From Competencies to Curricular Objectives: Preparing a New Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences (IPLS) Course

Juan Burciaga, Mount Holyoke College; Ralf Widenhorn, Portland State University

Over the last few years science departments have been advised of major changes in the education of both life science majors and pre-med students. The revised MCAT1 that will be issued in 2015 is serving as a catalyst to prompt changes in the way undergraduate science courses for pre-med students are being taught. But faculty in the physical sciences are still uncertain exactly what will be expected in their courses. The article takes the perspective of preparing to teach a course in Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences (IPLS) as a faculty member studies the reports calling for change and begins to alter a fairly traditional IPLS course.


Recent reports1,2 have called on the physics community to respond to the changing needs of biologist and other life scientists to better prepare them for advanced study in the fields. In addition, the AAMC will be switching to a new version of the MCAT3,4 in 2015 There are a number of elements of the transformation that are proving daunting to faculty as they consider revising courses that are predominately taken by life science, pre-medical and allied pre-health majors.

Four of the more puzzling factors are the mapping between the curricular goals of faculty and the targeted competencies of the MCAT; the selection of topics in the physics course; a growing recognition of the differences between the physics being taught in the IPLS course and the application of physics by life science students and by life scientists; and a greater role of biology-based problems in a physics course.

In order to set this discussion on concrete terms we set these challenges in the context of preparing a two-semester, non-calculus sequence taught by one or more physics faculty using a fairly traditional development.

And so our little simulation begins — we are preparing a course for the 2014/15 year, we expect that we will need the course to show that we are being responsive to the new guidelines though we are not sure what the guidelines are, and we must do so with a core of traditional development and a minimum of dependence on undeveloped resources.

The Reports

The AAMC/HHMI report, Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians5 (SFFP), outlines the new vision of both undergraduate and medical school preparation for physicians. A key, and somewhat daunting, aspect of this report is that preparation is not described in terms of courses but in competencies. Hilborn and Friedlander6 give an excellent discussion of the rationale behind this paradigm shift.

A key element of the SFFP is the emphasis on interdisciplinary “hands on, minds on” pedagogy, e.g., guided-inquiry, group work, active engagement, and inquiry-based labs.  These guiding principles are widely echoed by physics education research (PER) and the biology community.1,2 The message is that courses must incorporate the kinds of scientific inquiry processes and critical reasoning skills that will best prepare future physicians.

This is a boon to faculty who have tried to incorporate active-learning paradigms into their courses but have not been able to gain the needed buy-in from students, their physics department and college, or external agencies.

Table 1 lists the relevant Competencies and Learning Objectives from the SFFP.

Though the Learning Objectives go a long way to making the more nebulous Competencies into terms like our course goals we may not yet be ready to start planning a daily schedule.

A second important document is the Preview Guide for the MCAT, 20153. The Preview Guide describes the Competencies in terms of Foundational Concepts and Content Categories. Table 2a lists the five Foundational Concepts from the Preview Guide and Table 2b itemizes the Content Category for one of those Content Categories. The Content Categories reveal the topics in a familiar manner and we can start seeing the day-to-day interplay of the development for those topics.

An even more detailed listing of the topics rated as good preparation for the MCAT is described in Summary of the 2009 MR5 Science Content Survey of Undergraduate Institutions.7 In 2009 the MR5 Committee polled medical schools to determine the essential topics needed by students to succeed in medical school. They then polled faculty teaching the undergraduate courses as to which topics are covered in the standard courses. The report lists the comparison of the two surveys and lists the relative importance of topics and the likelihood of a topic appearing on the MCAT.

The Science Content Survey is a powerful tool in the hands of faculty developing courses to better prepare students for the MCAT. Though we do not intend to “teach to the test” we do have a strong impulse to tailor the course to better meet the needs of our students.8 To illustrate, conservation of momentum scored low on the survey and will not appear on the MCAT. However, conservation of momentum is an important component of the framework of mechanics and the use of conserved variables in physics and may be considered a keystone in a pivotal learning cycle. As such we may choose to take the time to keep the topic in the course and accept that we will need to trade off time elsewhere.

The Preview Guide also reveals several aspects of the new MCAT that could have a major impact on course design. Introductory physics will consist of 25% of the test but all physics-based problems will be placed in a biological or chemical context. We think then that in order to better prepare students we will now need to incorporate more biologically-based problems in our assignments and tests.

The Preview Guide also describes the critical inquiry and scientific reasoning skills (Table 3) that will be expected of physicians. A natural place for me to emphasize the development for these skills is the laboratory experience.

