Friday, May 2, 2014

Research and Education at the Crossroads of Biology and Physics

The May issue of the American Journal of Physics (my favorite journal) is a “theme issue” devoted to Research and Education at the Crossroads of Biology and Physics. In their introductory editorial, guest editors Mel Sabella and Matthew Lang outline their goals, which are similar to the objectives Russ Hobbie and I have for the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
…there is often a disconnect between biology and physics. This disconnect often manifests itself in high school and college physics instruction as our students rarely come to understand how physics influences biology and how biology influences physics. In recent years, both biologists and physicists have begun to recognize the importance of cultivating stronger connections in these fields, leading to instructional innovations. One call to action comes from the National Research Council’s report, BIO2010, which stresses the importance of quantitative and computational training for future biologists and cites that sufficient expertise in physics is crucial to addressing complex issues in the life sciences. In addition, physicists who are now exploring biological contexts in instruction need the expertise of biologists. It is clear that biologists and physicists both have a great deal to offer each other and need to develop interdisciplinary workspaces…

This theme issue on the intersection of biology and physics includes papers on new advances in the fields of biological physics, new advances in the teaching of biological physics, and new advances in education research that inform and guide instruction. By presenting these strands in parallel, in a single issue, we hope to support the reader in making connections, not only at the intersection of biology and physics but also at the intersection of research, education, and education research. Understanding these connections puts us, as researchers and physics educators, in a better position to understand the central questions we face…

The infusion of Biology into Physics and Physics into Biology provides exciting new avenues of study that can inspire and motivate students, educators, and researchers at all levels. The papers in this issue are, in many ways, a call to biologists and physicists to explore this intersection, learn about the challenges and obstacles, and become excited about new areas of physics and physics education. We invite you to read through these articles, reflect, and discuss this complex intersection, and then continue the conversation at the June 2014 Gordon Research Conference titled, “Physics Research and Education: The Complex Intersection of Biology and Physics.”
And guess who has an article in this special issue? Yup, Russ and I have a paper titled “A Collection of Homework Problems About the Application of Electricity and Magnetism to Medicine and Biology.”
This article contains a collection of homework problems to help students learn how concepts from electricity and magnetism can be applied to topics in medicine and biology. The problems are at a level typical of an undergraduate electricity and magnetism class, covering topics such as nerve electrophysiology, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and magnetic resonance imaging. The goal of these problems is to train biology and medical students to use quantitative methods, and also to introduce physics and engineering students to biological phenomena.
Regular readers of this blog know that a “hobby” of mine (pun intended, Russ) is to write new homework problems to go along with our book. Some of the problems in our American Journal of Physics paper debuted in this blog. I believe that a well-crafted collection of homework problems is essential for learning biological and medical physics (remember, for them to be useful you have to do your homework). I hope you will find the problems we present in our paper to be “well-crafted”. We certainly had fun writing them. My biggest concern with our AJP paper is that the problems may be too difficult for an introductory class. The “I” in IPMB stands for “intermediate”, not “introductory”. However, most of the AJP theme issue is about the introductory physics class. Oh well; one needs to learn biological and medical physics at many levels, and the intermediate level is our specialty. If only our premed students would reach the intermediate level (sigh)….

Russ and I are hard at work on the 5th edition of our book, where many of the problems from our paper, along with additional new ones, will appear (as they say, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet!).

Anyone interested in teaching biological and medical physics should have a look at this AJP theme issue. And regarding that Gordon Research Conference that Sabella and Lang mention, I’m registered and have purchased my airline tickets! It should be fun. If you are interested in attending, the registration deadline is May 11 (register here). You better act fast.

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