Gas station without pumps

2013 June 29

Physics for life-sciences majors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:07
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I just read an article about teaching physics to biology students:

Dawn C. Meredith and Edward F. Redish
Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors
Physics Today, July 2013, page 38

An introductory physics course that meets the needs of biology students must recognize that the two disciplines see the world differently.

My apologies about pointing to an article that lives behind a paywall.  It should be accessible to most college students and college physics teachers, as most universities have subscriptions to Physics Today, but it may not be accessible to high-school teachers or other readers of my blog.

The article points out “the even more powerful lesson that what life-sciences students bring to our classrooms is not just less skill in mathematics than the average engineering student but a deeply different perception of what science means and a deeply different expectation of how it is done.” If the difference between physics and biology perceptions of science are profound (based mainly on the model-driven vs. data-driven aspects of the fields), imagine increasing that difference further by adding the difference between science (how things work) and engineering (making things that work).

This is the challenge I’ll be facing next year as undergraduate director for our bioengineering program—trying to fix curricular problems in the bioengineering major which involves required courses from nine different departments (math, physics, chemistry, MCD biology, computer science, biomolecular engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, applied math and statistics), when the faculty involved do not have any common understanding of what the end goal is.  Even if every department changes its curriculum only once a decade (a very slow rate of change for engineering and science fields), the bioengineering program has to cope with a major change almost every year—usually one made without our students in mind at all.

The Physics Today article talks about changing intro physics courses at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and the University of Maryland in College Park to be more relevant to biology students.  Their problem is slightly different from the problem at UCSC, since the Physics Today authors already gave up on calculus-based physics and UCSC requires a calculus-based physics course for biology students, but they  do have some good ideas about what parts of physics are important to teach and how to come up with biologically relevant problems that are still simple enough for physics modeling approaches to be useful. Their example “Assume a cylindrical worm” is a good example of scaling, but doesn’t teach much physics.

I’d like to pass on the article to the physics faculty who will be teaching the physics for biologists course for the next few years, but I have no idea who they will be (and quite likely the department doesn’t know either).  Even after 27 years at UCSC, I have no idea who in the physics department cares about teaching the biologists or even whether anyone does. The physics faculty I knew who cared about teaching retired years ago, and I’ve not been paying attention to who among the younger faculty have picked up that role (or even whether anyone has).

One decision the bioengineering program will face in doing any revisions is whether to require the physics for engineers and physicists course, or continue to allow the calculus-based physics for biologists course.  If the physics for biologists course had strong connections to biology, then arguments for either course could be made, and we could let the students choose. The bioengineering students would learn more physics if the physics were presented in ways that made it clearly relevant to what they were interested in. If it is just a watered-down physics course, though, taught by faculty who see it as a watered-down course, then the bioengineering students would be better off taking the more rigorous course taught by faculty who care about whether the students learn.

My only lens on the courses is what students tell me years later as they graduate—and each student has only taken one version of the course, so I get no direct comparisons.  Based on what I heard in the exit interviews this spring, the physics for biologists course is sometimes (often?) taught by faculty who have very low expectations of the students and who treat them as essentially incapable of doing physics—so why bother.  Of course, this is a student perception by students who did not see a clear connection between physics and biology, and may not reflect what the physics faculty were trying to do at all.

One problem is that the bioengineers need to take intro courses in so many disciplines that scheduling is a nightmare.  The physics course for engineers and physics majors is only offered once a year, so allowing the bioengineers to take the physics for biologists course offers them some extra scheduling flexibility. Unless, of course, they plan to do the bioelectronics concentration, where the extra calculus practice in the more rigorous physics course would prepare them better for the math-heavy electronics courses.

The physics piece of the bieoengineering curriculum is perhaps the least problematic, as the physics courses have little connection to the rest of the curriculum (even the electronics courses assume that the students learned nothing useful from the physics E&M course).  We have bigger problems with biology, biochemistry, statistics, and computer programming—all of which the students need to know but which there is not enough time to do the way each department wants to do it for their own majors.

1 Comment »

  1. […] economics majors)?  I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while (see for example, my post Physics for life-sciences majors from last […]

    Pingback by Different levels of the “same” course | Gas station without pumps — 2013 December 23 @ 12:46 | Reply

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