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Dawn Meredith, University of New Hampshire
The March 2014 “Conference On Introductory Physics For The Life Sciences (IPLS),” held in Arlington, Virginia and sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the American Association of Physics Teachers, brought together biologists, IPLS developers, physics instructors, and curriculum reform experts to discuss changes in this course. The conference included plenary speakers, posters, and working group sessions where attendees discussed the many issues related to implementing IPLS reforms. Conference presentations and posters can be found on the ComPADRE website. Soon ComPADRE will also include a full conference report. (You will need a ComPADRE account to login.)
This article summarizes the key concerns expressed by conference attendees, as well as some possible solutions. There are also references to resources to help support the work of course reformers.
The need for course reform: Several national policy documents over the past decade have brought to light the need for improvement in the education of life science professionals.[1-3] This education needs to be quantitative, interdisciplinary, and inquiry based. A decade ago, the typical IPLS course did not meet the needs of these students. We have come to understand that the students need a course that foregrounds how physics both constrains and provides opportunities for biological systems, and prepares them to appreciate and use the power of the quantitative models that are at the heart of physics.[4,5]
Sustainability of reforms and course goals: One key to sustainability is including all of the stakeholders in the discussions of goals and objectives: physics faculty, biology faculty, biology students, pre-professional advisors, the college, and the institution. The work of physics education researchers at U of Colorado at Boulder can provide guidance on sustainable course reform, including beginning with such conversations.
One challenge in setting goals for this course is how to balance the physics department’s focus on the elegance, beauty, power, and coherence of physics, with the life scientists’ (both professors and students) desire for physics to inform their understanding of biological systems. We do not want this course to become an “un-organized overwhelming bucket” of biology applications (to quote an attendee), a course without a coherent story line, or a course dictated entirely by needs of life science faculty and students. And yet, those needs should be addressed.
A possible approach proposed at the conference is that physics can dictate the storyline, while biology can inform which topics are covered in what depth. For example, there was overwhelming agreement of conference participants that forces and conservation laws must remain at the core of this course, however, many applications of forces might be done in the context of fluids and viscous flow where the biological applications are numerous.
Topic coverage: As courses are redesigned, one vital decision is what topics to cover and in what depth. In asking this question, we must be aware that the different specialties within the life sciences (e.g., molecular, cellular, organismal, ecological) can have quite different opinions about what is important, and we need to listen to all the voices at our own institution. There is general agreement that topic coverage should be determined equally by the physics story line and the needs of biologists.[7,8]
Goals related to Mathematics, Modeling, and Beliefs about Learning: Students in this course often do not come with strong mathematical skills, therefore one of the main goals is to improve those skills in meaningful ways. This includes developing an understanding of scaling, units, linear relationships, proportional reasoning, graphs, and statistics. The two other skills most widely cited as priorities were the ability to build models, (i.e., to be able to identify basic physics principles in a complex situation) and problem-solving skills. Key epistemological goals (i.e., goals related to students beliefs about learning and knowledge) included students coming to appreciate that physics is useful to understand the real world (especially biology), that numbers and equations should make sense, and that memorizing is not learning.
Pedagogical issues: We agreed that while the content is being changed, it is vital to maintain sound pedagogy. We cannot forget all that we have learned in the last few decades from Physics Education Research about active engagement; formative assessment; and attending to conceptual, mathematical, and epistemological growth of students. The national policy documents from the biology/pre-professional community are also calling for inquiry-based, active learning environments.
Local support for those making reforms: There are some very practical concerns for those taking on the huge task of course reform. First, reformers should be sure that their chair and department buy into the reforms, as evidenced by participation in conversations about goals and/or commitment of resources (e.g. equipment for new laboratories, and course release or summer salary for the time required for faculty to prepare the new course). This is especially important in departments where the IPLS course is less well resourced than the course for engineers and physical scientists (e.g., the IPLS course is commonly taught by adjuncts, or given fewer faculty and TA’s per student).
To make the effort required manageable, reformers should not try to change everything at once, but make a few meaningful, cumulative changes each year. For many, changes in the lab might be the most straightforward and have the largest impact. Reformers should also not work in isolation. They should recruit a biology colleague (or someone from another relevant department) to be the content expert and provide connections to other biosciences faculty; many of us have found such a collaborator is essential for on-going negotiations between the cultures of biology and physics. Biophysics faculty, where present, can be an invaluable resource even if they do not lead the reform. Advanced undergraduate biology students who have taken the IPLS course, can be learning assistants and biology experts in the physics classroom.
Repository of curricular materials: Course reformers need easy access to tested curricular materials (labs, tutorials, homework and exam questions, peer instruction questions). Attendees stated strongly the need for a central on-line repository of materials that is lean, searchable, and annotated (e.g., “this works well under the following conditions…”) The conference organizers are currently working with the ComPADRE staff to create such a repository. In the meantime, below is a table of resources currently available on the web. This is by no means complete, but a place to start.
Student buy-in: Will our IPLS students accept the changes? While we hope that these reforms should be widely appealing to students, and assessment data from many institutions indicates that it is, if the reformed course is perceived as more difficult and requiring more effort than the standard course, students might be resistant in spite of the biological focus. The value of the reformed course can be greatly enhanced if students see physics used in at least some upper division biology courses, but this then requires that physics is a pre-requisite for the course, and students are advised to take physics before their final year. It may also be possible to have at least a few significant references to physics in introductory biology courses. Having biology instructors attend your discussions of IPLS course goals will greatly facilitate discussions on this matter.
Local flexibility: There was also discussion about the need to tailor the IPLS course to the important differences in institutions. There will not be a one-size fits all IPLS course. For example small institutions may not be able to offer a course specifically for life science students. Different institutions will have different mixes of the many different kinds of life science students (future research biologists, nursing students, physical therapy students, and/or pre-medical students), and some will have non-life science students (e.g. architects) in the same course. Some institutions offer calculus-based courses while others offer an algebra-based course. Many institutions must be concerned with articulation agreements with other institutions and/or large number of transfer students.
Assessment also arose as a concern. How do we know if our reformed course is meeting our objectives? Inventories such as the FCI or FMCE do not target IPLS specific goals, though they may be of some help in assessing the pedagogy, so there is a need for more appropriate assessment instruments. Some are under development or have recently been developed: DJ Wagner and colleagues are developing a statics fluid assessment. Kristi Lyn Hall has developed a Maryland Biology Expectations Survey,  similar to the MPEX, to assess student attitudes and expectations. However, assessment for IPLS courses remains an area in need of a great deal of work.
In summary, there are many resources for those considering reform of their IPLS course: identification of key issues, tested curricular materials, and best practices in course reform in general and IPLS in particular. Important work is still needed to create a repository of curricular materials and assessment targeting specific IPLS goals.
Dawn Meredith is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of New Hampshire. She is active in the field of PER, particularly focusing on curricular materials for the IPLS course, and on helping students connect meaning and mathematics.Endnotes