From the start we intended to create some sort of unique experience for the students' final exam, representative of the tone and material of the rest of the course. Originally, we planned to craft an apparently alien message for the students to decipher, akin to the message sent by the Arecibo telescope. A later plan was to show Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey during the 3 h final exam period and ask students to write their interpretation of the movie in the 40 min that remained. However, this seemed a short time to write, and (most importantly) a bit too conventional for this very unconventional class. However, it did inspire what we ultimately did for the final exam.
Part One: The Monolith
On the last day of class in the term— three days before the exam—we showed the students the first and last of the four acts of 2001. In the first act, The Dawn of Man, a large black monolith appears on Earth and sparks a tribe of primates to develop primitive bone weapons. This scene ends with the famous cut-scene of a bone-weapon spinning up in the air and then transforming into an orbiting space platform. In the final act, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, an astronaut approaches a similar, larger monolith orbiting Jupiter. His contact experience with this alien intelligence is totally surreal. We discussed the film a bit at the end of class, mostly highlighting Kubrick's “sixties” vision of alien contact and the film's suggestion that the development of human intelligence was sparked by intentional alien prompts.
Thus ended the regular class. We had given the class very few indications about the nature of the final exam except to say “Get a good night's sleep and show up on time.” Students were uneasy with this, naturally, but on the whole they were willing to play along. We'd like to think it was because they were pretty sure that we had something up our sleeve and were confident that, like the other exercises in this class, it would be challenging but ultimately intriguing and do-able. (Trust matters!)
So the morning of the final exam finally arrived. Students showed up to find that the classroom door was closed and its window covered with paper. They sat outside in the hallway waiting for an instructor to open the door. When neither instructor had appeared by the exam start time, one student finally ventured to open the door herself. She found the room to be almost completely empty. The familiar tables and chairs were nowhere to be seen. No instructors either. And in the center of the room was an 8-feet tall black monolith (see Figure 4
The Final Exam, Part One: Cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Students entered the classroom to find it completely empty except for an 8-feet tall black monolith akin to the one in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Four cameras and microphones in each corner of the room recorded their responses.
In the corners of the room were four wireless microphones paired with the four permanently installed cameras for recording classes. While there was nothing written on the whiteboard at the front of the room, on the tray beneath it sat one black marker, four red markers, and nine green markers.
Neither instructor ever showed up nor could we be found in our offices. The aim was to make it as clear as possible that the students were on their own. Shortly after the exam was over, we heard fragmentary accounts of what happened from some of the students, but we only got the full story when we reviewed the videotape along with the audio recordings of the actual session. Initially the students buzzed around the room, having many small conversations about how to proceed. They posed for a group picture with the monolith and emailed it to one instructor. They also tried having every member of the class touch the monolith simultaneously. A few tipped the monolith to look underneath. A few others noticed the number of markers at the front of the rooms and (correctly) reasoned that it was a hidden message. After roughly 30 min of mild chaos, the group collectively agreed (incorrectly) that there must be another monolith (somewhat as in the film) and their first job was to find it. Multiple teams scouted the campus for a second monolith while one team stayed in the classroom to decipher the 1-4-9 marker message. While they had quickly noticed that this was 12
, and 32
, there was considerable discussion about some additional hidden meaning based on the spacing of the markers. One student suggested that 1-4-9 translated to A-D-I and that might be a clue about the room of the second (nonexistent) monolith. Another tried to find a hidden raster image that could be constructed from number or positions of markers and erasers. This was an unexpected but appropriate response. Students had made a connection with the book Contact
), where the alien message is described as a palimpsest, with multiple messages included in various components of the radio signal; in class we had also looked at message in prime-number-ratio rasters in real signals such as the Arecibo message as well as in the novel. These students also started reading about the monolith on Wikipedia, searching for clues about what they should do next.
The student groups reconvened in the room 1 h after the start of the exam. Having failed to find a second monolith, they abandoned their search. Two students then tipped over the monolith and within minutes, the class had formed a circle around it, as if it were a very low conference table (see Figure 5
During the third 30 min, students used the monolith as a conference table and discussed how the monolith related to the class themes.
While the first 30 min of the exam was chaotic, during this 30 min block the class worked as a single unit discussing several topics. The discussion that ensued was both rich and relevant. Students explored the deepest and most open-ended themes of the class, framed the issues carefully and sharply, and listened to each other productively.
