Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2006 / Spring 2007 Newsletter



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The Future of Physics in the Undergraduate Education of Biologists

Charles DeLeone, California State University at San Marcos


The interface between physics and biology is one of the fastest growing subfields of physics. As knowledge of cellular processes and complex ecological systems advances, researchers have found that progress in understanding these systems requires more quantitatively rich approaches. Today, in general, there is a real demand for biological researchers skilled in quantitative and computational methods. Among researchers in the field there is also a growing concern that the undergraduate preparation of biologists does not provide them with these skills since most undergraduate students in the biological sciences still receive limited exposure to mathematics and computationally intensive modeling methods. But this situation is evolving.

There are now serious calls for change in the undergraduate biosciences curriculum. While it is not clear how these calls for reform will manifest themselves in the curriculum, whatever form these changes take will have an effect on those involved in the education of biology majors. In our role as educators, it is important that physicists understand the curricular changes that are being recommended for undergraduates, not only because of the effect these reforms might have on our classes, but also because of what physics educators can contribute to the discussion. The purpose of this article is to bring these threads together by discussing the current calls for change in the undergraduate biological science curriculum and considering the role of the introductory physics course for biologists along with physics education research (PER) inspired efforts to remake this course.

Biology Curriculum in Flux

The impetus for the re-evaluation of the undergraduate biosciences curriculum comes from the biology research community. In particular, researchers and funding agencies are concerned that many significant research problems will not be investigated because of a lack of quantitative and computational skills among prospective researchers. Thus the community has begun to study the current preparation of students and consider improvements.

The most comprehensive effort to consider the needs of future bioscience researchers was instigated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) along with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). They requested that the National Research Council evaluate undergraduate education in the biological sciences with an emphasis on the needs of future biomedical researchers. Beginning its work in the fall of 2000, the committee conducted a comprehensive, interdisciplinary evaluation of the current state of the undergraduate curriculum and future needs in the biological sciences. The committee's product was BIO 2010[1]. BIO 2010 set off a community-wide discussion and prominent researchers such as Bialek and Botstein[2] have since written articles that include specific prescriptions for improving the state of the undergraduate curriculum.

The recommendations that have come out of this effort affect all disciplines that contributes to the training of undergraduate biologists. In the area of the biological sciences, BIO 2010 calls for a concerted effort to increase the amount of quantitative and computational work in the existing biology classes through the development of new instructional modules that can be included in existing classes. In the area of mathematics, there are calls for rethinking of the existing course requirements for biology majors, including the possibility of adding instruction in subjects such as linear algebra. The report likewise has suggestions for changing the nature of required chemistry courses including adding more organic chemistry and introducing it earlier. Across the science curriculum, the report emphasizes the need for inquiry based and active learning approaches in courses for future biomedical researchers.

Physics has not been ignored. Some of the suggestions from BIO 2010 and other published articles directly or indirectly concern the role of physics in the undergraduate curriculum. They include:

  • Increased emphasis on mathematical sophistication in physics courses [BIO 2010]
  • Increased emphasis on computer modeling [BIO 2010]
  • Creating a separate introductory physics sequence for students planning on doing biomedical research. [Bialek and Bottstein, BIO 2010].
  • Updating standard introductory physics content for future biomedical researchers to include novel topics. Suggestions included Forster Quenching and Chaos. [Physics Topic Group BIO 2010]
  • Introducing a 3rd semester physics course requirement for future bioscience researchers [BIO 2010]
  • Altering introductory physics labs to include more biological applications of physics [BIO 2010]
  • Teaching introductory physics as part of an integrated interdisciplinary science and math curriculum [Bialek and Bottstein]

Rethinking the Introductory Physics Course for Biologists

While researchers in the biosciences are concerned about the undergraduate curriculum of their students, physics education researchers have been making progress in identifying "better teaching practices" in undergraduate physics. Much of this work has centered on the lower division introductory physics courses where undergraduate biologists get the majority of their exposure to physics. The results of PER suggest that the traditional lecture and laboratory approach to instruction is inadequate for many students[3]. Based on these results, the physics community, with support from national, state and university-level funding agencies, has sustained an on-going effort to increase the effectiveness of instruction in introductory physics courses.

While the calculus-based introductory physics course has benefited the most from these PER inspired innovations, there are a number of reform efforts that have focused specifically on the introductory physics course taken by future biologists. These courses include the Physics 7 effort at the University of California Davis and California State University San Marcos [4], the Humanized Physics Project [5] and the reformed courses at the University of Minnesota [6] and the University of Maryland [7].

