The role physics can play in a multi-disciplinary curriculum for non-physics scientists and engineers

Edward F. Redish 1 * , Vashti Sawtelle 1, Chandra Turpen 1
More Detail
1 Department of Physics, University of Maryland, USA
* Corresponding Author
EUROPEAN J SCI MATH ED, Volume 2, Issue 2A, pp. 1-13.
OPEN ACCESS   466 Views   279 Downloads
Download Full Text (PDF)


At many physics departments a significant fraction of teaching is in support of engineers and scientists in other majors. These service courses are thus an automatic crucible of interdisciplinary interaction, and at times, strife. For example, the traditional algebra-based physics course is often considered by both biology faculty and students as having little relevance to their discipline. To address this issue, our multi-disciplinary multi-university team has been negotiating the role of a physics in the curriculum of life-science students; In NEXUS/Physics we have designed a class that stresses traditional physics skills but in contexts chosen to better meet the needs of life science students. Non-standard topics include chemical energy, diffusion and random motion, and thermodynamics with careful discussions of entropy, enthalpy, and Gibbs free energy. Explorations into how physics intertwines with an engineer's curriculum suggests places where analogous negotiations could lead to substantial modifications of physics courses for engineers that substantially enhance their value for engineering students.


Redish, E. F., Sawtelle, V., & Turpen, C. (2014). The role physics can play in a multi-disciplinary curriculum for non-physics scientists and engineers. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 2(2A), 1-13.


  • AAAS (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: A call to action: AAAS Press.
  • AAMC/HHMI (2009). Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians: Report of the AAMC-HHMI Committee
  • Brookes, D. & Etkina, E., (2009). Force, ontology and language. Physical Review, Special Topics, Physics Education Research, 5, 010110
  • Danielak, B., Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2014). The Marginalized Identities of Sense-makers: Reframing Engineering Student Retention. Journal of Engineering Education 103:1, 8-44;
  • diSessa, A. A. (1993). Toward an Epistemology of Physics, Cognition and Instruction, 10, 105-225.
  • Dreyfus, B., Geller, B., Gouvea, J., Sawtelle, V., Turpen, C. & Redish, E. (2014). Chemical energy in an introductory physics course for the life sciences, Am. J. Phys. in press.
  • Etkina E. & Murthy, S. (2006). Design labs: Students' expectations and reality, AIP Conf. Proc., 818 97-100.
  • Galley, W. (2004). Exothermic bond breaking: A persistent misconception. J. Chem. Educ. 81 (2004) 523.
  • Geller, B., Dreyfus, B., Gouvea, J., Sawtelle, V., Turpen, C. & Redish, E. F. (May, 2014). Entropy and spontaneity in an introductory physics course for life science students, Am. J. Phys. in press.
  • Gupta, A., Danielak, B. & Elby, A. (2014) Physical Review - Special Topics -PER, under review.
  • Gupta, A. & Elby, A. (2011). Beyond Epistemological Deficits: Dynamic Explanations of Engineering Students' Difficulties with Mathematical Sense-making. Int, J. of Science Educ., 33:18, 2463-2488.
  • Hammer, D., Elby, A., Scherr, R. & Redish, E. (2004). Resources, framing, and transfer, in Transfer of Learning: Research and Perspectives, J. Mestre (ed.): Information Age Publishing.
  • Hestenes, D. (1992). Modeling games in the Newtonian World, Am. J. Phys. 60 732-748.
  • Hull, M., Kuo, E., Gupta, A. & Elby, A. (2013). Problematizing problem-solving rubrics: Enhancing assessments to include blended mathematical and physical reasoning throughout the solution, Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 9:1, 010105.
  • McCloskey, M. (1983). Naïve theories of motion, in Dedre Gentner and Albert L. Stevens, Eds., Mental Models, 299-324: Erlbaum.
  • Moore, K., Giannini, J. & Losert, W., (2014) Toward better physics labs for future biologists, Am. J. Phys., in press.
  • National Research Council (2003). Bio 2010: transforming undergraduate education for future research biologists: National Academy Press.
  • National Research Council (2009). A New Biology for the 21st Century: National Academy Press.
  • Redish, E. F. (1994). Implications of Cognitive Studies for Teaching Physics, Am. J. Phys., 62, 796-803.
  • Redish, E. F., Saul, J. M., & Steinberg, R.N. (1998). Student Expectations In Introductory Physics, Am. J. Phys. 66, 212-224.
  • Redish, E. F. & Hammer, D. (2009). Reinventing college physics for biologists: Explicating an epistemological curriculum, Am. J. Phys., 77:7, 629-642.
  • Redish, E. F. & Gupta, A. (2010). Making Meaning with Math in Physics: A Semantic Analysis, Physics Community and Cooperation, Vol. 1 GIREP Conf. Proc., Leicester, UK, August 20, 2009, 244-260.
  • Redish, E. F. & Cooke, T.J., (2013). Learning Each Other's Ropes: Negotiating interdisciplinary authenticity, Cell Biology Education - Life Science Education, 12, 175-186.
  • Redish, E., Bauer, C., Carleton, K., Cooke, T., Cooper, M., Crouch, C., Dreyfus, B., Geller, B., Giannini, J., Svoboda Gouvea, J., Klymkowsky, M., Losert, W., Moore, K., Presson, J., Sawtelle, V., Thompson, K., Turpen, C. & Zia, R. (May, 2014). NEXUS/Physics: An interdisciplinary repurposing of physics for biologists, Am. J. Phys. in press.
  • Redish, E., (2014). Oersted Lecture 2013: How should we think about how our students think? Am. J. Phys. in press.
  • Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge growth in teaching, Educational Researcher, 15:2 4-14.
  • Svoboda, J., Sawtelle, V., Geller, B., & Turpen, C. (June 3, 2013) A Framework for Analyzing Interdisciplinary Tasks: Implications for Student Learning and Curricular Design, Cell Biology Education - Life Science Education 12, 187-205.
  • Thornton, R.K., and Sokoloff, D.R. (1998) Assessing student learning of Newton’s laws: The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation, Am. J. Phys. 66 228-351.
  • Watkins, J. & Elby, A. (June 3, 2013). Context dependence of students' views about the role of equations in understanding biology, Cell Biology Education - Life Science Education 12, 274-286.
  • Watkins, J., Coffey, J. E., Redish, E. F. & Cooke, T. J. (2012). Disciplinary Authenticity: Enriching the reform of introductory physics courses for life science students, Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res., 8 010112