One student began, for example, by questioning science itself. “This class made me not believe in science,” she declared. Referring to the Drake Equation—much debated in the class—she argued: “[W]e could have an equation… [but] the equation could be useless. I do not understand how there can be this science where it is not real. There is no way they are ever going to be able to calculate [the correct solution to the Drake equation.]” She concluded that “Science is just, like, pulling things out of the sky.”
Others acknowledged the open-ended nature of the Drake Equation and much of the speculation about ETIs. Still, they argued, venturing guesses is how science works. And progress has been made; we are far better able to quantify some of the factors today than we were when Drake created the equation. “Science is not just equations,” one student concluded. “It is not just people making stuff up. It is people trying to examine the world in a systematized way.”
I love thinking about how throughout human history, it has always been evident that there are things that we had no perception of. That, I imagine most of the time, through science, we finally discovered. You know, forces of gravity, magnetism, and sub-atomic particles. Everything … that we had no idea existed, and then we found it, and it changed everything. I don't think that is going to change. So, there are so many things, I think, in our future that are going to come up that we have no perception of.
Our search for aliens, he concluded, may be one of those things, too.
Many students reflected on how the class had changed their perspective on humanity's place in the Universe, including one who said:
This class has just made me feel more insignificant…. Not like in a sad way. [T]he universe is just so big and I never really considered that before. [E]ven if there are other species out there, I still feel like we're probably very rare. [I]t just made me feel small. I look up at the sky, “Oh my God, there's so much stuff up there and how tiny am I?”
Another student had the opposite perspective:
I think alternatively it would make some people feel bigger because there's all this space and it's just [for?] us. We're the only ones. [W]e're not really insignificant because we are such a rarity.
Contesting this anthropocentrism in turn, and remembering the COTI experience, others argued that we already live in a co-inhabited and vast world. “I think it is interesting,” said one, “that we think of life as plants and animals but when you think of aliens, no one ever thinks of plants. Is a forest an alien civilization?” Especially, added another, “if it had any way of communicating with each other but not that we could perceive.” The open-endedness of contemporary SETI, some said, might extend even to such possibilities.
Especially intriguing to us as instructors were students' thoughts about the transformative impact of the class. One student asked a question that actually became a touchstone for our thinking about this very “exam.” “What were our characteristics at the beginning,” she asked, “and how has this class changed us to become … less of the babies and more of the adults?” Another asked more pointedly: “How would you all have reacted to this [i.e., the monolith] on the first day of class?” One said: “The first day of class, we all would have walked in and just said, ‘What the hell?’” Others responded by talking about how much more seriously they were now inclined to take the topic of ETIs in general; how much better informed they were about the current state of astrobiological investigation and indeed the Universe in general, and how comfortable with some of the philosophical questions it all raises. In general, one reported, “I feel a lot more accepting of my uncertainty…. A lot of us feel that.”
One student spoke to the very moment:
When they were telling us about the final [they said], “We promise you will remember this final probably more than any other final at Elon.” I'll remember it. Not necessarily because of the fact that we figured it out but the fact that I walked into the room and there is a big, giant black box there. That is something you're going to remember and that experience, like, alters your perception of your four years in college.
Following this, a lovely theme emerged of the way that this very exam not only mirrored the course as a whole but also our situation with regard to potential ETIs. As one student summed it up:
If we were to find aliens sometime in the future, that is the unknown. That's what this [exam] is for us. It is the unknown. We don't know how to respond. There's no rules. There's no correct way to handle this. If we go out there and find aliens, that is exactly what it is going to be. It is going to be, “What do we do now? What are they expecting of us?”
When Weston first heard this comment (on the tape), his reaction was elated, saying “That's an ‘A’ moment right there!” Since we (the instructors) are the “they” of the last question, we note too that the question essentially puts us into the problem, too—as the metaphorical aliens.
To some extent, this conversation might have been honors students playing to the camera. Indeed, one student placed two of the microphones atop the monolith-turned-conference table. However, even if this was the case, we found that the students excelled in their ability to relate the monolith to the class themes. We also noted that they automatically worked on the monolith challenge as a group. No one proposed working on it separately. (It might actually have been good for them to have gone one step farther when they were talking in the circle—to have gone around the circle somewhat more deliberately so that everyone had a chance and expectation to say something. As it was, they began this, but in their excitement did not sustain it.)
