Life in the Universe

Nov 2019

This class is easier to get an A in than any other science class I have taken in high school. Laura Kay is very pragmatic about what is going on in the course and never leaves you guessing about anything. She also drops the lowest quiz and homework grades. The midterm is extremely difficult but is graded on a massive curve. On our midterm, a 88/125 was an A. On quizzes you can bring in any notes you want including the text book, yet the average score on these quizzes is always pretty low. This is because about half of the class decides to pass fail and then checks out early, which just makes it easier to stay about the average. The average on quizzes is usually around a 14/25 and if you consistently get around 20/25 your overall quiz grade will be an A. On the midterm we were allowed to bring in one sheet of notes and people basically brought in the whole course on size 4 font. She didn't care, and actually encouraged this. The information is also very interesting and if you actually pay attention to the content of her lectures instead of checking out (checking out is fine and won't affect your grade negatively) you will probably be entertained.

Dec 2017

This class is meant for humanities majors who need to fulfill their science/math/maybe lab requirements. Laura Kay is very aware of that and tries to structure her class with that in mind. The class is difficult and most people end up P/F/D ing it. If you haven't taken physics or calculus, it will be difficult. Just stay on top of the notes and you should be fine.

Mar 2016

Putman's maternity leave came about midway through the semester I had with her, but her appearance in the audience of the lecture a few weeks later clearly shows her interest in the class. She starts the lecture with an "alien of the day", and relates how this alien may or may not be biologically, chemically, and physically able to live in the universe in such conditions as on its planet. Examples included Superman and the alien from Avatar, etc. A kind of silly trigger for the beginning of class, it actually does provide some insight into requirements for life in the universe, which *is* the point of this class. The material was fascinating; a combination of the three classic sciences point to possibilities for life in the universe. Sometimes it will make you feel very small, but it is this notion which, I think, makes this class all the more fascinating. Putman uses a multiple-choice card to gauge the reception of basic concepts learned in class. She asks a question on the board, provides 4 possible answers, and the class holds up the letter of the response they think to be correct. This is a great way to get the participation of the students. Additionally, she would send out in-class assignments (usually worked on in groups or pairs) to answer a short list of questions. This would be counted as a participation grade. Grading was fair; tests were on the material learned in class. Homeworks were occasionally more difficult than the material learned in class, but this was because they were more mathematical than the theories we learned during the lecture.

Nov 2013

Are you a SEAS junior or senior with some time on your hands and want 2 easy A's (possibly A+'s) to boost your GPA? Are you interested in Astro? Then these classes are the classes for you- minimum amount of work for maximum grade return. Here's some back story- I found myself starting 2nd semester junior year just having gotten the lowest GPA I had ever had. I had literally hit rock bottom. I needed some A's to neutralize the bad grades I got and my major courses weren't helping, so I decided to take this class and what a great decision it was. Yes, they fulfill literally no requirement, but they also factor into your GPA, and 6 credits of A isn't insignificant. As a SEAS junior or senior in an intro Barnard science class, let's just say it couldn't possibly get more stacked. I literally never went to class except for exams and to hand in homework. Just printing and reading the powerpoints posted online for maybe 10-15 minutes a week is more than enough to learn all the material in this class. The homework is so easy that it becomes almost enjoyable to do them. As a SEAS junior, I'm used to looking at a pset and thinking, Crap, I have no idea how to do this. As a result, just being able to understand all the work at first glance makes me feel accomplished since I'm so used to getting completely pwned by work. Quizzes are also easy as pie. Never study for them- just print the powerpoints and use them in the open book quiz. The questions are real straightforward, just plug and chug. I found myself consistently the first to finish. Midterms and the final, while not open book, are similarly easy and require a minimum of studying. Heck, you even get something you will never ever hear about in a SEAS course- extra credit. In the spring it was a book report- something I hadn't seen since elementary school. Just a few examples of how easy the course is- the textbook (which is online by the way), literally teaches you ROYGBIV. And in the powerpoints, Kay actually reassures you that there isn't much math and to not panic when logarithms are introduced, as if those would make someone bat an eye, much less drop the class (oh wait...) In the end, I aced nearly everything and got an easy 6 credits of A with almost no work at all. And to boot, I also got an awesome boost in self esteem and confidence from being easily at the top of the class- something that hasn't happened since high school.

Nov 2013

I want to rush in and defend Prof. Kay - this class can be work-heavy and does have traces of math that are not fun for the non-mathematically inclined, but Prof. Kay does care about the material; she is not some dull-eyed expert reading off of her power points. She sometimes goes too fast for me, but overall the content feels relevant and interesting. I am rarely bored. I suppose the grading curve can be annoying, but she encourages people who are uncertain about whether to P/F to take a moment and check in with her: she will let you know where you stand and there are no hard feelings either way. Most classes, in addition to content on orbits or elemental composition or global warming, include a short sci-fi movie clip which highlights cultural misconceptions or where movies get the science wrong. Again, she wants us to be curious about the material. If you are looking for a simple P/F class with less work, the Columbia version of this class, Earth, Moons, and Stars (or something like that), has a midterm and final and none of the quizzes or home-works that force one to pay closer attention throughout the semester.

