Evaluating an interactive undergraduate cosmology curriculum

Advances in cosmology over the last several decades have radically changed our understanding of the Universe. These discoveries offer a unique opportunity to connect and deeply engage students with authentic, rigorous scientific experiences and learning. We examine a curriculum designed around this premise, the Big Ideas in Cosmology, to assess its effectiveness in helping students understand core cosmological concepts, and what influences it has on their attitudes toward science. Over two semesters, we field-tested the curriculum in upper division, general education cosmology courses at a state university in California [N ~ 80]. Pre- and post-instruction surveys (multiple-choice and open-ended) were administered, aimed at examining student’s content understanding, and how that understanding had shifted by the conclusion of the semester. Topics addressed included the structure, composition, and evolution of the universe, particularly examining students’ reasoning and their understanding of “how we know” the details in question. An assessment of students’ attitudes and beliefs about physics (CLASS) was also administered pre and post. We find after completing a course using these Big Idea modules, students’ responses to questions about fundamental cosmology topics are more correct and complete than at the beginning of the semester, especially in topics such as dark matter and dark energy. We also find that students’ attitudes align more with experts in the categories of problem solving sophistication and applied conceptual understanding after using Big Ideas.