These curricula share some commonalities. All of these courses include active engagement based pedagogy that makes use of our evolving understanding of how students learn physics. Most of them also include changes in the topic sequence, emphasize specific content areas and de-emphasize others. While these curricula were not specifically designed to meet the emerging needs of future biomedical researchers, the knowledge gained from the development and implementation of these courses may well help to guide the physics community in responding to the calls for change from our colleagues in biology.

Overall, the message from such PER inspired courses is that active engagement based approaches work well with the students from the biological sciences. The novel physics content sequences show that students do not suffer when there is a departure from the standard sequence and that alternate content sequences may contribute to improved student learning outcomes. A study of MCAT data from the UC Davis reformed course demonstrates that even though some traditional topics were dropped from the content sequence, and that many other topic areas were reorganized, student performance on the MCAT and in later classes did not suffer. In fact, in some cases student performance improved [8].

The Role of Physics Educators

Based on a more informed understanding of the current state of the undergraduate biology curriculum and the state of introductory physics instruction for biologists, it is possible to outline ideas for how physics educators can contribute to reworking the undergraduate curriculum for future biomedical researchers. Some general elements that might guide this contribution could include:

Reconsider the math level of the introductory course for students in the biological sciences

One approach to this would be to require that students who plan on going into biomedical research take the standard calculus based physics course. Another would be to redesign the "algebra-based" course to judiciously include the use of calculus and more mathematically intensive approaches.

Reevaluate the content emphasis and organization

Among the recommendations of BIO 2010 is the inclusion of more examples from biology in the content of service courses for biologists. This report also has a list of physics topics that it deems more important than others. But with this list comes the caveat that ".the emphasis in course design should be on learning and developing relationships between observations and mathematical descriptions and modeling rather than slavishly covering every topic." [1]

When considering content modification in the introductory physics courses for students in the biological sciences it is important to look at the results of existing research inspired curricula. Non-traditional content sequences such as the energy first approach used at UC Davis may offer a template for other physics educators interested in revamping their curriculum.

Expand the use of interactive methods in the physics classroom

Physics educators have developed a number of non-traditional introductory physics courses that have shown marked improvements in student achievement in physics. Many of the successful reforms make use of active-learning methods. Some of the better-known efforts include Tutorials in Physics, Workshop Physics, SCALE UP, Real Time Physics, and Peer Instruction. These efforts generally report improvements in student achievement in physics [9].

Engage in cross-disciplinary collaboration with our colleagues in the biological sciences

Effective preparation of future biomedical researchers will require contributions from many different disciplines. By working with our colleagues in biology, we can assist them in their effort to develop more quantitatively rich content for their biology courses. Likewise, the physics courses designated for students in the biological sciences will benefit from our interactions with our colleagues in biology. Their sense of the most important curricular elements can inform our discussion of modifications to existing courses or our development and implementation of new curricula.


Advances in understanding biological systems rest more and more on quantitative and computational approaches to these systems. Better training for future biological researchers will require rethinking their undergraduate preparation across the disciplines. This should include rethinking the role of the physics course. As solutions to this problem are considered locally, physics educators may be able to make the largest contributions if they are informed of the situation, engage with colleagues in biology and recall the lessons learned implementing PER inspired curricula.


[1] National Research Council Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century, BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists (The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003), second corrected and updated ed.

[2] W. Bialek and D. Botstein, Science 303, 788 (2004).

[3] L. C. McDermott, in APS News (1998), vol. 71, p. 8.

[4] W. H. Potter, C. J. De Leone, and L. B. Coleman "What is Physics 7?", Proceedings of the April Meeting, National Association for Research in Science Teaching , New Orleans, Louisiana (2000) see also

[5] R. Fuller, V. P. Clark, B. A. Thacker, N. Beverly, M. P. Clark, and C. Wentworth, in

American Association of Physics Teachers Announcer (2004), vol. 34, p. 119, also see pages/phy/hpp/.

[6] K. Heller, in American Association of Physics Teachers Announcer (2003), vol. 33, p. 138, also see

[7] E. F. Redish, in American Association of Physics Teachers Announcer (2001), vol. 31, p. 84, also see

[8] C. J. De Leone, W. H. Potter and Gregory Potter, "Student Outcomes in a Radically Reformed Introductory Physics Course at a Large University", Proceedings of the April Meeting, National Association for Research in Science Teaching , New Orleans, Louisiana (2000)

[9] R. R. Hake, "Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses," American Journal of Physics. 66 , 64-74 (1998).

Charles DeLeone is Associate Professor Physics and Department Chair at California State University at San Marcos. He can be reached via e-mail at



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