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Physics and Biology Partnership for a New Learning Environment

One of the primary instructional responsibilities of any physics department is to teach basic physics to students (often large numbers of them) who pursue majors in the life sciences. However, the course sequence offered to these students is usually not designed to introduce them to physics concepts that are directly relevant to biology, nor does it show how physics can be useful in addressing the complex problems found in living systems.

Skills such as quantitative modeling that are integral to physics and increasingly important in biology are rarely fostered, and the instruction is often ineffective. We have therefore undertaken to create an introductory course sequence for life science majors with content and pedagogy designed to improve the students’ grasp of physics concepts and their understanding of the concepts’ relevance to biology, as well as to improve their ability to apply those concepts to the solution of complex problems. The project has received support from the National Science Foundation via the TUES (Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program.

UNC_Physics116C.fw_1.pngWe have formed a partnership between the Physics & Astronomy and Biology Departments to create a new learning environment incorporating methodology validated by research in science education. We are adopting a "how things work" approach for the courses, in which each unit begins with a biological “driving question” and incorporates the physics concepts necessary to understand it. By using the Lecture/Studio model we maximize the instructional time in which the students are interactively engaged with the ideas and phenomena under study, within the boundary conditions of large enrollments. We are training instructors in how to teach in this environment, and will extensive formative and summative assessment to improve and validate their efforts. We are developing a body of instructional materials for hands-on activities, use of computer simulations, and cooperative group problem solving for each unit of the course as well as readings and homework exercises that elucidate the connections between the physics and the biology.

In partnership with the activities undertaken as a project site for the AAU STEM Education Initiative, we have created a learning community of instructors that reaches across departments, in which participants will advance their knowledge of best practices in introductory science teaching according to discipline-based research. In addition to increasing their use of these practices, it is anticipated that the collaboration between physicists and biologists will increase the degree to which biology faculty members see the physics implications in their teaching of more advanced courses (and vice versa).

Finally, in order to foster significant, systemic change in other physics and biology departments, we plan to disseminate the instructional materials widely and encourage other physics departments to undertake a similar transformation.