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Why is Physics 18A different this year?

By Anindita Chanda

Section: Opinions

October 14, 2016

When people think about a physics lab course, they imagine cars being pushed down a ramp, masses hanging off of spring scales and applying a bunch of memorized formulas to their experiments. Depending on which level physics course a student is in, it may mean they have to either apply more conceptual knowledge to their experiments, or make sense of all of the calculus they have to do to get to the right answer. Regardless, pre-med students often find physics to be the bane of their existence, as it has “nothing to do with becoming a doctor,” (ironic, because physics takes up a good chunk of the MCAT exam).

To make the Physics 18A lab course more applicable for pre-med and life sciences students, the course was completely redesigned by Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins, Dr. Ben Rogers and Dr. Zvonimir Dogic.

To address the question of how the Physics 18A course has now become more oriented around biology, Dr. Kosinski-Collins explained: “At Brandeis, Physics 18A/B is the course series specifically designed for life sciences majors and pre-med students. Many ‘calls to action’ suggesting reform in undergraduate education for life scientists have been issued suggesting the need to include interdisciplinary approaches to learning in all introductory courses. These reform efforts have suggested that interdisciplinary approaches will increase student retention, learning and conceptual understanding in the biological sciences.”

With that being said, though, many students who are currently enrolled in this course often talk about how physics lab just seems to be a reiteration of biology lab (“biology lab 2.0”), or that they are not really learning any physics from it and so do not see what they are learning from the course. Furthermore, a lot of students often express frustration both in and out of lab about the lack of directions.

Students often discuss how at least in biology lab we were given manuals, which had thorough experimental procedures listed out—which is not the case for physics lab.

Kosinski-Collins explained that this is because “we see the introductory chemistry, biology/organic and physics labs as a cohesive curriculum unit. In chemistry you learn how to follow an explicit set of directions guiding you through every step of a traditional laboratory protocol. In the biology and organic chemistry labs, you are asked to take part in designing some aspect of your own project in a guided inquiry experience. In the physics labs, we are now giving you a principle and tools and then you are asked to design the entire experiment. We hope by participating in this triumvirate of experiences, students will feel more comfortable with the uncertainty, open-endedness and variability of scientific research.”

As this Physics 18A course was restructured and put into action for the very first time this year, there are pros and of course cons that have been voiced by students taking the class. Many of the pros are centered around how students appreciate the link between the two subjects (physics and biology) that they did not think had much of an association with one another. A lot of other students have explained that they like that this course’s material is not fully dependent on what someone is simultaneously learning from the Physics 10A (lecture) course.

Most of the cons (lack of instruction being the major issue among students) have already been addressed previously. Nonetheless, while many of us who are taking this course currently are the guinea pigs, improvements will be made to the course as needed.

“I have received both positive and critical comments about the structure of the course, but my hope is that as we reiterate the course over the next year we can both focus on the course strengths as well as remove or alleviate the weaknesses,” Dogic responded.

So for students who are satisfied or not with this course, their voices are being heard and will continue to be heard in an effort to improve the class.

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