NEXUS/Physics: Rethinking Physics for Biology Students

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Title of Abstract: NEXUS/Physics: Rethinking Physics for Biology Students

Name of Author: Edward Redish
Author Company or Institution: University of Maryland
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: A mixture of the above, Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: interdisciplinary, physics, competencies, epistemology

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): C. Bauer, University of New Hampshire K. L. Carleton, University of Maryland T. J. Cooke, University of Maryland M. Cooper, Michigan State University C. H. Crouch, Swarthmore College B. W. Dreyfus, University of Maryland B. Geller, University of Maryland J. Giannini, University of Maryland J. Svoboda Gouvea, University of Maryland M. W. Klymkowsky, University of Colorado W. Losert, University of Maryland K. Moore, University of Maryland J. Presson, University of Maryland V. Sawtelle, University of Maryland K. V. Thompson, University of Maryland C. Turpen, University of Maryland

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: An interdisciplinary team of physicists, biologists, chemists, and education researchers is reinventing introductory physics for the life sciences. The curriculum is designed to interact supportively with biology and chemistry classes taken by life sciences students, with the intent of helping them build general, multi-disciplinary scientific competencies. One goal is to be of authentic value to biology students in improving their understanding basic concepts in introductory biology and chemistry classes that depend on physical ideas and principles, such as chemical bonding, entropic effects, diffusion, and gradient driven flow. A second goal is prepare them to make clear and coherent conceptual sense of topics discussed in their upper division classes. A third is to help them develop a better understanding of the use of mathematical modeling in science. The strategy of the project is to create a first physics class for biology majors to be taken in their second year. This permits us to assume they have a familiarity with concepts in biology (cell structure, basic biochemistry), chemistry (molecules, bonding), and mathematics (calculus, exponentials, probability). It permits us to focus on materials that will be helpful in upper division classes (cell biology, neurophysiology, physical chemistry). We take a broad approach to physics covering a range of scales from the organismal to the cellular and molecular. As a result, the class gives more emphasis to thermodynamics, kinetic theory, and statistical physics than is usual.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The project has explicit methods and strategies for pedagogy and materials development. Our pedagogical methods include activities to prepare students for reading and interpreting scientific text, and having them employ their learning in problem solving and group work both in and out of class. Multiple types of tasks engage students and encourage deeper thinking and reflection: complex problem solving in realistic contexts, essay questions, multiple-representation translations, and estimation problems to build a sense of scale and confidence with quantification. The laboratories retain a pedagogical focus on sense-making and introduce modern tools as well as approaches to deal with large datasets. In all cases, we focus on building an understanding of basic physics but also give frequent problems and examples that illustrate the value of such an understanding in biological and chemical situations, often tied to explicit examples discussed in their introductory biology and chemistry classes. Our methods and strategies for materials development use a design-delivery-research development cycle that begins with negotiations among multi-disciplinary faculty teams, creation of activities, careful observation and analysis of students working in groups on the activities, reflective post-activity interv

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Our methods and strategies for assessment coordinate with our research-based development of activities. Initial proposed assessment tasks for content and epistemological knowledge are used as formative assessment and the results used to refine and improve the tasks. Collections of summative tasks for each new topic included in the class are built, including open-ended and reflective essay questions with detailed rubrics. Student attitudes and expectations are evaluated with a pre-post Likert-scale survey that contains segments on student views on coherence vs. fragmentation, independence vs. authority, and on the value of multi-disciplinary knowledge in learning biology.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We have gone through two years of development and testing in small classes. The 30 biology students in our 2012-13 test class were almost all juniors and seniors, and, although they self-selected to join the class, had a GPA similar to the larger population. At the end of the class this group showed a strong increase in their perception of the value of physics in biology. When asked 'Is physics useful for understanding biological phenomena?' more than half chose 'very useful' and the rest chose 'somewhat useful', a large shift from their perception of the beginning of the class, where 35% chose 'of little or no use'. Six of the 30 signed up for a summer MatLab 'bootcamp' on computational methods run by one of our instructors (a biophysicist), and 5 are now involved in undergraduate research at the interface of physics and biology. Nearly half applied to be Peer Instructors in the first large-lecture implementation (2013). The biology faculty at Maryland were enthusiastic about the new approach and voted overwhelmingly to make the new course the required two-semester introductory-physics sequence required of all biology majors. We have preliminary interest from faculty in the chemistry department, who see our approach as potentially being a more appropriate physics course for their students than the more traditional one. There is a growing interest of both the physics education community and the biophysics community in reforming Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences, as evidenced by the number of sessions and attendees at those sessions at American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) meetings. Additional evidence is provided by the invitations we have received to give talks on the project at physics departments around the country (including North Dakota State, Georgetown, University of Miami, UMBC, Rutgers, Dickinson College, George Mason, Harvard, Kansas State, and Towson State).

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The biggest unexpected challenge was in the different tacit assumptions and expectations about introductory university education among the distinct disciplines. While choosing topics to cover did involve considerable negotiation, the biggest challenge was in understanding what lay behind the different ways the different disciplines approached instruction. We found this first in discussions among faculty and then in interviews with biology students. Two examples are: (1) many of our physicists want to emphasize abstract, generic examples while many of our biologists and chemists want to emphasize specific real world cases; (2) many of our physicists want to express relationships in terms of symbolic equations, retaining the symbols until the very last; many of our biologists and chemists want to explicate the relationships to particular cases using real values right away. We developed a blended approach, using a style that appeared somewhat familiar to all, but stretched everyone a bit. Interviews suggest this worked well with the students.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: As part of our dissemination effort we have published (or submitted) 15 peer reviewed papers and 8 conference papers. These describe some of the challenges to creating an interdisciplinary physics, and specifically discuss the new content, including chemical energy, entropy and free energy, and developing biologically authentic examples. These papers have appeared in both physics and biology education journals. We have also given 42 presentations of our findings and methods at conferences and universities, including Physics Education (AAPT, ICPE), Biology Education (SABER), and Interdisciplinary STEM Education (TRUSE) meetings. We delivered a two-hour workshop at the AAPT 2013 summer meeting to about 35 interested faculty. Our materials are available on the open web and we are currently in preliminary negotiations with a number of potential adopters. Materials, publications, and presentations can be found at

Acknowledgements: This material is based upon work supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute NEXUS grant and the US National Science Foundation under Awards DUE 11-22818 and DGE 07-50616.