Ariel Anbar can trace his love of science back to watching Star Trek as a child and a fascination with science fiction. It also didn’t hurt that his dad was a scientist. Currently a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU, Anbar is trying to pay it forward, playing surrogate science-dad to a generation of ASU students.
In 2014, Anbar was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, the first in ASU’s history, which came with a five-year, $1 million grant in recognition of his research and teaching, which centers on the Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet.
The grant enabled Anbar to build a suite of online immersive virtual field trips and other interactive digital experiences to teach students about the evolution of life and the environment over time, which he also uses in his popular online course titled “Habitable Worlds.” The class is designed to teach science to nonscientists and includes interactive activities such as creating and destroying stars, hunting for planets and searching for signs of life in a simulated universe. To date, more than 2,000 ASU students have taken the class.
For many students, “Habitable Worlds” is the terminal science class of their formal education, and Anbar wants to make sure they leave inspired as well as challenged. “If it’s the last science class they take, we ought to make it cool as well as rigorous,” he says.
Anbar sees a shift in the way science is being taught, with more emphasis on guiding students through the process of problem-solving rather than memorizing facts and equations. It’s a movement that’s gaining ground one classroom and lecture hall at a time and advances in online technology create powerful new opportunities for this type of teaching, he says. “Right now, we’re in the silent-movie stage of online education. Avatar and Gravity are in our future.”
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