As the conversation wound down, several of the students proposed moving the monolith outside. There were two articulated motives for this. One student had read on Wikipedia that in the movie “[n]ot long after the monolith is exposed to sunlight after excavation, it emits an extremely powerful burst of radio-frequency energy.” Other students wanted to share the monolith with the rest of the campus. It is also possible that they were seeking closure with the monolith, and simply leaving as it was when they found it was not enough. (This mirrors the film, too: after finding the monolith on then Moon, humans almost immediately follow its signal to Jupiter.)
The base of the monolith contained four 30-pound cement blocks, meant to stabilize the monolith and deter the students from moving it. Nevertheless, they managed to slide the monolith out the door and, in time, down the stairs. They erected the monolith outside of the building just in time for the second part of their exam.
Assessment of the Exam Experiences
In advance of this final we had little idea, frankly, what the students would do. We did, of course, brainstorm possibilities—enough to persuade us that the class in fact had good options for both parts of the final—but we knew, especially for the monolith, that these were only a few of many. In the end, we found ourselves quite happy with the students' actual responses to the monolith, but less happy with their responses to “Animal Planet.” We were hoping that the students would have a more meaningful interaction with the chickens, considering them less as the stereotyped dumb animal of the popular imagination and more like other, nearly alien minds. After all, the students were, in a sense, intruders in the chickens' native place—not altogether dissimilar, again, from the KICK Astronauts landing on Aurora. At least they might have tried a more thoughtful and open-ended approach to the animals, and taken more care about the chicken pizza. The COTI experience and the class discussion in its aftermath afforded students some conceptual resources for this approach, and we also tried to prime the pump a bit in advance by instructing the class that the second part of the final was indeed part of the test, and might even have a fairly clear “correct response.”
Before the exam, we had a limited rubric in mind for grading this exercise. Eating the chicken pizza in front of chickens would be a C; forgoing the chicken pizza but eating the cheese pizza (a very human food) would be a B; while eating sunflowers seeds with the chickens, sitting on the ground, would be an A. After watching both video from “The Monolith” and “Animal Planet,” however, we found ourselves working out a new, general rubric to evaluate both parts of the final exam.
During the postexam viewing of videotapes, we began categorizing the various behaviors that we witnessed. We initially categorized these merely as A-level, B-level, C-level, etc. until we heard one student on the tape say, “How would you all have reacted to this on the first day of class?”
This question, coupled with our existing framework, led us to reclassify the activities using new, clearer categories based on the degree of student transformation. Student transformation in higher education often begins with an activating event (Cranton 20023
) such as our monolith or the chicken-loud backyard. For Part One: The Monolith, we classified the following statements and behaviors using this rubric:
|Level Three|| |
respond to the instructors' “message” with an similarly enigmatic message
move the monolith to a meaningful location (with appropriate rationale)
explore the connection between the nature of the exam and the class
demonstrate comfort with the ambiguity of the exam
manifest a “new level of consciousness” (taking the monolith as a “spark”) in some other way
|Level Two|| |
research the monolith online
search for a second monolith
conduct a limited group discussion about the exam
|Level One|| |
|Level Zero|| |
For Part Two: Animal Planet, we classified the following statements and behaviors using this rubric:
|Level Three|| |
sit on the ground with the chickens (“get on their level”—see what develops)
forgo eating the chicken pizza (unless the chickens eat some first: this could be tried as an experiment)
eat sunflower seeds with the chickens
offer the chickens water in a chicken-suitable glass vessel while also drinking water from human-suitable glass vessel
discuss the connection between the nature of the exam and the class
|Level Two|| |
observe the antenna as a possible communication device
throw chicken seeds to the chickens
raise and explore questions about the exam
|Level One|| |
see but ignore the chickens
treat the chickens at pets or livestock
eat the chicken pizza in the presence of chickens
|Level Zero|| |
hurt the chickens
chase the chickens
While reflecting on these, we developed a meta-rubric to classify the specific actions in a fashion akin to the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics created by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (Rhodes 201011
). Multiple items in the 14 VALUE rubrics could be used to evaluate our final exam, in particular those related to Creating Thinking, Integrative Learning, Intercultural Knowledge and Competence, and (if we were assigning individual grades) Teamwork. However, based on our own observation, we distilled the transformative effects of the class into the following categories:
|Level Three||The student exhibits a behavior within the class that is reasonable, appropriate, possibly original, and reflects incorporation of the course material; and makes a statement articulating the rationale in those terms.|
|Level Two||The student makes a statement or raises questions that is reasonable, appropriate and reflects learning of the course material.|
|Level One||The student makes a statement or exhibits a behavior that is reasonable and appropriate for the situation but does not necessarily reflect learning of the course material.|
|Level Zero||The student makes a statement or exhibits a behavior that is unreasonable or inappropriate for the situation.|
We saw several behaviors for Part One: The Monolith that we identified as Level Three. However, for Part Two: Animal Planet, there was an even mix of Level Two and Level One activities and very few Level Three and Level Zero instances. We saw almost nothing the mirrored the Capstone/Level 4 indicators of the VALUE rubrics (except for those in Teamwork). This might be expected given that these were sophomores. (Still, we speculate that a Level Four transformative effect might be that the student reveals evidence of impact beyond the classroom that the course activities and material have had, such as a more reciprocal and less anthropocentric attention to other animals beyond the backyard chickens—but we were not in a position to assess this.)