The Course

We now have enough background to have some confidence in starting the preparation of our course.

We will use a fairly traditional development with a fairly standard algebra-based textbook but the pedagogy of the class will be considerably overhauled. We will use active learning pedagogies in the classroom and the lab will incorporate a guided-inquiry, community active, learning environment.

One of us has written about such a lab experience before9 and so we will not discuss it in detail here. In summary the learning environment is based on guided inquiry, peer groups, and an extended investigation that is a fair simulation of a research experience. But there are other examples of lab environments that offer practice in inquiry and experimental design, e.g. the Investigative Science Learning Environment10. The schedule we prepare will allow students to discover the key concepts in lab and develop them further in class.

But the classroom environment still needs more development.

We have a list of topics but the topics are still too many in number to cover in any but a cursory manner. And there is a great emphasis on developing critical reasoning skills that require class time in order to practice and develop. How do we reconcile the conflicting demands?

This is a familiar question to faculty who have tried to incorporate active-learning pedagogies into their courses. The only solution seems to be to reduce the time in class where we simply lecture to students and allow them more time in discussion, reflection and grappling with the problems and concepts, that is address fewer topics but in greater depth.

There is one last item that needs exploration — problem solving. An intriguing article by Hoskinson, Caballero, Knight11 explores the problem solving needs and approaches of biology students.  Not surprisingly, solving complex problems in biology has many common processes with solving complex problems in physics — transforming representations of problems (words, visual, mathematical), finding relationships, making predictions, and checking solutions. But what PER in problem solving has shown is that to improve these skills we need to emphasize process, practice and the opportunity for reflection. Therefore, we will need to build into our course time for problem solving modeling and practice.

Another useful article by Watkins and Elby12 points to some interesting insight in how biology students perceive the role of physics and mathematics in biology.


We now have a fairly clean map of what we need to do as we prepare to (minimally) revise the IPLS course.

If we are not already familiar with active-learning pedagogies we will need to study and take workshops in one of these pivotal paradigms (Tutorials, Peer Learning, Just-in-Time, Modeling…). During summer 2014 we would have started reviewing our notes from older IPLS course and start studying how to eliminate topics in order to make time for the active learning strategies and problem solving sessions that we will incorporate into my courses.

If we have not done so already we would document our learning goals13,14 for each class. Learning goals are useful since they encapsulate what students know at the beginning of the class, what they will be able to do at the end of the class and what is the evidence for their learning. Changing our thinking from “Cover Chapter 5.1 to 5.3” to defining learning goals:

“a) Students should be able to transform a word problem of a two-dimensional collision into a visual representation of the conditions before and after the collision.
 b) Students should be able to explain why the dynamic equations do not apply during the collision.
 c) Student should be able to recognize the system where conservation of momentum can be used.
 d) ....”

is an extraordinarily time consuming one requiring much practice. But it does allow faculty to document the meeting of each learning goal. And it is an essential first step to matching the learning goals to the Competencies called for in the SFFP. This step is actually useful for a much more important reason than satisfying administrators. Many faculty stumble when adopting active-learning strategies by not taking time to ensure students buy in to the new paradigms. Though, as all of their other courses make the transition to active learning environments (as recommended in the SFFP report), resistance to the greater effort active learning requires may ease for the immediate future we will need to deliberately obtain their good will and so we will need to build in time to discuss the rationale for the (possibly) new pedagogy of the course.

We will also need to explore biology-based problems in other textbooks than our own to broaden our understanding of the application of physics to the life sciences and the medical field. The PER/BER groups at the University of Maryland are developing an extensive set of resources on their NEXUS Wiki15,16, Hoskinson et al17 write about adopting the modeling approach to a biology based physics course, and Roth and Hobbie18 explore the challenges of preparing biology-based e&m problems. Introductory level books e.g. Kane19 , Davidovits20, and Tuszynsk and Dixon21 can be used to explore how our physics course can be enriched with relevant biology and medical applications.

We will also start modifying the lab to allow more student practice in generating, modifying, and verifying their own critical inquiry.

A Look Ahead

We have outlined the steps that faculty might take for a fairly minimal transformation of the IPLS. The pedagogy may or may not have been a major shift and the core of the content remains the same. But is this sufficient? For some schools the question is not relevant. They will have too many constraints to respond in any other way. But for many schools the answer is — We can do more.

