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Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences

A year of introductory physics is required of almost all undergraduate life science majors and has been an expected entry on the transcripts of medical school applicants for decades. Unfortunately, many students don’t see any relevance of physics to the biological sciences; they instead see the course simply as a hurdle they must clear. Worse yet, student attitudes regarding the relevance of physics typically decline with instruction ( Redish, Saul et al. 1998 ; Perkins, Adams et al. 2005 ; Perkins, Gratny et al. 2006 ). A related and widely recognized problem is the tendency among both professors and students to keep the fundamental concepts and abstractions essential to one field, e.g., physics, tightly confined to its own intellectual box ( Meredith and Redish 2013 ). If we can avert this tendency, opportunities abound to apply the reasoning toolkits developed in physics and biology to synthesize knowledge and solve new problems. These issues are starting to be addressed by multiple groups in Physics Education Research (PER) working on so-called IPLS courses (Introductory Physics for Life Scientists). Building on previous success in implementing PER-based best practices in the traditional introductory physics course at Vanderbilt University, VIIBRE-affiliated faculty are now working to implement what PER has been learned so far about IPLS courses and to build on this base to find new ways of helping life science students de-compartmentalize their physics knowledge.

More details on how VIIBRE-affiliated faculty are redesigning Vanderbilt’s IPLS course can be found below, after an expanded discussion of the problem and opportunity we face.

 

The Problem and an Opportunity

Despite student attitudes towards physics, which can largely be attributed to the way physics is taught, practicing scientists and physicians largely agree that physics involves skills and concepts that life science students need. In fact, the US National Academies of Science Report Bio2010 calls for biologists to study more physics, chemistry and mathematics ( National Research Council 2003 ):

Life sciences majors must acquire a much stronger foundation in the physical sciences (chemistry and physics) and mathematics than they now get. Connections between biology and the other scientific disciplines need to be developed and reinforced so that interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature.

At the same time, medical schools are moving away from requiring specific courses and instead emphasizing core competencies. The HHMI-AAMC report Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians (SFFP) specifically lists 8 competencies with 37 learning objectives that should be part of undergraduate pre-med education ( AAMC-HHMI 2009 ). Although this list was specifically designed for pre-med students, the competencies and learning objectives are also highly appropriate for life science students interested in research careers – biological and biomedical research is only becoming more quantitative and more interdisciplinary. Future leaders in biological and biomedical research will be those who can seamlessly cross disciplinary boundaries – sampling from whichever fields of knowledge are needed to address the problems that drive their curiosity.

Unfortunately, the typical introductory physics course fails to meet these needs. Table I lists 5 of the 8 SFFP-delineated competencies that could reasonably be addressed in an introductory physics course (the other three fall squarely within the purview of other courses and would stretch credulity to include in introductory physics). For each included competency, we’ve listed all of its associated learning objectives. Now, even a conventional physics course contributes strongly to some of these learning objectives (++ or +++), particularly demonstrating quantitative numeracy (E1-1) and operating basic laboratory instrumentation (E2-3), but the conventional course fails to address many other opportunities. Even under Competency E3, which is clearly oriented towards what a student should learn in introductory physics, a conventional course covers most of this content, but does so with examples relevant to engineering students; authentic “applications to the understanding of living systems” are sorely lacking.

Despite the failure of conventional courses, opportunity is here. A well-structured introductory physics course could contribute strongly to 5 of the 8 SFFP-competencies and 21 of its 37 learning objectives. The National Academies and AAMC-HHMI reports clearly show that physics has a place in the life science curriculum, but we must do a better job developing connections between physics and the life sciences and motivating the physics skills and concepts most appropriate to studies of living systems.

Table I. Areas in which a revamped introductory physics course could help students attain the SFFP-delineated competencies and learning objectives for pre-medical education ( AAMC-HHMI 2009 ).

Competency

     X. Learning Objective

Conventional

Physics

Revamped

Physics

E1 – Apply quantitative reasoning and appropriate mathematics to describe or explain phenomena in the natural world.

