Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module GEOL3417: Habitable Environments (Astrobiology)

Department: Earth Sciences

GEOL3417: Habitable Environments (Astrobiology)

Type Open Level 3 Credits 10 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • This research-led module will train students in scientific research methods, critical thinking, communication and evaluation.
  • Students will be introduced to the necessary conditions for the origin and evolution of simple and complex life, and how it might be detected in the universe.
  • Students will reflect on the effective use of the scientific method to design and test challenging hypotheses, and evaluate the role of risk and uncertainty in designing research experiments


  • This interdisciplinary module will introduce the key concepts of astrobiology: might life exist elsewhere in the universe, and if so, what might it look like and how might we find it?
  • The module will use our understanding of how life has evolved and persisted on Earth (origins, extinctions, and adaptations to extreme environments) to explore what it means for a planet (or planetary body) to be habitable, and how life can adapt to environmental perturbations.
  • Through this lens students will explore the types of data that are available that might be used to detect, or to evaluate the likelihood of, biotic processes beyond planet Earth and the philosophical considerations that might impinge on our exploration and discovery of life elsewhere in the universe.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Through research-led learning students will develop a depth of knowledge and research skills encompassing astrobiology, palaeontology and sedimentology.
  • What environmental conditions are necessary for life, as we know it, or as we don’t, to originate, survive and flourish?
  • How might signs of past or present life be detected from a distance?
  • How does the history of life on Earth inform the likely existence, form, complexity and durability of life elsewhere in the universe?
Subject-specific Skills:
  • The module particularly emphasizes skills that are relevant to independent research and written communication, and critical evaluation of controversial research topics.
Key Skills:
  • Discovery, synthesis and understanding of information.
  • Communication of novel findings to peers and end-users.
  • Structure and clarity in written communication.
  • Independent critical analysis.
  • Preparation of competitive funding proposals.
  • Adaptable, flexible, innovative and creative approaches to work and problem solving.
  • Ability to set goals, work to deadlines and accept personal responsibility.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Teaching will comprise a blend of lectures, practical exercises, and group discussion of the primary literature.
  • Assessments will comprise an individual written proposal and a group oral presentation related to a specified topic in astrobiology.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lecture/Practical 10 Weekly 3 Hours 30
Reading and study of class hand-outs, preparation for and execution of formative and summative assessments, background reading both directed and independent. 70

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Proposal 5 pages 80%
Presentation 10 minutes 20%

Formative Assessment:

Formative exercises will be conducted and feedback delivered as part of in-person sessions.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University