Resources are being developed that offer a brand new development of physics that will allow a more integrated understanding of both biology and physics.14 Courses that are based on a truly integrated understanding of biology, mathematics and physics are being explored.22 The archive of the recent IPLS Conference23 provides an excellent overview of many developments in this rapidly evolving curriculum.

Demands from biology graduate programs, medical schools, or other health related graduate programs may in the near future increase the pressure on university administrators to implement changes to their introductory science courses. This will provide a great opportunity for physics faculty to engage College Deans, department chairs and faculty colleagues to institutionalize changes and substantially and sustainable enhance the education of both the life science and physics communities.


Our thanks and appreciation go to the IPLS community within AAPT and APS who for the last 4 years have been pursuing questions of IPLS reform with an intense vigor, curiosity, and determination in which it has been pleasurable to participate.


Table 1: Competencies and Learning Objectives from the Science Foundations for Future Physicians report.

Competency E1: Apply quantitative reasoning and appropriate mathematics to describe or explain phenomena in the natural world.
Learning Objectives:
    1. Demonstrate quantitative numeracy and facility with the language of mathematics.
    2. Interpret data sets and communicate those interpretations using visual and other appropriate tools.
    3. Make statistical inferences from data sets.
    4. Extract relevant information from large data sets.
    5. Make inferences about natural phenomena using mathematical models.
    6. Apply algorithmic approaches and principles of logic (including the distinction between cause/effect and association) to problem solving.
    7. Quantify and interpret changes in dynamical systems.

Competency E2: Demonstrate understanding of the process of scientific inquiry, and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and validated.
Learning Objectives:
    1. Demonstrate quantitative numeracy and facility with the language of mathematics.
    2. Interpret data sets and communicate those interpretations using visual and other appropriate tools.
    3. Make statistical inferences from data sets.
    4. Extract relevant information from large data sets.
    5. Make inferences about natural phenomena using mathematical models.

Competency E3: Demonstrate knowledge of basic physical principles and their applications to the understanding of living systems.
Learning Objectives:
    1. Demonstrate understanding of mechanics as applied to human and diagnostic systems.
    2. Demonstrate knowledge of the principles of electricity and magnetism (e.g., charge, current flow, resistance, capacitance, electrical potential, and magnetic fields).
    3. Demonstrate knowledge of wave generation and propagation to the production and transmission of radiation.
    4. Demonstrate knowledge of the principles of thermodynamics and fluid motion.
    5. Demonstrate knowledge of principles of quantum mechanics, such as atomic and molecular energy levels, spin, and ionizing radiation.
    6. Demonstrate knowledge of principles of systems behavior, including input–output relationships and positive and negative feedback.


Table 2a: Content Categories from the Preview Guide to the MCAT, 2015.

Foundational Concept 4: Complex living organisms transport materials, sense their environment, process signals, and respond to changes using processes understood in terms of physical principles.
    4A. Translational motion, forces, work, energy, and equilibrium in living systems
    4B. Importance of fluids for the circulation of blood, gas movement, and gas exchange
    4C. Electrochemistry and electrical circuits and their elements
    4D. How light and sound interact with matter
    4E. Atoms, nuclear decay, electronic structure, and atomic chemical behavior

Table 2b: Content Category for the Foundational Concept 4a from the Preview Guide to the MCAT, 2015.

Content Category 4A: Translational motion, forces, work, energy, and equilibrium in living systems

Translational Motion (PHY)
    § Units and dimensions
    § Vectors, components
    § Vector addition
    § Speed, velocity (average and instantaneous)
    § Acceleration

Equilibrium (PHY)
    § Concept of force, units
    § Analysis of forces acting on an object
    § Newton’s First Law of Motion, inertia
    § Torques, lever arms

Work (PHY)
    § Derived units, sign conventions
    § Mechanical advantage
    § Work Kinetic Energy Theorem
    § PV diagram: work done = area under or enclosed by curve

Energy (PHY)
    § Kinetic Energy: KE = ½ mv2; units
    § Potential Energy
        o PE = mgh (gravitational, local)
        o PE = ½ kx2 (spring)
    § Conservation of energy
    § Conservative forces
    § Power, units


Table 3: Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills from the Preview Guide to the MCAT, 2015 with a sample narrative for one of the skills.

Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills
    Skill 1: Knowledge of Scientific Concepts and Principles
    Skill 2: Scientific Reasoning and Problem-solving
    Skill 3: Reasoning about the Design and Execution of Research
    Skill 4: Data-based and Statistical Reasoning

Skill 2: Scientific Reasoning and Problem-solving
Questions that test scientific reasoning and problem-solving skills differ from questions in the previous category by asking you to use your scientific knowledge to solve problems in the natural and social sciences.

