Astrobiology is becoming a part of the curriculum in British universities. An introductory course (with specially written text) has been taught for several years at the Open University, and recently the University of Glamorgan has introduced a major in this subject.
Astrobiology seems to be catching on in British universities. The Open University (Milton Keynes) pioneered in teaching the subject to undergraduates. The textbook for their course, An Introduction to Astrobiology, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. Edited by chemists Iain Glimour and Mark Sephton, it is the first such textbook to use "astrobiology" in its title. The Open University teaches astrobiology as one half of a two-term course, with the other term using a text on planetary science edited by the same authors. While intended for general audiences, both of these books are presented at a somewhat higher level than typical introductory college texts in the United states, and they might be more suitable in this country for advanced undergraduates.
A recent news release announces that the University of Glamorgan (in South Wales) has launched the UK`s first undergraduate course (that is, major subject) in astrobiology. The report called astrobiology a "driving force behind current space programmes, as the recent excitement over the possibility of finding organic life on Titan shows.". The University's Centre for Astronomy and Science Education is running the course, with modules on Exploring the Sky, Vertebrate Zoology, Science and the Media, and Life in the Universe. Course leader Professor Mark Brake said there is a massive interest in the topic. The three-year degree will also encompass popular culture concerning life in the universe.
The Guardian newspaper uses the announcement of this course as an opportunity to talk about astrobiology in general, After noting that a degree in alien life seems, on the surface, to be a "so-called Mickey Mouse degree", they note that many of astrobiology's key issues are grounded firmly within scientific disciplines, with most scientists regarding the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe as beyond reasonable doubt. Anita Heward, a spokesperson for the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), described the organization as being "supportive of astrobiology", and the Society's fact sheet says that the field is "a rapidly growing, interdisciplinary area that is already one of the most exciting areas in science, and promises to remain so throughout this century."
Glamorgan's Mark Brake, identified in the story as a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Science Communication committee, told the Guardian that astrobiology is an established field. "In terms of the scientific aspects of the course we look at astronomy, introductory geology, microbiology, cell and molecular biology, vertebrate zoology etc. We aim to provide students with the groundwork required to be able to make sensible scientific speculations."
The Guardian concludes "So although learning about the hunt for alien life might sound trivial, the new degree will actually offer a comprehensive blend of science and humanities, including the philosophy and sociology of science." Mr. Bond of the RAS added: "Astrobiology is a highly interdisciplinary topic and thus is an engaging way to teach a mix of physics, chemistry, maths and biology at degree level. In this sense, it can be regarded as an example of how RAS-related science has the potential to increase the number of scientifically literate graduates."
It appears from these stories that in the UK, as in most American universities, undergraduate astrobiology is being embraced primarily by astronomers and astronomy departments. If this is the primary market for astrobiology texts, we can expect them to continue to present the field from an astronomical perspective. One wonders what this trend will mean for the evolution of undergraduate courses in astrobiology, and whether biologists will in the future establish their own astrobiology courses and texts with a greater biological flavor.