Investigating undergraduate students’ ideas about the fate of the Universe
As astronomers further develop an understanding of the fate of the Universe, it is essential to study students’ ideas on the fate of the Universe so that instructors can communicate the field’s current status more effectively. In this study, we examine undergraduate students’ preinstruction ideas of the fate of the Universe in ten semester-long introductory astronomy course sections (ASTRO 101) at three institutions. We also examine students’ postinstruction ideas about the fate of the Universe in ASTRO 101 over five semester-long course sections at one institution. The data include precourse surveys given during the first week of instruction (N ¼ 264), postinstruction exam questions (N ¼ 59), and interviews. We find that, preinstruction, more than a quarter of ASTRO 101 students either do not respond or respond with “I don’t know” when asked what the long-term fate of the Universe is. We also find that, though the term was not necessarily used, students tend to describe a “big chill” scenario in the preinstruction surveys, among a wide variety of other scenarios. A fraction of students describe the fate of smaller-scale systems, possibly due to confusion of the hierarchical nature of structure in the Universe. Preinstruction, students mention the Universe’s expansion when describing how astronomers know the fate of the Universe but do not discuss how we know the Universe is expanding or the relationship between expansion and the fate of the Universe. Postinstruction, students’ responses shift toward greater degrees of completeness and correctness.