TitleAstrobiology & Life in Extreme Environments: Cross-Disciplinary Course Development Request Date2012-11-30
DepartmentAstrobiology & Life in Extreme Environments
RequestorJohn Peters Phone994-7212
Campuses Bozeman Billings Havre Great Falls FSTS Extension MAES
Cross Depts  
Proposed Dates Start: 2013 End: 2016
ALEE is proposing a suite of activities that focus on engaging undergraduate students by introducing new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education courses and training opportunities, emphasizing workforce development and making tangible connections to industrial partners and national laboratories. Specific new course offerings will be developed in basic and applied Extremophile Science, Astrobiology, and Bioenergy. Coupling these new courses with TBI’s emerging Undergraduate Workforce Development Program will integrate basic and applied science and engineering, facilitating a more fluid transition for students into the workforce.
This proposal addresses the integration component of the new MSU Strategic Plan, and specifically Objective I.2. “Increase work across disciplines”. This proposal will move MSU toward achieving its metric of increasing the number of interdisciplinary programs by developing and offering an interdisciplinary minor in an appealing area that is already a research strength for MSU. It is in the interface of disciplines where the most interesting global and societal issues exist, and one way to appeal to and train students is through programmatic opportunities such as minors and majors. Between 1975-2000, the number of interdisciplinary programs at US institutions for undergraduates increased by almost 250%. Training students to interact with and understand more than one discipline better prepares them for the complex world in which they will live and work. For many students who have grown up in a global, interactive society, the ability to foster non-linear thinking to address pressing societal and scientific questions is one of the advantages of interdisciplinary education. With its emphasis on integration, MSU’s strategic plan encourages interdisciplinarity, and this proposal is a targeted investment toward this important goal. Additionally, Objective L.3 is addressed though the workforce development component of this proposal which includes fostering undergraduate internships in a working partnership with national laboratories and industry.
Funding Type: One-Time Only Funding Base (3-yr Recurring) Funding
  FY13 FY14 FY15 Base ($) OTO Startup ($)   FTE;
Salaries       34000       
Benefits       5226       
Materials & Supplies              
Contracted Services       3000       
Other Operations       30000       
TOTAL 72226     
Please comment, if necessary, regarding cost and requirements.

Under salaries we have included one teaching assistant at $22,000 plus benefits at 0.63% ($1,386) and 1/4 time Administration Professional at $12,000 plus benefits at 32.0% (3,840). Total of salaries is $34,000 with a  total of benefits at $5,226 yearly.

Contracted services is for videoconferencing services.

The $30,000 in the 'other' category is allotted for a teaching buyout for 2 classes at $12,500/each- year and the remaining $5,000 if allotted for 5 ($1,000) internships yearly.

Describe the Proposal

The Astrobiology & Life in Extreme Environments (ALEE) is an overarching program that includes three established programs and Centers of Excellence (Thermal Biology Institute, Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center, and Cold Regions Research Program).  These activities have been the catalyst for high profile research and education successes centered around world class research programs on life in extreme environments, emphasizing a long tradition of extremophile research in the Yellowstone National Park thermal environments and Antarctica.   The ALEE program’s activities have been a model for interdisciplinary research and education, thus establishing ALEE to be uniquely poised in implementing meaningful and desirable curriculum across science and engineering disciplines.

Due to the focused expertise of established, traditional academic units, developing interdisciplinary curriculum options that support MSU strategic goals for integration highlighted in the strategic plan is very challenging.  The world-class expertise within the ALEE program is ideally set to generate and execute interdisciplinary programs that will facilitate the engagement of top universities, national laboratories, and industry in the education of future MSU graduates; at the same time, bolster workforce development among undergraduates.   We propose that MSU make a modest strategic investment to enable ALEE to develop and administer a new interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum and supplement undergraduate internships.  A three-year investment would provide the resources to develop and enhance two interdisciplinary minors Astrobiology (existing) and Bioenergy (new), administer the associated new capstone course offerings, and create an internship/workforce development matching program.

 We have recently developed a minor in Astrobiology, and this program is growing and can serve as a blueprint for additional interdisciplinary minors.  MSU's minor in Astrobiology requires 22 credits consisting of lower-level courses in Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Philosophy, and Physics (Astronomy); upper-level electives in those disciplines; and two new courses in Astrobiology--a gateway (introductory) and capstone (advanced) course.  The introductory astrobiology course (PHIL 287) is offered through the MSU Department of History and Philosophy and is an interdisciplinary philosophy of science course on the nature of life and its origins. Students attend a lecture three times a week, as well as a once-a-week lab/recitation section. In addition, students are exposed to general aspects of research conducted on the origins of life, life in extreme environments, artificial life and intelligence, and the possibility of alternative life forms.  This course is a required introductory course for the new Astrobiology minor, but is also of value to students from a wide variety of majors because of its focus on fundamental philosophical questions about the nature and origin of living things, and the scientific, social, and ethical implications this has for artificial and alternative life forms. Students are also exposed to philosophical analysis of concepts that are central to many disciplines such as evidence, observation, and explanation.

