Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences (IPLS): Curriculum development, Assessment, and Dissemination

Swarthmore's Introductory Physics for Life Sciences (IPLS) course is designed to emphasize the topics that are most important for life sciences and pre-medical students, and to develop the skills needed to apply physics to life science problems. The course is also taught with research-based pedagogy in both the class and the laboratory.

Development Process

To design this curriculum, Catherine Crouch prepared an initial syllabus and list of candidate biological contexts, based on the BIO 2010 report, previous interactions with colleagues in the biological sciences, materials from the literature (see references provided in Crouch and Heller, 2014) and existing courses, and her knowledge of applications of physics in the life sciences and medicine. This proposed design was discussed with faculty in physics, biology, and biochemistry to refine it and arrive at a course that was acceptable to all stakeholders. Meetings with biology and biochemistry colleagues were particularly important in determining the relative importance of physics topics for life science students and their difficulty for students when applied within biology or biochemistry classes. The life science faculty also provided examples of how these topics were applied in their courses and in research experiences that students might have with faculty at Swarthmore. Once the course topics were selected, Crouch used her expertise in research-validated physics pedagogies and curricular materials to adapt existing pedagogies and materials.

Part of the development process for the second semester course was a day-long workshop for biology, biochemistry, and physics faculty to discuss the course, with presenters from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and three reformed introductory physics courses at other institutions. To help develop the first semester course, launched in 2015, an advisory group consisting of three biologists and one biochemist met monthly with Crouch during the 2013–14 academic year to review candidate materials and discuss how particular topics connected to their courses and research.

Such a significant revision to the introductory course is not accomplished all at once. With each offering of the IPLS courses, the materials are revised both to better support student learning and to incorporate additional connections.

Essential Elements for Successful Course Reform

Based on our experience at Swarthmore, the following elements are necessary to successfully implement a reformed IPLS course:

  1. Support from the biology and biochemistry faculty for the undertaking These faculty provided scientific expertise, information about when certain topics and skills appeared in their curricula or were drawn upon for student research projects, and insight into the concerns of their students in selecting and sequencing courses. Their enthusiasm and support were essential.
  2. Prioritized, somewhat incremental implementation There are always more ways that labs can be improved and biological connections can be made. Our anecdotal assessment is that two things are essential for success: (1) changing the overall message of the course, to emphasize the value of physics to the life sciences and the importance of making connections, and; (2) understanding how this course material fits into the other science courses and learning that the students are doing. With those two things, a relatively small number of specific, high-quality examples to make the curricular connections between biology and physics can make a big difference. More connections, examples, biologically inspired labs, etc., can be added in later revisions of the course if this foundation is in place.
  3. Thorough preparation of other faculty and peer tutors involved in teaching the course Other faculty teaching lab sections and students supporting the course as peer tutors or peer learning assistants have to be thoroughly informed of all the ways this course differs from their expectations about an introductory physics course. For example, physics faculty or physics majors will assume that particular topics will be taught in a particular sequence or using particular terminology, which may not actually be used because they do not fit well with the ways these topics appear in the life sciences. It is not enough to assume that such individuals will read the course materials; it is best if the rationale for the differences from the traditional physics approach is clearly explained in a face-to-face conversation, with the opportunity for questions, as otherwise these faculty and students may completely overlook these changes or not understand the reasons for them, making it very difficult for them to adopt that alternate approach.

Course materials

Materials from Swarthmore's IPLS courses are available.

These include a course syllabus, laboratories, biologically inspired problems, and a complete set of course materials including lecture notes and problem sets. Certain materials such as problem solutions are available only by direct request.

Development and dissemination process:

  • Conferring with colleagues about course content
  • Hiring students as lab/activity testers
  • Importance of balancing adapting materials to local context with being part of the national conversation about this course reform
  • Unexpected benefits: improved experience for engineering students as well, increased conversation between departments, gradual increase of interest in research-based teaching methods may have come in part from increased conversation between NSE faculty as part of development process

Publications and Presentations

The resources listed here offer more detail about the design and implementation of Swarthmore's IPLS course and are aimed at faculty who are interested in considering adopting such a course at their own institutions. They also include assessment data indicating the positive effect of these courses on student learning, attitudes, and appreciation of the value of physics for the life sciences.

