University Role-Playing Exercises for Teaching Astronomy and Physics: Copies

Paul J. Francis

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


This page provides information about, and copies of the role-playing exercises I use in my undergraduate Astronomy classes.

You are very welcome to use, copy and modify these exercises. I only ask that you cite me as the source, and that you let me know that you are using them, and how the exercises went.

These exercises have now been used successfully in three other Australian universities, at least ten US universities, a university in Eire, and in several UK, US and Australian high-schools to date.

How They Work

In these exercises, I divided my class into small teams typically of three students). Each team is then given a briefing paper, describing some facet of a particular astronomical mystery. The teams have to wander around the classroom, exchanging information with other groups, until they can piece together a complete solution to the astronomical mystery. They can then present their solution and win a prize.

The exercises have been run successfully in classes as large as 150 students, and as small as 12 students. I see no reason why they should no work equally well in larger classes still. They have been run with students as young as Year 10, and as old as grad students.

For more details on how to run these exercises, some of the pitfalls, and a guide to the underlying theory, see my paper in PASA:

On-line Paper

I have carried out a careful assessment of the effectiveness of these exercises, which is written up here:

Evaluation Results

Pictures of a Roleplaying Session in Action

Copies of the Exercises

Most exercises were written for a 1st Year university astronomy class for students with no maths or physics background.

Many of these exercises have also been successfully run with year 10-12 high school students, and with the general public. They can also be used with more advanced students, who still seem to find them challenging.

Case Study: Star and Planet Formation Exercise for 1st Year Astronomy Students.

You are the world authorities of the formation of stars and planets, gathered together here at enormous expense by NASA to solve this perplexing puzzle...

This is the exercise described in my paper. It is designed to teach students how solar systems form. I prepare students by describing some of the clues to the formation of the solar system (all the planets in circular, co-planar orbits, gassy ones further out, Sun in the middle). I start the exercise by posing the problem: how do you turn a giant molecular cloud into a star and planets? The class then divide themselves into groups of 3. Each group is given one of the briefing papers. If there are more groups than briefing papers, I give each paper to more than one group. They then have to exchange information to try and come up with a complete theory, and win a prize (usually chocolate or a glow-in-the-dark star). See my paper for more details.


Understanding the Sky Exercise for 1st Year Astronomy Students.

The city of Mog lies on a perfectly flat plain in the middle of a swamp. The inhabitants of Mog are highly intelligent and scientific, but have no concept of astronomy, because the clouds over Mog have never broken in recorded history. Recently, some perplexing facts have come to light that seem to go against the orhtodox theory of Mog's universe. Your mission: to sort out these facts, without being burnt by the inquisition in the process...

I use this exercise in the first lecture of class, to introduce students to the sky, and how difficult it can be to study. Notes on how to run it are included in the exercise. Basically students play the role of inhabitants of a planet on which the clouds have never broken. They have to figure out what the sky is like.

This exercise can get very rowdy! I don't normally have problems with it, but one user in the USA reported that some students became very aggressive and confrontational towards each other in playing their roles. It might be worth removing the "inquisition" briefing paper, if you think your class might do this.


I also wrote a couple of follow-up exercises set in the same imaginary universe:

Exercise 1(Powerpoint)

Exercise 2(Powerpoint)

These teach about planets and how they appear in the sky.

Runaway Greenhouse Effect Exercise

Why is Venus so much hotter than the Earth? You are a group of experts gathered from around the world to solve this long-standing mystery...

This exercise teaches students about the greenhouse effect. I pose the question of why Venus is so ridiculously hot, when it isn't that much closer to the Sun than us: its equilibrium temperature should be around 50C, not 400+C. (Word)

Captain Cook Exercise

It is the year 1760. You are the cabinet of England. Some obscure sailor by the name of Captain Cook is asking for funding to go exploring in the south seas. Should you give it to him?

The aim is to get them to think about the long term benefits or otherwise of space travel. I start off the session by describing some of the arguments for and against ventures such as colonising Mars, pointing out that it is technically quite feasible - the sticking points are economic and political. The class then have to play the role of members of the British Cabinet in the 1760s, trying to decide whether to send Captain Cook to explore the south seas. Once they are well and truly stuck into this argument, I ask them to move forward a few hundred years and transpose the same issues into space exploration.

It seems to work best if each role is given to a group of 2-3 students rather than to an individual.


Life in Space Exercise

Is there intelligent life in space? You are world experts on this question gathered together to try and solve it.

The aim of this exercise is to teach the basic concepts behind the Drake equation. Full notes are included.


International Space Law

You are the UN committee on international space law. An American company is asking for permission to "own" an asteroid. This would set a precedent for private property in space. What should the law be?

This exercise is designed to teach students about international space law, or the lack thereof. I ran it in a tute, with 2-3 people in a group playing each role. A set of notes on international space law are included.


Mystery Cosmology Exercise

You live on a far-away planet in a distant universe. You have been studying distant galaxies, and finding some remarkable and disturbing results. What do they tell you about your universe?

An exercise designed to teach students about the Hubble Law, spectra and the Milky Way.


Exercises for More Advanced Students

The following exercises are for more advanced students.

Our Galaxy

This exercise was designed for a 1st year class, but one which was assumed to have at least a little maths and physics background. It teaches about the discovery that we live in a galaxy, and the size and shape of our galaxy (the Milky Way).

As usual, the class are divided up into rival groups and given one briefing paper each. They have to exchange information to explain the bizarre facts of the night sky and win a prize.


Nuclear Configuration Exercise for 3rd Year Nuclear Physics Students.

Aidan Byrne contributed this exercise, which he uses with his 3rd year nuclear physics class. It is used not to teach material but to consolidate the material already taught. (HTML) , (LaTeX) , (Postscript)

High Redshift Galaxy Exercise for Astronomy Graduate Students.

This exercise was used at a winter school of graduate and honours students. They had to play the role of an astronomy conference trying to decide which new telescope projects to fund. It teaches them about future telescope projects and about galaxy formation.

(HTML) , (LaTeX) , (Postscript)

Telescope Time Allocation Committee Exercise for Astronomy Graduate Students

This exercise too was used at a winter school of graduate and honours students. It was designed to help students write better telescope proposals, by exposing them to the way time assignment committees (TACs) work. The class were divided up into teacms of six, each of which played the role of the TAC for the Lunar Farside Telescope, in the year 2100. Each of the six students was given one of the roles, as described in the roles briefing papers.

The students then had to grade a bunch of fake telescope proposals, and choose which (if any) got time. they were allowed to allocate only one farside night.

Last updated 15th April 2004.
Maintainer: Paul Francis,