AY 155: Life in the Universe Syllabus

Course Description

“Life in the Universe” is a survey of the new and rapidly-developing interdisciplinary science of Astrobiology for the non-science major. This science brings the tools of astronomy and biology, as well as geology and chemistry, to attempt to answer questions like: How did life start on the Earth? Did life start elsewhere in our Galaxy? If there is life on other planets, how would we recognize it?

Students taking this course will be introduced to the science of Astrobiology, the process of science, scientific thinking, and the fundamentals of astronomical and physical principals used throughout this course. Then students will explore our current state of knowledge and the nature of life on the earth, the geology of the earth as it makes our planet habitable to life, the origin of life on the earth, and the process of evolution. We will then apply this knowledge to the question of whether life currently exists, or could have existed in the past, on other bodies in our solar system including the planets Venus and Mars, the large moons of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. We will then probe the effect of the history of our solar system on the habitability of various planets and moons. The final section of the course focuses on the possibilities of life on planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy (and beyond) by summarizing what is known and expected from surveys of planets orbiting other stars, the Search Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and the prospects for future interstellar travel.

This course will expose you to the excitement of the new field of astrobiology with a goal of leaving you with a lifelong interest in astronomy, biology, geology, and chemistry (especially as it applies to the central questions of this course) and an appreciation for all science. No knowledge of these sciences is needed as a prerequisite. As scientists are just beginning many studies in astrobiology, new discoveries are constantly being made. This course will describe how our view of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe has changed over time and cover new discoveries as they occur.

Students are expected to devote approximately 2 to 3 hours per credit hour PER WEEK of preparation time OUTSIDE OF THE CLASS MEETINGS. For this course, the required time is 6 to 9 hours per week. You will spend this time with the assigned and outside reading, homework, discussion of the course material with others (whether they are enrolled in this class or not), studying, and thinking about your reading and experience with topics discussed in class. This so-called “reflection time” is an essential component of this course. A helpful essay on highly recommend suggestions of how to spend this time titled “How To Succeed in Physics By Really Trying” will be available on the BlackBoard page for this course.

Student Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this course, students will be able to:

  • identify key concepts in the sciences, contributing to the development of a broad perspective on the human condition
  • identify the key conceptual advances which, and associated historical figures who, revolutionized the development of modern science in general, and the sciences of astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, and astrobiology.
  • recognize and explain the scientific method, and evaluate scientific information.
  • demonstrate understanding of the relationship between light, matter, and energy in an astronomical context.
  • identify the content of, and describe the formation and evolution of, planetary systems.
  • describe the necessities for life as we know it, and consider the variety of conditions where such necessities could be found on the Earth, and elsewhere.
  • determine how the concept of the “last common ancestor” allows us to consider the origin of life on the Earth, and the process of evolution.
  • project how our understanding of the nature of living organisms on Earth might be applied to life on other worlds.
  • describe how we could identify scientific evidence of life on other worlds where it might exist and evolve.

Exams and Assignments


Two in-term unit exams, and a two-part final exam (one part covering the 3rd unit, then a second comprehensive part) will be administered. The lowest unit-exam score will be dropped.

It is important that you arrive on time to all exams. After the first student who completed the exam leaves the room, no one arriving late will be admitted. Anyone attempting to enter the room from then onward will be considered an unexcused absence and will receive a score of 0.

All exams are strictly individual effort, and any attempt at cheating on an exam (or any other assessment) will not be tolerated. Do not even try it. Instead, spend any such efforts on studying and improving your score through regular student learning! The final exam date and time is set according to Registrar’s schedule, i.e. http://registrar.ua.edu/academics/final-exam-schedules/fall-2012-exam-schedule/


Readings in the required text are required. Reading Quizzes and Concept Quizzes for each chapter of the assigned text are posted on the publisher’s “premium website” http://wps.aw.com/aw_bennett_liu_3 (license code included with new textbook or may be purchased online). You will need to enter Class ID: cm459399 to get access to the course assignments. These quizzes will be assigned to be completed before (reading) and after (concept) we have covered the relevant material in class. (see the chapter schedule above).

Clicker Questions and Class Participation

Each class session will include clicker questions, to be answered using the required TurningPoint Audience Response Pads, available for purchase at the University Supply Store (SUPe Store). These “clickers” must be purchased (ASAP) and registered using the link on the BlackBoard Learn website for this class (instructions) These questions will be based on both reading content and course lecture material. In many cases, the clicker questions will be the topic for in-class discussion among the students, to deepen their understanding of a topic. Attendance is mandatory in order to enable in-class discussions, and to assess your understanding of the course material as it is being presented and discussed in class. There is no substitute for this in-class interaction in your learning process. There may also be occasional in-class “lecture-tutorial” worksheets, which will be discussed and completed in groups within the class period. Attendance is mandatory in order to enable these discussions and assessment of your understanding of the course material as it is being presented and discussed in class. There is no regular substitute for this interaction in your learning process, and thus no make-up for the points assessed during the class sessions.

