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NEXUS Physics Course Overview

Page history last edited by Joe Redish 3 years, 10 months ago

 BERG > Project NEXUS > Instructor's NEXUS Homepage


What we cover, and why


Traditional algebra-based physics courses for biologists are "cut-downs" of courses originally designed for engineers.  A lot of the topics, such as projectile motion, inclined planes, and heat engines, while introducing a lot of good physics technology, have little intrinsic interest or direct relevance for biologists.  As a result, we have re-considered the choice of physics content to be included.  Here is our list of topics that we have included that are usually dropped, and our list of topics that are usually included and stressed that we have eliminated or reduced.


New inclusions or stress in the first semester

  • Atomic and molecular models of matter
  • Chemical energy
  • Fluids, including motion in fluids and material in solution
  • Kinetic theory, including mixtures and partial pressure
  • Brownian motion, diffusion, gradient driven flows
  • Electrostatic forces (this is the context used for vectors and force analysis)
  • More emphasis on dissipative forces (friction, viscosity, drag) 


Topics retained from standard courses (with possible shifts of emphasis)

  • Scaling, units, dimensional analysis
  • Kinematics
  • Newton's Laws
  • Energy and transduction of energy


Topics reduced or eliminated in the first semester

  • Projectile motion
  • Inclined planes, mechanical advantage
  • Linear momentum
  • Rotational motion
  • Angular momentum
  • Universal gravitation


The core of the basic physics of motion: kinematics and Newton's laws are retained and remain the heart of the material.


Course-scale learning goals


The primary goals of developing this course is the following:


1. We want students who have completed this class to see physics as relevant both to the biology they will be learning in the next few years and to their future roles as practicing biologists and medical personnel.  For this to work, the class will have to be filled with biological examples, both at the micro and macro level that the students perceive as biologically authentic.


2. We want students to develop strong scientific skills and competencies, particularly in the areas of

  • scientific modeling,
  • problem posing, analysis, and solving,
  • understanding and using multiple representations including equations and graphs
  • experimental skills including understanding the nature of measurement, experimental design, and uncertainties (error analysis).


Mid-level course objectives


  1. Learn to read scientific text, make coherent sense of it, and learn to use the knowledge in it in reasoning and problem solving.
    • Physics is a particularly appropriate place to learn this since it traditionally relies heavily on student activities and problem solving.
    • To achieve this goal, the class will include pre-class reading, writing a brief summary of that text and asking questions from it, and discussing those questions in class (JiTT pedagogy). In class activity will include using the reading material in answering conceptual questions (Peer Instruction pedagogy) and group problem solving (Context Rich Problem Solving pedagogy).

  1. Learn  to represent physical relationships in multiple ways -- words, graphs, equations, diagrams, to develop a sense of what each representation is useful for, to understand how to look for coherence among the representations, and to reason about a physical system using these representations.

  2. Learn to recognize physics in biological context and understand how it can help understand the biology.

  3. Learn the components of scientific modeling
    • construction
    • use/application (is model given/established)
    • evaluation
    • revision

  4. Learn to solve complex problems.
    • Determine what my aim/goal is (determine what I’m being asked to do—this determination is based on an interaction between the task prompt and the students’ prior ideas about what they should be doing). (One “preferable” example: What am I trying to explain or make sense of?) 


      • “Roughly” Bound or describe phenomena
      • Identify relevant features of phenomena OR Identify model components
      • Determine what about phenomena is being ignored (what features are irrelevant) OR what simplifications are being made.
      • Determine relationships between aspects of phenomena OR Specify model relationships
      • Articulate assumptions, Defend/Justify choices of what to include or exclude in your model or representation.
      • Choose inscriptional form (“Let’s write an equation”)
      • Switch representational forms
      • Coming to consensus about how we are representing something… (Formalization of the semiotic choices)
      • Making qualitative predictions (ex. Generating thought experiments)
      • Making quantitative predictions
      • Check numerical “solutions/predictions” against everyday/physical “number sense”
      • Check qualitative results/predictions against with other everyday models/senses
      • Evaluate model with respect to other models
        • Determine when multiple models are competing/contradictory or giving different results
        • Determine if multiple models are consistent (a family of models)
        • Evaluate model with respect to empirical data
        • Monitor the utility/productivity of model in use
      • Monitor the utility of the strategy/activity that are engaging in 
      • Monitor the utility/productivity of representation in use
      • Check if model accounts for relevant aspects of phenomenon for goal at hand (Does this help me answer my initial question? 


6. Learn to imbed physics into a biological problem or situation

  • To be able to consider a biological context and see the physical principles and constraints that affect the system.
  • To be able to create the relevant mathematical and symbolic relationships that affect the system.
  • To be able to infer the implications of these relationship and see the implications for the biological context.
  • To be able to see the biological next steps.


Detailed Course Objectives


  • Students will understand the role of electrostatic forces in the interaction of biochemical molecules.
  • Students will be able to understand the role of functional dependence on biological phenomena (scaling, dominance of various effects)
  • Students will learn to quantify their experience and carry out 1-sig-fig estimations in essentially any situation.
  • Students will understand the relations among dimensions, units, and functional dependence; they will be able to carry out dimensional analysis, work problems with mixed units, and make sense of biological effects arising from competitive scaling.


Joe Redish 8/16/11

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