The October 2018 “Editor’s pick” for the American Journal of Physics is a paper authored by multiple current and former members of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, describing their multi-year effort to reform and re-envision the two-course introductory physics sequence for life science majors [1].  The two courses that comprise this sequence (PHYS 114 and 115) are the largest taught by the department, with approximately 1000 students passing through these courses each year.  The reform effort, which was supported by grants from the NSF and AAU, had three major components:


  • We made sure that the curriculum was aligned with the needs and interests of life science majors. This meant that we removed some topics that are typically found in introductory physics, such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and replaced them with more biologically-relevant topics, such as diffusion.
  • We changed the format of the courses from a traditional lecture-lab-recitation format into a hybrid Lecture/Studio format. In the Lecture/Studio format, students attend two 50-minute, large (200 or more students), interactive lectures each week.  Labs and recitation activities are combined into 110-minute studio sessions, each of which hold approximately 50 students and which students attend twice per week.  The lectures and studios are paired such that each studio follows and expands upon the material introduced in the associated lecture.
  • We built upon the findings of physics education research (PER) so that class time is spent engaging students in activities that are research-supported, increase the amount of interactive engagement among students, and lead to deep and long-lasting understandings of the material.
  • We established a “mentor-apprentice” model, in which each course is typically taught by at least two faculty members, so that one who is experienced with the course and interactive learning (“the mentor”) can help train their co-instructor (“the apprentice”). This model was designed to help faculty new to the course transition into teaching it as easily as possible, as well as to help many faculty improve their abilities to effectively implement active learning in general.


As described in the paper, we have measured significant increases in student learning since implementing the reformed courses.


[1] D. P. Smith, L. E. McNeil, D. T. Guynn, A. D. Churukian, D. L. Deardorff, and C. S. Wallace, Am. J. Phys. 86, 862 (2018).

Comments are closed.