  1. Demonstrate quantitative numeracy and facility with the language of mathematics.
  2. Interpret data sets and communicate those interpretations using visual and other appropriate tools.
  3. Make statistical inferences from data sets.
  4. Extract relevant information from large data sets.
  5. Make inferences about natural phenomena using mathematical models.
  6. Apply algorithmic approaches and principles of logic (including the distinction between cause/effect and association) to problem solving. Examples highlight hypothesis generation and testing.
  7. Quantify and interpret changes in dynamical systems.

 

 

+++

++

+
-

+

+

-

 

 

+++

+++

+++
-

+++

+++

+++

E2 – Demonstrate understanding of the process of scientific inquiry, and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and
validated.

  1. Develop observational and interpretive skills through hands-on laboratory or field experiences.
  2. Demonstrate ability to measure with precision, accuracy, and safety.
  3. Be able to operate basic laboratory instrumentation for scientific measurement.
  4. Be able to articulate (in guided inquiry or in project-based research) scientific questions and hypotheses, design experiments, acquire data, perform data analysis, and present results.
  5. Demonstrate the ability to search effectively, to evaluate critically, and to communicate and analyze the scientific literature.

 

 


++

+

+++ 

+

 

-

 

 


+++

+++

+++ 

++

 

-

E3 – Demonstrate knowledge of basic physical principles and their applications to the understanding of living systems.

  1. Demonstrate understanding of mechanics as applied to human and diagnostic systems.
  2. Demonstrate knowledge of the principles of electricity and magnetism (e.g., charge, current flow, resistance, capacitance,
    electrical potential, and magnetic fields).
  3. Demonstrate knowledge of wave generation and propagation to the production and transmission of radiation.
  4. Demonstrate knowledge of the principles of thermodynamics and fluid motion.
  5. Demonstrate knowledge of principles of quantum mechanics, such as atomic and molecular energy levels, spin, and ionizing
    radiation.
  6. Demonstrate knowledge of principles of systems behavior, including input–output relationships and positive and negative feedback.

 

 

++ 

++

 

++

+
 

+


-

 

 

+++ 

+++

 

+++

+++ 


+++


+++

E6 – Apply understanding of principles of how molecular and cell assemblies, organs, and organisms develop structure and carry out function.

  1. Employ knowledge of the general components of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, such as molecular, microscopic, macroscopic, and three-dimensional structure, to explain how different components contribute to cellular and organismal function.
  2. Demonstrate knowledge of how cell–cell junctions and the extracellular matrix interact to form tissues with specialized
    function.
  3. Demonstrate knowledge of the mechanisms governing cell division and development of embryos.
  4. Demonstrate knowledge of the principles of biomechanics and explain structural and functional properties of tissues and organisms.

 

 

-

 

-
 

-

+

  

 

+

 

++
 

++ 

+++

E7 – Explain how organisms sense and control their internal environment and how they respond to external change.

  1. Explain maintenance of homeostasis in living organisms by using principles of mass transport, heat transfer, energy balance, and feedback and control systems.
  2. Explain physical and chemical mechanisms used for transduction and information processing in the sensing and integration of internal and environmental signals.
  3. Explain how living organisms use internal and external defense and avoidance mechanisms to protect themselves from threats, spanning the spectrum from behavioral to structural and immunologic responses.

 

 

-
 

+

 

 
 


+++


+++

 

-

 

Vanderbilt’s PHYS 113: Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences

VIIBRE-affiliated faculty began teaching PHYS 113A/B as a separate calculus-based physics course for pre-med and life science students in Fall 2013. Our effort has begun with two limited sections of the course (~60 students each) taught by Professors Shane Hutson and Erin Rericha – both biological physicists. The effort is still in its early stages, but both sections had full wait-lists, indicating strong student interest.

