A novel approach to teaching astrophysics, including teams of students solving
science fiction mysteries, has led to the class exercises of ANU lecturer Dr
Paul Francis being used in twenty universities around the world.

"Too many science students finish their education convinced that astrophysics is
all about rote learning obscure facts," Dr Francis said. "I want to show them
that science is more like a murder mystery."

At the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union today, Dr
Francis will present his very different way of teaching astrophysics as part of
a session bringing together the best astronomy lecturers from around the world.

Too often, astrophysics classes consist of complicated equations written on a
blackboard, but this is not the case for Dr Francis’ students.

They are put to work in detective teams, trying to solve a baffling science
fiction mystery. In one exercise, the class is the crew of the starship USS
Drongo, which has crash-landed on the distant planet Ziggy. They use their
scientific skills, as well as some computer-simulated telescopes, to work out
where they are, and how to get home.

In another class, they play the role of the medieval inhabitants of the city
Mog, which is in a far away land where the clouds have never broken, and no one
has seen the sky. As residents, they try to figure out what is above the clouds
(and avoid being burnt by the inquisition).

"There are lots of perplexing clues and many red herrings. Somehow you have to
sort through all of the confusing and contradictory information to find the
precious nuggets of truth," Dr Francis said.

Dr Francis has carried out assessments of the effectiveness of his exercises and
provides details about their underlying theory online
(www.mso.anu.edu.au/~pfrancis/roleplay.html). They are used by a number of
international universities, particularly in the United States.

"It is important to make students feel intelligent and that their own ideas are
important and valued, and these exercises do that from the feedback I’ve
received," Dr Francis said.

Dr Francis holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and has been a lecturer
in the Department of Physics at the ANU, as well as a Fellow in the Research
School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, since 1997.

His research interests include quasars, quasar surveys and their cosmology,
galaxy formation and novel and interactive teaching techniques; he was awarded
the ANU Vice-Chancellors Teaching Award in 2000.

Dr Francis will explain and illustrate his unique teaching method at the IAU
conference Teachers Day on Saturday, 26 July.