Nov 2012

Mary is an interesting person. Students are rude to her and she is rude right back at them. She shows us interesting videos and likes some discussion. However, she says all the material can be learnt in the lecture and that is absolutely untrue. She'll mention it for a split second in class and expect you to know the intricate details only explained in the textbook. She hosted a trivia (Who wants to be an astrobiologist) before the midterm for our review session, which was a waste of time and was filled with misleadingly easy questions. I haven't enjoyed my time in the class, because I find the teacher to be a distraction from the material. If you are taking it for easy points as my intention was I would suggest reconsidering a few more PE courses.

Jan 2012

If you are looking *only* to PDF the course, fullfill your QUA or Lab science as painlessly as possible, and you're weak in math or science, don't waste your time on squeezing into psych lotteries or the intro environmental science course. While I was initially wary about the math, and while the problem sets aren't necessarily easy, they are fairly straightforward and the math portion of this non-majors course is kept to a minimum -- no more than 30%, I'd say, and the rest is more essay-based (knowing the phases of the moon, climate changes, planets, etc). This is definitely an easily manageable course as long as you read the notes, which Professor Key posts on CourseWorks. She also drops the lowest quiz and offers an extra credit opportunity. However, I was also pleasantly surprised by how fascinating this class is -- a class I would never ever have taken otherwise. I actually started to pay attention to moon phases and the appearances of certain stars and plants. Professor Kay brings in documentaries, history, old space movies, and current events into the lectures and her personal stories are pretty interesting as well. So go for it!

Dec 2011

Life in the Universe was not my easiest or hardest class, but I would recommend it to anyone. It's kind of like watching NOVA videos except it's a class. The material is cool, and you will learn about navigating with the moon and stars, global warming, the hugeness of the universe, why earth is habitable, the psychology behind UFO abductions, and much more. I really didn't enjoy the first part of the semester which focused on basic astronomy, but I grew to love the class. You don't have to show up for class, but I think it helps. You don't have to buy the textbook, but it helps with the homework. Some people really hated this class, but I thought it was a great way to get the science requirement done. Laura Kay is a great professor. She's funny, sarcastic, and seems genuinely interested in what she teaches.

Nov 2011

I disagree with the review below. (Not to mention it was written far too early in the semester) Yes, the homework takes a few hours to complete but she assigns the homework at least a week, usually more, in advance so there is plenty of time; the homework is also easy and very doable; just look at the powerpoint notes she posts online. The first assignment proved difficult and the math was tough to but you can get through it; if not, she has office hours twice a week and holds a little class in which she basically reviews all the homework and essentially gives you the answers for the work. She really wants her students to understand the material. The final and quizzes are problems taken directly from the homework, which the answers for are directly on her powerpoints. The class is not without effort but it's more than doable. The class is graded on a huge curve, which is also very nice.

Sep 2011

I and every person I know who have taken this class have dreaded it. If you are trying to fulfill the science requirement easily, this is NOT the way to go. Laura Kay is an incredibly woman who is sweet and funny and does make an effort to amuse you in class. Despite her efforts, I usually find myself sleeping... The homework sets ALWAYS take a good couple of hours and are not always covered by the class material specifically. If you work hard, you can get a good grade. But do NOT be fooled!!!! This class is not for the light hearted!

May 2011

Prof. Kay is great; she's pretty funny, brings in toys during quizzes, and shows a lot of movies. She posts the powerpoints on CourseWorks so you can easily get away with missing a class, but I found myself hardly every wanting to skip her class. Life in the Universe is particularly interesting towards the end of the semester, when she covers alien abductions and UFO sightings. Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology isn't too hard and it covers some of the same material as Life in the Universe so some of it is just review.

Apr 2011

I took this class for my science requirement and got an A+. Seriously, THE MOST GENEROUS CURVE and grading system ever — and on top of that it's not a painful class and can actually be fun. I would highly recommend it to any humanities major looking to fulfill their science requirement! If you're completely, totally, 100% "math-phobic," as Professor Kay calls it, then be aware that there is some math involved in Life in the Universe, though it is usually just remembering which equation to use when, and then plugging and chugging. However, the way Professor Kay structures the class makes it very easy to do very well: - Four quizzes, ALL OF WHICH ARE OPEN-NOTE. If you take decent notes in class and print the lecture slides, you will be good to go on these. Oftentimes on the quiz there was the exact same problem she used as an example in class, just with the numbers changed. Very simple. And she drops the one with the lowest grade. - Six problem sets, mostly very manageable. The math questions were just using equations she gave us in class, and the written-response ones I just googled. Again, she drops the lowest. - The midterm is quite reasonable and you are allowed a page of notes. The final is also reasonable and you are allowed two pages of notes. For both of these she gives a review sheet beforehand — if you just study all the topics on it and base your note sheet around it, you will be good to go. - She offers an extra-credit paper where you just go to the Museum of Natural History and visit the Hall of Meteors and write about it. The Museum of Natural History is awesome anyway so for me it was just an excuse to go! Being motivated to come to class and take notes isn't hard because Laura Kay is a pretty good lecturer and sticks little anecdotes and jokes in. You also watch a lot of movies. And at the end of the semester you learn about people who want to colonize the moon and people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. And then there are questions about them. On the final. Best. Class. Ever. TAKE IT.