Clicker question scoring will be described in class. In general, you will get a majority of points for giving any answer to a clicker question, and then additional points for giving the correct answer. In cases of in-class discussion, the same question will be asked a second time. In those cases, points will be awarded for the second time the question is asked, and not the first.

The lowest three class scores will be dropped so that a few absences or technical issues will not detract from your score. Even if you have an excuse for an absence, there will be no make-up credit for the points missed during the class sessions. However, if you have valid, verifiable excuses for more than three absences, you may get exemptions for those additional absences. See me, and bring your valid excuses AFTER THE ABSENCES, when you are seeking the additional exemptions.

Each student is responsible for bringing his or her clicker to each class session, for verifying that his or her clicker is registered, through BlackBoard Learn, is functioning properly before the beginning of each class, and that each clicker question is answered successfully while clicker polling is open. Any user errors or forgotten clickers will result in a score of 0.

If you must switch clickers within the semester, you must notify me ASAP so that your new clicker, after registered, can be associated with your grade. I will not know you have changed clickers until you tell me.

Grading Policy

Assignment Weight
 Clicker questions and class participation  20%
 Homework (reading & concept quizzes, lowest score for each dropped)  20%
 Unit exams  30%
 Final Exam  30%

While some activities can involve collaborative learning techniques, all assessments are based on individual effort. Copying someone else’s work and representing it as your own is an example of academic misconduct (see Policy on Academic Misconduct below).

Grades are based on the points received for the items listed below. Historically, students perform in similar ways to the following descriptions achieve these points and thus earn their final letter grades.

Students who receive an A are doing truly exceptional work. These students usually do the assigned reading at least twice, once to prepare class and once after class to review the material. They also ask the instructor questions during or after class almost every day to clarify their understanding of a topic. Finally, these students typically solidify their own understanding of the topics by regular discussions, study groups, or tutoring other students in the class.

Students who receive a B are doing very good work. They have above average grades in all areas of the class. They have completed all of the homework and show up to each class. They will ask a question in class occasionally. These students usually do the assigned reading at least once.

Students who receive a C are doing acceptable work. They have not completed one or two of the assignments and may have missed a few classes. They will answer a question in class correctly if called upon but seldom volunteer a response. These students will do the assigned reading when they have a chance, but have likely skimmed or skipped a few chapters.

Students who receive a D are doing poor work. They may have difficulty in most graded areas of the class. They have likely missed more than a few classes and forgotten to do several assignments. The work that they do complete is below average. These students may have read the first few chapters, but quit preparing for class after that.

The MINIMUM percentage points required for each final letter grade are as follows:

96.67% = A+ 86.67% = B+ 76.67% = C+ 66.67% = D+ 0% = F
93.33% = A 83.33% = B 73.33% = C 63.33% = D
90.00% = A- 80.00% = B- 70.00% = C- 60.00% = D-

I reserve the right to lower the requirements for each grade but not raise them. Roughly, 20% of the students in this class will receive A’s, 30% will receive B’s, 30% will receive C’s, 15% will receive D’s and 5% will receive F’s.

Attendance Policy

Class participation (assessed using clickers) contributes 20% of your course grade. Students will receive DEDUCTIONS to their Class Participation grade for instances of inappropriate behavior during class. Examples include the following:

  • not participating in group discussions
  • having discussions about subjects outside of the class material during class time.
  • possessing a ringing phone
  • using computers or phones improperly during class time, such as instant messaging or web surfing (or
  • anything else unrelated to the class material)
  • eating during class
  • sleeping during class
  • distracting a classmate or the instructor by talking at inappropriate times

Attendance is mandatory in order to enable in-class discussions, and to assess your understanding of the course material as it is being presented and discussed in class. There is no substitute for this in-class interaction in your learning process. Even if you have an excuse for an absence, there will be no make-up credit for the points missed during the class sessions. However, the lowest clicker score will be dropped from the class participation calculation at the end of the semester.

Required Texts and Course Materials

  • Bennett, Life in the Universe
  • A Turning Technologies Response Pad is also required.
  • Clickers: As indicated above, a Turning Technologies response pad (“clicker”), is required, and must be registered through BlackBoard Learn.

Textbook website: The publisher of the required textbook has provided an access code to their useful website which includes review quizzes, interactive figures, tutorials, and movies. You will need the Class ID: cm459399 to login to the website http://wps.aw.com/aw_bennett_liu_3. This website also hosts the reading review and concept quizzes which will be assigned for homework in this course.

Extra Credit Opportunities

There will be occasional extra-credit opportunities based on observing objects in our sky with telescopes on the roof of Gallalee Hall and/or in Moundville. Details of these observing assignments will be announced in class and posted on BlackBoard Learn.

Policy on Missed Exams & Coursework

There are no make-up exams unless you have a good, documented, verifiable excuse for missing an exam and you present this excuse to me, carefully following the rules below. Then a special exam or assignment will be required for make-up credit.