The second course concept we have developed and tested is a capstone course in which we have complemented classroom learning with videoconferencing technologies that allow us to bring the Astrobiology community to the students. The course (CHMY350) is offered by the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at MSU, but planned to be cross-listed in multiple departments.  It is targeted for upper level science majors and specifically the Astrobiology Minors.  The course includes a number of innovative teaching elements and is evaluated several times throughout the semester using metrics to assess student performance, specific learning outcomes and student engagement. The key innovative elements of the course include 1) multiple mini lectures presented by researchers from the larger Astrobiology community and 2) a service learning / communicating science to public audiences recitation. Course lecture topics are complemented with mini lectures (20-30 min.) in which Astrobiology researchers join the class live via 2-way videoconferencing.  During our test semester, it was clear that this was a very exciting opportunity for the students and it was possible to have at least one of these lectures per week while maintaining continuity in course content. The vision of this concept is to capture the news of timely discoveries, but also delve into specific topic areas in presentations that can be archived for subsequent semesters and also be made available to the broader community.

The Astrobiology minor, established through grant support from NASA, is on a clear path to being a very attractive and value added option for science majors that are majoring in a variety of science disciplines including Chemistry, Earth Science, Microbiology, Physics, Philosophy, and Science Education.  The courses received very high marks in student evaluations and the capstone course was nominated for the student nominated Teaching Innovation Award.  Unfortunately, federal funds are no longer available to support this program and there is an immediate and imperative need to institutionalize support to administer the minor and the associated courses.

In addition to support for continued growth in the Astrobiology program, we propose to use this successful model to develop an interdisciplinary Minor in Bioenergy.  This topic is significant, timely, interdisciplinary, and of interest to MSU students, and there are clear applications and opportunities in the future workforce for students with education and training in this area.  Equally important, this is a unique opportunity to create an interdisciplinary program that solidly integrates the sciences and engineering in a substantive way.  The Bioenergy minor will be offered for students who wish to acquire the knowledge and skills to better understand, or prepare for a career in the rapidly developing field of bioenergy. The minor will require a minimum of 21 credits with 9 of the credits from courses numbered 300 and above.  Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the bioenergy field, and the desire to integrate students across disciplines, courses required for the minor will draw from both the College of Letters and Sciences and the College of Engineering.  These courses will be tailored specifically for students majoring in the Biological Sciences and Engineering.  Specifically, we anticipate the minor will appeal to a wide variety of MSU students, particularly in the following majors: Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Microbiology, Biotechnology, Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems, Bioengineering, and Chemical Engineering within the colleges of: Agriculture, Engineering, and Letters and Science.  

Building on the success of the capstone Astrobiology course, a new capstone course on Bioenergy and Renewable Chemicals will be developed for a new interdisciplinary Minor in Bioenergy. This new course will focus on renewable biological sources of energy.  In addition, the course will explore methods for biochemical conversion of feedstocks, life cycle analysis, as well as social and ethical implications of bioenergy.  Throughout the course, we will weave MSU’s research on the unique potential of extremophilic microorganisms to contribute to novel energy systems such as hydrogen production, algal biofuels, and novel extreme enzymes for lignocellulose conversion to ethanol.  As with the Astrobiology capstone, we will supplement classroom learning by including multidiscipline lectures within MSU’s faculty and with outside experts in the field using videoconferencing technologies. The course will be cross listed in multiple departments and as such, should appeal to and integrate a variety of student majors into an interdisciplinary course.   As a capstone, the course will be targeted to upper division science and engineering majors, and will be evaluated several times throughout the semester using metrics to assess student engagement, performance, and achievement of specific interdisciplinary learning outcomes. The bioenergy field is advancing so rapidly, that currently, there is no single textbook that adequately covers the entire course as it is envisioned, so the class materials will focus on interactive discussions, journal articles, reputable websites and book chapters.  Like the successful Astrobiology course, key innovative elements of the course will include 1) mini lectures live via 2-way videoconferencing presented by researchers and industrial representatives from the Bioenergy community and 2) a service learning / communicating science to public audiences recitation. 

We will couple the development and implementation of the Astrobiology and Bioenergy Minors to include a modest internship matching funds program.  Through this program we will offer matching funds to external entities (National Labs and industry) to provide summer internships for undergraduate students.  We will target primarily those individuals and associated entities that participated in the coursework in guest lectures.  This effort is targeted at 1) increasing opportunities for our undergraduates to gain relevant experience in the workforce and 2) developing long lasting relationships with industry and national labs that could impact development and enhance employment and placement of our graduates.

Describe the broader impacts and benefits of this proposal

If funded, this proposal will be a model of integration across departments and colleges, and a significant paradigm shift for research centers here at MSU. The proposed program will assimilate MSU’s cutting edge research into the undergraduate curriculum in an unprecedented manner, through timely and technologically dynamic courses.  Further, through enhanced assessment this investment will allow us to better understand the elements that inhibit and foster interdisciplinarity at MSU.  Success here will encourage similar integrative programs in other research areas which will continue to break down traditional silos that inhibit integration and interdisciplinary education.  MSU is a leader in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research – it is time to translate some of this success into the undergraduate curriculum.  This is already happening at many large institutions, so we must focus on our niche strengths (i.e. extreme environments) and take advantage of our expertise in select areas.  This proposal would allow the university to appeal to students and faculty more broadly to address interesting scientific and societal issues that occur at these interfaces.  Our proposed activities would complement, rather than compete with traditional departmental structures, and ALEE would work with departments within the system to allow students to make important cross-disciplinary connections.  Interdisciplinarity is a process, not a domain…this is a unique opportunity to encourage and foster the process of interaction, integration, and education.