The Monolith was a completely open-ended final challenge, an invitation to do something creative and appropriate but—“like in the real world,” as our students say without a trace of irony—with absolutely no direction about how. We had purposefully left students with merely a few hints from our concluding discussion of 2001:A Space Odyssey. For example, we noted that in the film the appearance of the monolith signaled and created a “spark” that represented a dramatic change in level of human consciousness. By analogy, then, the unexpected disappearance of everything familiar in our usual classroom and the appearance of our own (rather imposing and indeed “awesome”) monolith signaled and invited the class to try to articulate a change of consciousness of their own, somehow. In this case, our students indeed discussed how this class itself represented a shift in consciousness for them.
It was, at the very least, an “awesome” final not just in the sense that the monolith itself was physically awesome (8-feet tall, solid deep black, and quite heavy) but also that it once again put students thoroughly and completely “inside the questions” posed by the class, and this time in a totally open-ended and high-wire way. They had to figure out how what we had done in that room over the term could somehow be imagined to crystallize a change in human consciousness as such, and how such a change could be made manifest to others, at least as far as one small group of young humans might take it in two hours. Experiential education on the edge, indeed. In this sense, we are not saying that this was the best final exam in the history of final exams. Neither was it the most challenging, the most beautiful, nor the most provocative. However, we think it was very awesome.
“Animal Planet”, meanwhile, returned to the dynamic of the Astronaut-Auroran alien encounter, as well as picking up of some of the themes of course relating to communication with other animals (or as Weston would put it, Other-Than-Human Minds) right here on Earth. How would the students be with the chickens, after all was said and almost all was done?
Here is part of what we wrote to the students afterwards about this part of the final:
Our basic question was: having finished this class with multiple discussions of alien (and animal) intelligences and gone through the COTI simulation in particular, where the “pet” issue was central, how would your response to the chickens differ from the likely response of students who'd not taken the class? In the event, we saw some evidence, in some of your responses, that you were taking the chickens as other forms of intelligence and as such, co-inhabitants (or natives) of the backyard with perspectives and needs of their own that you could relate to. We also saw a number of responses that suggested that some more learning is needed here….
We did hear someone raise the question “how do we find an answer to this?” Someone else said: “I think we just eat”… hmmm… Again: this is a reprise of the Aurora situation! You need to do something with the chickens. (Somebody said that: “We need to interact with the chickens” … but as a group you didn't follow through.) You were partially redeemed because some of you did momentarily start to relate to the chickens, though we're not sure anyone got all the way out of “pet” mode, at least as far as we saw. Perhaps if you'd had more time you would have figured this out and gotten more systematic about it—much as you did with the monolith, which also started out (naturally) confused and somewhat scattered. However, while the time scale of “Planet Monolith” is very slow and forgiving, the time scale of “Planet Chicken” is not. Once the chicken pizza has been consumed, it is hard to “uneat” it. (This itself is a metaphor for other human challenges, of course.) Much like the KICK Astronaut experience, the will and inertia of the crowd overcame the few voices that hinted, “Maybe we shouldn't do this.”
It was not a bad point to end the class on, though: with the reminder that the question of relationship remains, and that, in a sense, we can never have enough humility, learned as we might be, as we stand in confusion as well as awe before a world that will, and should, always continue to surprise us.