We have two main guides for the content changes we are implementing in PHYS 113. The first is the list of SFFP-delineated pre-med competencies ( Table I; AAMC-HHMI 2009 ). The second is the guidance provided for the revised MCAT exam coming on line in 2015 ( American Association of Medical Colleges 2012 ). Both documents make it clear that some topics with minimal to no coverage in conventional physics courses need to be discussed more thoroughly – e.g., fluid mechanics and dynamics, continuum biomechanics, diffusion, entropy/free-energy, ionic conductivity, and dynamical systems. The latter is of particular interest since it is a major field of current physics research, it merits three mentions in the SFFP pre-med learning objectives (bold in Table I), and yet it is almost completely absent from conventional introductory physics. Other topics are already covered thoroughly, but with examples drawn from engineering. We are working to replace many of the engineering-based examples with authentic biological applications at molecular, cellular and organismal levels – e.g., motor proteins, light-sensing pigments, bacterial and amoeboid motility, nerve conduction, musculoskeletal torques, blood flow, and the optics of vision – or with relevant scientific instrumentation – e.g., centrifuges, optical traps, advanced fluorescence microscopy (confocal, multiphoton, superresolution), and MRI. These lists could go on and on, but there is a limit to how much information can be packed in the course and even the conventional course is already overfilled. We have thus severely pruned or even eliminated some topics – e.g., projectile motion, Newtonian gravitation, Gauss’ Law, AC circuits and special relativity. This content revision is no small task and is most certainly a work in progress.

Click here for a schedule of topics for Fall 2013 and its connection to MCAT content categories and SFFP objectives.

In addition to content changes, we are taking cues from the SFFP report and MCAT guideline’s emphasis on reasoning skills to guide changes in the course’s meta-content. We are upgrading the course’s emphasis on scaling arguments, interpreting graphs, connecting multiple representations of data, and dimensional analysis. We are helping students learn this meta-content using in-class “clicker” questions. Our previous experience implementing PER-based best practices showed us that this sort skill development requires interactive engagement and we are thus “flipping” the classroom in PHYS 113 – expecting students to read the text before class and then spending class time working on conceptual questions and problems. We are trying to avoid extensive plug-and-chug calculations – you can go a long ways just asking what happens with two-fold changes in various inputs – but we do require students to build an understanding of equations as representative of physical relationships. In addition, we are aiming to engage students in the task of model building and abstraction. Frictionless surfaces, rigid objects and movement in a vacuum have their place in problems for which students can get to analytical solutions, but we do students a grave disservice if our examples continually make such hidden assumptions. We want to engage students from the start in deciding which simplifications and abstractions might be applicable for a real-world problem and thus lead the students from concrete to abstract.

As you can probably tell, this course restructuring is a large undertaking, but should be well worth the effort. Through this class, VIIBRE faculty are reaching undergraduate life science majors and showing them the connections between the physical and biological sciences. VIIBRE, and the scientific community more generally, need students who are adept at crossing disciplinary boundaries – de-compartmentalizing their classroom education and applying multiple scientific perspectives to tackle big and interesting problems. We hope PHYS 113 is a step in that direction.

 


 

References Cited

AAMC-HHMI (2009). Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, Association of American Medical Colleges and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

American Association of Medical Colleges (2012). Preview Guide for the MCAT2015 Exam. Washington, DC, AAMC.

Meredith, D. C. and E. F. Redish (2013). "Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors." Physics Today 66(7): 38-43.

National Research Council (2003). Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Washington, DC, The National Academies Press.

Perkins, K. K., W. K. Adams, et al. (2005). "Correlating student beliefs with student learning using the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey." AIP Conference Proceedings 790: 61-64.

Perkins, K. K., M. M. Gratny, et al. (2006). "Towards characterizing the relationship between students' interest in and their beliefs about physics." AIP Conference Proceedings 818: 137-140.

Redish, E. F., J. M. Saul, et al. (1998). "Student expectations in introductory physics." American Journal of Physics 66: 212-224.