University Problem Based Learning Exercises for Teaching Astronomy and Physics

Paul J. Francis
[The Australian National University] [Department of Physics] [Paul Francis] [Main Roleplay Page]


These exercises are my attempt to adapt the technique of Problem Based Learning to the context of introductory astronomy and astrophysics classes.

Rather than lecturing to the students and then testing their understanding with narrowly focussed question sheets, the idea is to set them a large, complex puzzle. This puzzle is modelled on real astronomical research as closely as possible. As students grapple with the puzzle, they are forced to learn the subject matter of the course.

For more details on the theory behind these exercises, and how they can be run, see the draft paper below:

Problem-Based Learning Paper, (HTML).

Copies of the Exercsies

Stromlo: a Cosmological Mystery

You are a bright young astronomer, newly appointed to the world famous Mt Stromlo Observatory. Your mission - to discover how the universe began.

In this text-based computer adventure game, you must wander around the mountain, picking up clues. You can talk to other astronomers, read books in the library, pick up the gossip at morning tea and listed to seminars. You can apply for telescope time, and if successful, go to the telescopes and carry out observations.

Slowly, you can put together enough clues to figure out the astounding truth - that the universe is expanding, and started in a Big Bang!

The Game's Web Page

Rescue in Space: An On-line Video Game

Deep in space, three spaceships are stranded. You are hotshot rocket pilots: you mission is to rescue them. But fuel is limited...

This exercise is based around three JAVA rocket simulator programs. It is designed to teach students in an intuitive way about Newton's laws and about orbits. It's been used both with non-Maths classes and with core 1st year Physics.

Ask me if you'd like a copy of the source code or of the JAVA applet used to run these exercises.

The Exercises: Student page (refer students directly to this page)

The Exercises: Educator page (notes, source code etc.)

Planet Ziggy and its Universe.

The starship USS Drongo has fallen through a wormhole and crashed onto the mysterious planet Ziggy. The science Team's mission: to find out about the region of space into which you've been hurled.

This is used for 1st year students with no maths/physics experience. It is designed to complement the galaxies and cosmology part of the course, though it also tests some of the night sky material. I use this as the major assessment item for this part of the course. Full details at the link below.

The students play the role of scientists abord a crashed starship. They have to figure out where they have crashed from observations of the night sky.

Ziggy Exercise

A more advanced version, designed for students with more maths and physics background (Assignment 1).

The Wandering Star

Imhabitants of the planet Mog have noticed a rather striking pattern of stars, low in the western horizon. But all is not as it seems...

This exercise is designed for 1st year students with no maths and physics background. I use it in tutes: I pose a puzzle on the whiteboard and the students have to figure out what is going on, working in teams. If you have data projection facilities you could project the powerpoint file directly for the students rather than drawing a copy on the board.

Fake Cosmology Exercise (The Zog Assignment)

The peace-loving aliens of Planet Zog are discovering the cosmology of their universe for the first time. And it seems to be very different from that of the Earth's universe...

This exercise is run with 1st year students with a reasonable maths and physics background. It is run as the assessment for the part of the course covering extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

I've basically invented a fictitious universe, with a cosmology rather different from our own. The students have to figure out this cosmology from the data given.

The exercise is set up as two assignments. The students do these in turn, at two week intervals. Meanwhile, in parallel, I'm lecturing about the cosmology of our universe, and how it was deduced.

e-mail me for the answers.

The Mystery Planet

Cryptic radio signals have been detected from deep in space. A starship is dispatched to investigate...

Another exercise for the same students. This exercise is designed to run in parallel with the solar system part of the course. It teaches how we can deduce the properties of a planet with remarkably little information.

It is run as the main assessment task for this section of the course (for details of the course, click here). The students are issued the assignment and the first set of data at the start. The second data set is issued roughly 10 days later.

e-mail me for the answers.

Lost in Space

The crew of the starship USS Drongo have falled through a wormhole into another universe. Can they deduce enough about this universe to find their way home?

This exercise is designed for 1st year University students with a reasonable high-school background in Maths and Physics. It teaches observational cosmology and the distance scale, as well as the scientific method.

It is run as part of the assessment of this course, over four weeks.

Further Information

For further information, contact Dr. Paul Francis, either by e-mail at

or at the addresses/telephone numbers listed here.

Last updated 15th April 2004.
Maintainer: Paul Francis