If there is a scheduled excuse which conflicts with the exams (dates posted above), you must advise me of, and present written, verifiable documentation of, the excuse before the scheduled exam and schedule a makeup exam/assignment before the regularly scheduled exam is given. If there is an unscheduled emergency, you must present written, verifiable documentation of your emergency (in person or electronically) BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS MEETING, and schedule the make-up exam, before the next class meeting if humanly possible. No further delay will be allowed if a make-up is possible before the next class meeting.

There will be no makeup opportunities for absences for class participation or homework. However, the three lowest clicker scores, and the single lowest concept quiz and reading review scores will be dropped at the end of the course. Absences resulting in scores of 0 are eligible for the dropped scores.

If you have a large number of absences and missed work due to circumstances beyond your control, see me.

Policy on Academic Misconduct

All students in attendance at the University of Alabama are expected to be honorable and to observe standards of conduct appropriate to a community of scholars. The University expects from its students a higher standard of conduct than the minimum required to avoid discipline. Academic misconduct includes all acts of dishonesty in any academically related matter and any knowing or intentional help or attempt to help, or conspiracy to help, another student.

The Academic Misconduct Disciplinary Policy will be followed in the event of academic misconduct.

Classroom Decorum

The Code of Student Conduct requires that students behave in a manner that is conducive to a teaching/learning environment. Students who engage in behavior that is disruptive or obstructive to the teaching/learning environment will be subject to disciplinary sanctions outlined by the Code of Student Conduct.

Disruptive/obstructive behavior is not limited to but may include the following: physical abuse, verbal abuse, threats, stalking, intimidation, harassment, hazing, possession of controlled substances, possession of alcoholic beverages, use of cell phones and beepers in class, reading of newspapers, talking to fellow students during faculty or student presentations.

Disability Statement

If you are registered with the Office of Disability Services, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible to discuss any course accommodations that may be necessary. If you have a disability but have not contacted the Office of Disability Services, please call 348-4285 or visit 133-B Martha Parham Hall East to register for services. Students who may need course adaptations because of a disability are welcome to make an appointment to see me during office hours. Students with disabilities must be registered with the Office of Disability Services, 133-B Martha Parham Hall East, before receiving academic adjustments.

If you have registered with the Office of Disability Services, you MUST see me in my office hours (or a scheduled appointment) before I can provide you with any accommodations.

Severe Weather Protocol

In the case of a tornado warning (tornado has been sighted or detected by radar, sirens activated), all university activities are automatically suspended, including all classes and laboratories. If you are in a building, please move immediately to the lowest level and toward the center of the building away from windows (interior classrooms, offices, or corridors) and remain there until the tornado warning has expired. Classes in session when the tornado warning is issued can resume immediately after the warning has expired at the discretion of the instructor. Classes that have not yet begun will resume 30 minutes after the tornado warning has expired provided at least half of the class period remains.

UA is a residential campus with many students living on or near campus. In general, classes will remain in session until the National Weather Service issues safety warnings for the city of Tuscaloosa. Clearly, some students and faculty commute from adjacent counties. These counties may experience weather-related problems not encountered in Tuscaloosa. Individuals should follow the advice of the National Weather Service for that area taking the necessary precautions to ensure personal safety. Whenever the National Weather Service and the Emergency Management Agency issue a warning, people in the path of the storm (tornado or severe thunderstorm) should take immediate life-saving actions.

When West Alabama is under a severe weather advisory, conditions can change rapidly. It is imperative to get to where you can receive information from the National Weather Service and to follow the instructions provided. Personal safety should dictate the actions that faculty, staff, and students take. The Office of Public Relations will disseminate the latest information regarding conditions on campus in the following ways:

  • Weather advisory posted on the UA homepage
  • Weather advisory sent out through Connect-ED–faculty, staff, and students (sign up at myBama)
  • Weather advisory broadcast over WVUA at 90.7 FM
  • Weather advisory broadcast over Alabama Public Radio (WUAL) at 91.5 FM
  • Weather advisories are broadcast via WUOA/WVUA-TV, which can be viewed across Central Alabama. Also, visit wvuatv.com for up-to-the-minute weather information. A mobile Web site is also available for your convenience.

Academic Honor Code

All students in attendance at The University of Alabama are expected to be honorable and to observe standards of conduct appropriate to a community of scholars. The University of Alabama expects from its students a higher standard of conduct than the minimum required to avoid discipline. At the beginning of the semester and on examinations and projects, you are required to sign and return the following Academic Honor Pledge with your introductory questionnaire to me:

“I promise or affirm that I will not at any time be involved with cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, or misrepresentation while enrolled as a student at The University of Alabama. I have read the Academic Honor Code, which explains disciplinary procedure resulting from the aforementioned. I understand that violation of this code will result in penalties as severe as indefinite suspension from the University.”