Implementation Plan

Support is requested for the development and implementation of interdisciplinary programs in Astrobiology and Bioenergy.  The interdisciplinary programs (undergraduate minors in Astrobiology and Bioenergy) and associated coursework will be developed, expanded, and maintained by the ALEE Program.  Grant funds from NASA supported the initial development of the Astrobiology Minor and associated gateway and capstone classes.  Continuing these programs will require only modest institutional support for instruction and administration.  We propose to exploit an economy of resources and infrastructure to parley the strong success of the Astrobiology Programs into an additional interdisciplinary minor with associated coursework in the timely area of bioenergy.  Funds are requested for an instructional budget for coursework development and instruction (in the form of supplemental instruction or course buyout for temporary reassignment) for early offerings of Astrobiology and Bioenergy interdisciplinary coursework ($25,000/yr) during the 2013/2014 school year.  The course instructors will be assisted by a graduate teaching assistant supported at a level of ($22,000/yr plus benefits).  The courses will be delivered in the videoconferencing facilities of MSU Extended University and the cost for staffing courses with appropriate technical support for videoconferencing is ($3,000/yr). 

 ALEE has a history of successful collaborations with several National Labs and industry partners from which we can draw upon for internships for enhanced workforce development.  A small amount of additional support is requested for the complementary internship matching program that supports five undergraduate students during a summer internship at a national laboratory or industrial site in the amount of $1,000/yr/student, for a total cost of $5,000/yr.  These matching funds will be designated as part of the student’s monthly stipend. Supplemental staff support is request for a one quarter time staff member ($12,000 plus benefits) to assist with the scheduling of guest lectures, internship logistics, academic advising and coordination for the interdisciplinary minor programs, as well as for program assessments and tracking students in the minor for workforce success.   The total yearly budget requested for the program is $72,226/yr.

If funded, course development within the Bioenergy minor will begin immediately with proposed implementation of the minor Fall 2013 upon approval of the Board of Regents.

Assessment Plan

Evaluation of the ALEE strategic investment proposal will measure progress toward the goals of the project and will incorporate both formative and summative measures.  The following logic model will guide assessment.

Goals 1 & 2: Train next generation of scientists and policy-makers to be knowledgeable and current in the areas of astrobiology and bioenergy


  • Provide relevant and up-to-date content through courses
  • Foster higher order thinking about content through interaction with practicing scientists and open-ended discussions
  • Offer opportunities to gain practical experience in the field      

Major Activities

  • Refine introductory and capstone courses with current and appropriate interdisciplinary content.
  • Develop content appropriate to upper division interdisciplinary courses in the field of Bioenergy Science and Engineering.
  • Create workforce development internships at National Labs and private industry.


  • # of students enrolling in courses
  • # of students declaring Astrobiology minor
  • # of students declaring Bioenergy minor
  • # of applications for internships


  • Short term: Students graduate with understanding of multidisciplinary science and engineering within either Astrobiology or Bioenergy fields. Students apply higher order thought processes to complex issues in Astrobiology or Bioenergy fields.
  • Students pursue internships (under the advisement of the ALEE program) with industry and national laboratory partners.
  • Long Term: Students pursue careers and graduate study in Astrobiology and Bioenergy. MSU becomes leader in interdisciplinary course integration.


  • Quantitative measures including numbers of students enrolling in courses, numbers of students declaring Astrobiology and Bioenergy minors, numbers of applications for internships
  • Qualitative measures including student surveys, portfolio analysis of student work, surveys of internship providers             

Goal 3: Successfully model cross-college and cross-departmental integration for enhanced undergraduate education


  • Integrate Engineering, Physical and Life Sciences, and Philosophy content under Astrobiology and Bioenergy minors

Major Activities:

  • Create interdisciplinary courses that integrate content
  • Involve departments and colleges under overarching umbrella structure


  • # of departments involved in courses/minors
  • involvement by students in the minors across departments     


  • Short term: Increased departmental cooperation on courses
  • Increased involvement (i.e. research projects, enrollments) by students across departments
  • Long term: Institutional structures reconfigured for ease of interdisciplinary efforts. Institutional recognition and reward for interdisciplinary efforts


  • Quantitative measures including analysis of students enrolled by major, number of departments involved in courses/minors
  • Qualitative measures including faculty surveys, social network analysis on involvement by students in the minors across departments and involvement of faculty, student surveys
If assessed objectives are not met in the timeframe outlined what is the plan to sunset this proposal?

Because of our successful history with the creation and of the Astrobiology minor, we anticipate all objective to be met.


Dean/Director: John Peters (
Executive/VP: Tom Mccoy (