defined in Penn State’s course catalog as, “the development of modern understanding of the astronomical universe from planets and starts to galaxies and cosmology,” but offers a much more expansive take on the universe and matter than this description suggests. The class includes lessons on the nighttime sky, the planets, the sun, and other stars, but encourages students to go beyond celestial memorization to ask deeper questions about their place in space.

Astro 1 is taught in various formats, and while these formats may differ, they all cover the basics of astronomy. However, one section of Astro stands out more than the others with its unique teaching method. That’s because this section is taught in a video game format, where students play through the game in order to learn, visualize, and understand the lessons.

While playing the video game each week, students are given several tests throughout the semester, which make up part of their grade in addition to completing the game.

For example, in the first week of class, students jump on platforms in a VR lab and adjust the mass and radius of the planet. Later, they play a game where they must adjust the planet’s gravity to complete the challenge as quickly as possible.

Students often note that it doesn’t feel like they’re even participating in class work while playing the game. According to Professor Jane Charlton, the philosophical storyline throughout the game is meant to “get students thinking about their place in the universe and about what life really means.”

Still not sold on playing a video game for class? Another section of the class provides students with the opportunity to engage in the classroom outside of the video game format. Students in this section are tasked with reading a story, which interweaves throughout the class to keep things interesting.

For Charlton, a video game based astronomy class has always been a dream. Twelve years ago, she took the first step toward this by working with a team to create the story-based section of the class.

About five years ago, she teamed up with colleagues Andrew Mshar, a programmer and astronomer, and Nahks Tr’Ehnl, an artist and astronomer, to develop the video game that is played today.

“We felt that students would be more engaged with astronomy and would understand things better if we presented in this format,” Charlton said.

They also hoped that this unique format would invite more students to take astronomy classes. It seems to be working.

The course has taken off and is now offered every semester. This semester, the class has a record of nearly 3,000 students enrolled. It’s open to all students and fulfills a natural sciences gen ed requirement.

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About the Author

Janelle Rothacker

Currently a senior studying Kinesiology, Janelle is proud to call upstate NY (the real part, not the 30 minutes north of the city part) home. She's an avid runner and enjoys everything and anything sports. She also has a love of pancakes, avoids the HUB like the plague during the in between classes rush, and can quote the majority of Friends episodes from memory. If you want to hear all the embarrassing things she does daily, or want to contact her, follow her on twitter at @janellerothack or email her at [email protected].

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