As you work on questions that test these skills, you may be asked to use scientific theories to explain observations or make predictions about natural or social phenomena. Questions may ask you to judge the credibility of scientific explanations or to evaluate arguments about cause and effect. Or they may ask you to use scientific models and observations to draw conclusions. They may ask you to recognize scientific findings that call a theory or model into question. Questions in this category may ask you to look at pictures or diagrams and draw conclusions from them. Or they may ask you to determine and then use scientific formulas to solve problems.

Questions that test this skill will ask you to show that you can use scientific principles to solve problems by, for example:
    § Reasoning about scientific principles, theories, and models
    § Analyzing and evaluating scientific explanations and predictions
    § Evaluating arguments about causes and consequences
    § Bringing together theory, observations, and evidence to draw conclusions
    § Recognizing scientific findings that challenge or invalidate a scientific theory or model
    § Determining and using scientific formulas to solve problems”


1. American Academy for the Advancement of Science (2011). Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, Washington, DC

2. Bio2010, Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, National Research Council (2003). (US) Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).

3. AAMC/HHMI, Preview Guide to the MCAT2015 Exam (AAMC, 2012), referenced 15 August 2013

4. R.C. Hilborn, “Physics and the revised Medical College Admission Test”, American Journal of Physics, 82, 428-33, (2014)

5. AAMC, Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians (AAMC, 2009), referenced 15 August 2013

6. R.C. Hilborn and M.J. Friedlander, “Biology and Physics Competencies for Pre-Health and Other Life Sciences Students,” CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12, 170-4, (2013)

7. AAMC, Summary of the 2009 MR5 Science Content Survey of Undergraduate Institutions (AAMC, 2011), referenced 15 August 2013

8. D.C. Meredithand and E.F. Redish (2013) Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors.  Phys. Today 66(7), 38

9. J.R. Burciaga, “The Application of Play Theory to Pedagogical Design”, APS FED Newsletter, Summer, 23-27, 2010

10. E. Etkina and A. Van Heuvelen, "Investigative Science Learning Environment – A Science Process Approach to Learning Physics," in Research-Based Reform of University Physics, edited by E. F. Redish and P. J. Cooney (American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, MD, 2007), Reviews in PER Vol. 1,, reference 15 August 2013

11. A.M. Hoskinson, M. D. Caballero, and J. K. Knight, “How Can We Improve Problem Solving in Undergraduate Biology? Applying Lessons from 30 Years of Physics Education Research,” CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12, 153-61, (2013)

12. J. Watkins and A. Elby “Context Dependence of Students’ Views about the Role of Equations in Understanding Biology,” CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12, 274-86, (2013)

13. G. Wiggins and J. McTighe, Understanding by Design, (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Design, Alexandria, 2005)

14. T. Huston, Teaching What You Don’t Know, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009)

15. NEXUS Wiki,

16. E. F. Redish et al., “NEXUS/Physics: An interdisciplinary repurposing of physics for biologists,” American Journal of Physics, 82, 368-77, 2014)

17. A.M. Hoskinson et al., “Bridging physics and biology through modeling”, American Journal of Physics, 82, 434-41, 2014)

18. B. J. Roth and R.K. Hobbie, “A collection of homework problems about the application of electricity and magnetism to medicine and biology”, American Journal of Physics, 82, 422-27, 2014)

19. SA. Kane, (2009). Introduction to Physics in Modern Medicine. CRC Press.

20. P. Davidovits, (2007). Physics in Biology and Medicine.  Academic Press.

21. J.A. Tuszynsk, and J.M. Dixon (2002). Biomedical Applications of Introductory Physics, Wiley

22. C.H. Crouch and K. Heller, “Introductory physics in biological context: An approach to improve introductory physics for life science students”, American Journal of Physics, 82, 378-86, 2014)

23. Conference on Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences, ComPADRE,

Juan Burciaga is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics at Mount Holyoke College. He is active in the American Association of Physics Teachers and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists, where he serves as Education Officer. He has previously served on task forces on guidelines for the undergraduate curriculum, and was on the planning committee for the recent Conference on Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences.

Ralf Widenhorn is an Assistant Professor in the physics department at Portland State University. He has introduced various reforms to the IPLS curriculum and has published several journal articles describing biomedically inspired curriculum and lab activities. In 2013, he served as the local host at the annual summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers. His background is in semiconductor physics.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.