  • Catherine H. Crouch and Kenneth Heller, "Introductory Physics in Biological Context: An Approach to Improve Introductory Physics for Life Science Students," American Journal of Physics 82, 378 (2014). A peer-reviewed article describing the rationale, design process, history of implementation, and basic assessment outcomes of this course.
  • E. F. Redish, C. Bauer, K. L. Carleton, T. J. Cooke, M. Cooper, C. H. Crouch, B. W. Dreyfus, B. Geller, J. Giannini, J. Svoboda Gouvea, M. W. Klymkowsky, W. Losert, K. Moore, J. Presson, V. Sawtelle, C. Turpen, K. Thompson and R. K. P. Zia, "NEXUS/Physics: An interdisciplinary repurposing of physics for biologists," American Journal of Physics 82, 368 (2014). A peer-reviewed article written by Edward F. Redish of the University of Maryland and colleagues about the HHMI-funded NEXUS project, which also developed a year-long IPLS course. This article describes the rationale, design process, history of implementation, and basic assessment outcomes of this course.
  • Introductory Physics in Biology Context: An approach to improve introductory physics for life science students Crouch (2015). A presentation about Swarthmore's IPLS curriculum development as part of facilitating such reforms at UCLA.

Assessment of IPLS curriculum

Assessment has taken three related directions:

  • General evaluation of student content learning (with the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment), student appreciation of life science content and interdisciplinary connections (with questions on an end-of-semester course evaluation), and student attitudes to learning physics (using the Colorado Learning Attitudes to Science Survey). These results are reported in Crouch & Heller (2014).
  • The ability of the IPLS curriculum to support and sustain student interest in physics (using the Colorado Learning Attitudes to Science Survey and the end-of-semester course evaluation). These results have been presented at several conferences, and a paper describing them in more detail is under review. Learn more at: Physics Education Research Conference presentation from 2013.
  • Features of effective life science contexts for IPLS curricula (course evaluation and interviews) are available at: "Unpacking the sources of student interest in IPLS," Benjamin Geller et al, Physics Education Research Conference 2015.

Promoting Faculty Conversations about Interdisciplinary Learning and Active Teaching.

A range of workshops, focus groups, and seminars on campus promote faculty efforts to incorporate active learning pedagogies and interdisciplinary perspectives into their courses. Many of these activities are supported by the college's HHMI grant.

  • In order to enhance connections between curricula in biology, chemistry, and physics, a focus group of five faculty in these disciplines met monthly during the 2013–2014 academic year. While the group focused on issues related to developing the Physics 3L curriculum, it also served to promote connectedness across the departments.
  • Three biology faculty members attended the 2014 National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Science Education, where they acquired a deep and lasting level of mastery with a range of highly effective teaching strategies and principles. They disseminated what they learned through an engaging active-learning workshop attended by more than forty Swarthmore faculty colleagues.
  • Since 2012, the biology faculty have held regular lunchtime pedagogy meetings. They have focused on developing active learning modules for introductory biology, implementing and assessing the new Biology Scholars Program, and discussing pedagogical content knowledge issues that crossed disciplinary boundaries with colleagues from the physics department. Similar biweekly lunch meetings of physics faculty and students have fostered discussion of the Physics Education Research literature, with an eye toward promoting awareness and use of research-based pedagogical practices.
  • A day-long teaching workshop was organized by two Swarthmore physicists, Catherine Crouch and Ben Geller, who are experts in the Physics Education Research community. The on-campus workshop in June 2015 focused on interactive teaching methods in introductory science courses, including what science education researchers have learned about best practices.
  • Dr. Julia Gouvea, an expert in biology education research from Tufts University, came to campus to give a talk to NSE faculty about interdisciplinary learning, and in particular about the ways in which biology and physics discipline-based education communities can learn from each other.
  • "Introduction to Science Pedagogy: Theory and Practice" is a new seminar course Ben Geller taught during the Fall 2015 semester. The course was designed for students who are interested in science education, particularly at the high school and college level. It integrates educational theory with concrete, practical strategies for becoming better teachers.

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