Dec 2010

I took this course to fulfill my science requirement, and kindof dreaded it since I'm not a science person. As much as I tried to hate it, I actually ended up enjoying the class in the end. You don't just do astronomy, but cover bio, chem, environmental science, and psychology as well, so it's more of a general science course, even though it's all related to astronomy - like for envi we talk about global warming on Venus, and for psych we talk about alien abduction stories. Laura Kay is interesting and adds quirky little facts into her powerpoint lectures. There's a textbook for the class, but she covers the material well in lecture, and I only ended up using the book to look up factual information that I could have found on the internet. It's not super easy, but it's one of those classes where you know what you have to do to get a good grade. Also, if you're worried about the math - Professor Kay basically assumes that everyone does not understand the math. She explains everything briefly in class, and is more than happy to explain further in office hours. I didn't take any high school physics and did well in the class. Also, this class could probably be renamed "Astronomy through Film," - you watch movies literally every other class. Which is awesome. Overall, it was a really good course, and I would definitely recommend it.

Jul 2010

Prof. Schiminovich is one of the nicest, simply intelligent and pleasant professors I've had at Columbia/Barnard. I had no prior experience in Astronomy, and I took the class for my core science requirement. I'll admit that the first lecture left me a little bit afraid and most of the material went completely over my head, but that soon changed after a few days. His lectures are abundantly clear, he will always take time to meet with you during office hours, and his syllabus and grading policies are such that you have plenty of extra credit and partial credit given for attempted answers. I recommend attending the lectures (even though some of them did put me to sleep...not many, but some) because they are infinitely helpful for quizzes, homework and the final. This man writes jokes for Futurama and The Simpsons while also building satellites for NASA. He is certainly a connected and experienced professor, and like others have said before me, he'll even bring you brownies and macaroons at some point during the semester! I learned quite a lot with having a very managable workload. The class is recommended to those of you interested in astronomy as well as those looking for fulfilling your science requirement.

Apr 2010

Easy class to take for the Barnard Quantitative Reasoning requirement. It was a bit difficult for me in the beginning though because I have no background in physics and astronomy but Professor Schiminovich is readily available for office hours, as are his TA's. The lectures were always very clear and often interspersed with funny images of his cute son or himself working on some sort of space observatory. On the lecture before Thanksgiving break, he brought the class brownies and macarons that he had made (recipes from the French Laundry cookbook! Delicious). You learn the basics of the solar system, about the moon, tides, seasons. Pretty elementary stuff but I had no knowledge of this subject so it was endlessly fascinating to me. He always makes references to popular culture which is always fun. He wrote an equation that appeared in an episode of The Simpsons. You also explore the possibility of life on different planets, solar systems, galaxies... so fascinating. Also a look into black holes and all that weird, trippy, but frustratingly confusing stuff. A great class to take for fun.

Dec 2009

This class was a really interesting way to fulfill the science requirement, and Professor Schiminovich is a really nice, helpful, and caring teacher. Though it is slightly hard to focus during lecture because he more or less teaches off his slides which he posts later online, the material is generally very straightforward and he is more than happy to help explain it to you during his office hours, which he holds every day. The math component of the course is not bad, more or less plugging in numbers into equations, but I would recommend having at least a small interest in astronomy before taking this course or else you will find yourself lost but, more importantly, bored out of your mind and wondering why you are suffering through such lengthy discussion of planets and stars. At times the material was quite odd and confusing but Professor Schiminovich was by far the friendliest professor I had this semester, which made it that much easier to handle even those parts of the course (read: astrobiology). Overall, a good class to take especially if you're in Columbia and only need one semester of science with no lab.

Apr 2009

This professor was the most helpful and caring professor I've had at Columbia. Although, yes, his homeworks were difficult (pretty much all math), he held so many help sessions and really wanted all of his students to understand and succeed. His lectures were fun and SO interesting. And he even baked for us on the last day of class!!! It is easy to do well in this class if you put the effort in. His quizes seem hard at first, but after the first, they are easy to get the hang off... and he drops the lowest HW and quiz grades... The midterm and final both involve no math... all conceptual.

Jan 2009

Oy vey. Do not take this class. I repeat, do not take this class. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself this! Ok, I guess it wasn't that bad. The prof is funny and cute, I think he's a great dad to his little boy and he does real research. But the lectures have absolutely nothing to do with the homework, which in turn has nothing to do with the textbook. It was enormously frustrating and I don't know what I actually learned. It's incredibly easy to pass. Even if the homeworks seem daunting, just *try* them and go to the help sections. The exams are largely conceptual, so you're not screwed if you're not a math person. It is not necessary to attend lectures but I recommend showing up for quizzes. I learned some cool facts, like if the sun burned out a couple minutes ago we wouldn't know it yet because it takes some time for the light to travel here. But, well, I just told you that, so now you don't need to take the class!