Complexity Explorer Santa Few Institute

Origins of Life

Lead instructor:


When does the course start and end? The course is asynchronous and runs continuously.

Who are the instructors? Past course instructors include Dr. Sarah Maurer, Dr. Chris Kempes, and Maria Kalambokidis.



How much does it cost? Nothing. The course is completely free.

How is the course funded? The course is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF Grant No. 1745355) Research Coordination Network on Exploration of Life's Origins, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), and by donations from users.



Who is the intended audience and what are the prerequisites? 

Anyone is who is interested in the origins of life with varying degrees of past training.  The prerequisites for individual lectures range from none at all to basic calculus, chemistry, biology, and physics.  This course will likely be understandable for upper-level undergraduates and beyond. This is an excellent introduction to established scientists who want to start thinking about the origins of life.



The course is composed of six modules, each with about one hour of video content, accompanied by journal articles, activities, and assignments.

  1. Introduction. Designed to give students an overview of the content and motivate the students by describing interesting lines of inquiry
  2. Chemical origins. An overview of the chemicals that likely lead to life, and the environments that shaped them here on Earth, but also within the solar system.
  3. Chemical Commonalities. What do living things have in common and how can we use these similarities to understand first life.
  4. Early Life. Some ideas of what the earliest forms of life may have looked liked.
  5. Evolution. How did life change from its first stages to the Last Universal Common Ancestor, and into what we see today.
  6. Astrobiology. Thoughts on how life could originate and evolve elsewhere.



How does the course work? Each unit consists of a series of short videos, with each video corresponding to subtopics of the unit's main topic. The course website leads you through the videos in order, allowing you to skip or repeat videos as you desire. You can watch these videos at your own pace and in any order you desire; once posted, they will remain available throughout the course.  The videos are interspersed with quizzes, designed to test your understanding of the material covered in the previous video.  At the end of most units, there is a test (graded automatically).



How long does the course last? ~10 weeks.  We expect that participants will complete about one-half to one unit per week; some will move through the material more quickly, and some more slowly. The videos and other course material will stay online continuously to be completed at your own pace.



What about homework exercises and quizzes? Many videos are followed by short homework exercises or quizzes that you can do online and that is graded automatically. These exercises and quizzes won’t count towards your final grade; their purpose is to allow you to try out simulations, to see how well you have understood the material in the video, and to see what you might need to review. 

What about the tests? Most units will be followed by a test. You will take the tests online, and they will be graded automatically. Your grade for the course will be based on these tests, each of which counts equally.   Everyone who submits all the tests and receives an average score of 60% or above (i.e., averaged over all tests) will receive a certificate of completion. You may use any of the course materials while taking the test and doing the peer-reviewed assignment, but we request that you do not consult other people or the Web for answers. 



How does the peer review system work? At the end of this course, there will be a synthesis assignment, which will provide an additional opportunity to apply the concepts learned in the course. Since this course is in an asynchronous format, you will evaluate your own assignment using the grading rubric provided. All pdf links are available under the "Peer-Reviewed Assignment" section of the course, under "Lectures." This assignment is optional and will not impact your grade in the course, nor will it impact your ability to earn a course certificate.



How is the course graded? As described above, your grade will be based on the end-of-unit tests.  Your total course score will be your average score over these tests.  Since the course is not for credit, your scores are meant to be for your own tracking of your progress in the course. They will not be seen by anyone but you, and possibly our course team.



How well do I need to do to receive a certificate, and will the certificate list my grade? You need to have submitted all of the end-of-unit tests, with an average score of 60% or greater (i.e., averaged over all tests), by the course end date in order to receive a certificate of successful completion.   Note:  You don't need to get 60% or greater on each test, only on the average overall tests. The certificate will not list your total score; it will simply say that you have successfully completed this course.  You will be able to print out a copy of your progress report at any time during or after the course.

Can I get university credit for this course? No, not at this time. It is possible that in the future we may be able to partner with colleges and universities so as to offer our courses for credit, but there is currently no mechanism for this.

Will I get any kind of certificate? Everyone who successfully finishes the course will receive a certificate of completion from the Santa Fe Institute.



Is there a required textbook? No textbook is required.  The lectures will be complemented by suggested readings that will be provided on the course web site. 

Will the videos and other course material be available after the course ends?  Yes.  The course will be run continously, with all course materials available to enrolled students. You can always access the lecture videos through the YouTube playlist



In what ways am I allowed to use these resources?  All the materials on this site are available for your use for any non-commercial purpose. All materials (videos, code, write-ups, etc.) are covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License ( ). This states that you may copy, distribute, and transmit the work under the condition that you give attribution to, and your use is for non-commercial purposes.



Are subtitles available?  The Complexity Explorer Project has an on-going project in which users volunteer to create subtitles in different languages.  If subtitles are available for a given video they can be accessed in the following way.  First, start and pause the video.  A toolbar will now be visible along the bottom of the video.  Second, click on the gear-shaped button located directly to the right of the “CC” button.  A list of available languages will be shown in the middle drop-down menu located in the box the opens after hitting the gear-shaped button.  Select the language you would like to use for subtitles and click on it.  

How do I download and use subtitles offline? You can download videos and available subtitles to watch offline if you wish. Information on downloading videos is located below under technical requirements.  In order to make the subtitles you download play with the video, you will need to go through a few steps.  Our suggested method is detailed in this help document.  Click the link to download the instructional pdf.  

Can I download a plain text transcript of the video? For any video that has subtitles available, there will also be a plain text transcript (in .txt format) available for download, for each subtitle language available.  When you click on Subtitles & Transcripts you will be given all of the language options available, and you can choose to download either the subtitle or the transcript, or both.  



Do I have to enroll to take the course?   Yes, you need to enroll in order to access any of the course materials, such as supplementary materials, quizzes and exams.  However, enrollment is easy, quick, and free!

How do I enroll? Go to, then to Online Courses, and click the “Enroll” button next to this course. You will be guided through the short enrollment process, and then can immediately begin taking the course. 



How much time does the course require?  You should expect to spend 4-8 hours per week watching videos and taking quizzes and tests.



What are the rules on collaboration with other people? You are free, and encouraged, to discuss anything with anyone!  The course website hosts an online forum for students to discuss the course material, homework, etc. However, we ask that the end-of-unit tests be taken entirely on your own, without collaboration with others. Of course, we are relying on the honor system for our students to abide by these rules.

What is this Forum you've been talking about? The course website hosts a forum in which course participants can post questions, answers, and otherwise discuss the course materials.



How do I get the videos to play at a faster rate (e.g., 2x)?  Our videos are streamed through YouTube.  You can opt-in on YouTube for their html5 player, which allows you to speed up or slow down videos.  To opt in, go to

Can I download the videos directly, rather than watching them via YouTube?  In most cases, yes. Click on the "Download" button that appears above the video screen on the page for each video.  We will also make all the videos for each unit available as zip files on the Supplementary Materials page. 



What if I have more questions? Please address any other questions you have to