Incorporating and Managing Independent Research Projects in the Class


  • Michael Summers George Mason University; Department of Physics and Astronomy
  • Jessica Rosenberg George Mason University
  • Larry Paxton Johns Hopkins University



research experiences for undergraduates



This session will present an example (from an astrobiology course) of how incorporating independent research projects in the classroom increase student engagement in the course, interdisciplinary studies, and student interest beyond the scope of the specified course. Specific strategies that work across disciplines for scaffolding project tasks, managing and giving feedback to a large number of independent projects will be discussed.à


FULL ABSTRACT: Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. One of the major areas of research in astrobiology is to understand the habitability of planets around other stars ââ¬â known as exoplanets. Over 3600 exoplanets are currently known and they are being discovered at a rate of about 2 per day. This new field of science is highly interdisciplinary, including physics, chemistry and biology, as well as other sciences, because it encompasses the entirely of under standing life on planets. The required term project in ASTR 301 is known as the Pet Planet Project. At the beginning of the term each student chooses, from a subset of the known planets, a planet that is somewhat Earth-like. Each two weeks, the students are given a common set of questions, but they must answer them about their specific Pet Planet. These questions are basic at the beginning, how the planet was discovered, what the bulk properties are such as size, mass, year, etc. As the semester progresses, the questions get more detailed, such as some related to temperature ranges, composition, climate variability. By the end of the semester the questions deal with habitability and selecting Earth organisms that could survive there now or at some time in their planetââ¬â¢s history. By that point each student is asking and answering questions about their term project which are completely new, never before asked nor answered, and each student is rapidly become one of our worldââ¬â¢s top experts on their particular planet. At the same time, each student is learning original research in an interdisciplinary field. The students are highly motivated. This last semester I had to add 2 hours of office time per week for the students that wanted to make sure they were right, and how to go further. Of the 30 students in the class, 8 continued into the following semester with their research as independent studies, with plans for publishing their work. Managing this large number of students doing original research is still not easy, but can be manageable with suitable feedback mechanisms.

For more information about experiential learning:à

Author Biographies

Michael Summers, George Mason University; Department of Physics and Astronomy

Michael Summers is a professor of Physics and Astronomy.

**2014 GMU Teaching Excellence Award**

Jessica Rosenberg, George Mason University

Associate Professor





2:45pm-3:25pm Mini-Workshops, Panels, & Roundtables