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Transporting the Physics Classroom to Biology

At first glance, physics and biology may seem to be worlds apart. Physicists describe the world in terms of particles, waves and fields, relying heavily on mathematical equations. Biologists, on the other hand, represent the world of living organisms through cycles, Punnett squares, diagrams and phylogenetic trees, among other tools.

Nonetheless, both fields of study require similar problem solving abilities. Over the past 30 years, physics educators have refined their ability to instill these skills in students, but biologists have been lagging behind.

"The physicists are ahead of us in this regard," Anne-Marie Hoskinson, a quantitative biologist specializing in biology education at CU-Boulder, told Physics Central.

Hoskinson and her colleagues decided to see how physics education efforts can be applied to biology. They found that biology educators can and should use many of the tools physicists have developed over the past few decades in university and k-12 classrooms.

Image Courtesy of kmakice via flickr.

Modeling Instruction: Falling Monkeys

Increasingly, teaching styles that mimic the work of actual scientists have gained traction in physics classrooms. One such method called "Modeling Instruction," requires students to go through the process of science while learning it, according to Hoskinson.

Projectiles and monkeys seem like perfect representatives for physics and biology, so the class "falling monkey" physics demo will serve as our framework to apply the modeling instruction method.

In this demo, a cannon fires a projectile (typically a tennis ball) at the same time that an object (usually a stuffed animal monkey) is released from its perch. So where should the demonstrator aim the cannon to hit the monkey?

With Modeling Instruction, students would first observe the demonstration once, then they could try different angles for hitting the monkey. After conducting their experiment, students should find the optimal angle and begin to develop representations that explain their results. Finally, they can re-test their model, perhaps with different projectiles or targets.

Ideally, the students will learn that aiming directly at the target will lead to a direct hit as opposed to aiming slightly below because gravity accelerates both objects equally. This method aims to develop problem solving skills that students may neglect if a professor simply tells them why the demo works.

Math and More

Hoskinson and her colleagues argue that similar methods would benefit biology students who will ultimately face challenges after graduation that require these skills. As the authors write in their paper:

"These [scientific] practices underpin what it means to engage in complex problem-solving. Furthermore, it is these practices, not merely content, that transfer to most students’ future work."

Teaching methods like Modeling Instruction transcend disciplines because both physicists and biologists engage in fundamental problem-solving activities. They simply use different representation (e.g. cycles/diagrams for biologists and more equations for physicists) for their solutions.

Even the distinctions between representations don't hold. For instance, quantitative biology, Hoskinson's educational background, relies heavily on mathematics and statistics to explain biological phenomena.

"One thing we hope to do is disabuse [students] of that notion that there isn't math in biology," said Hoskinson.

Other methods that have proved useful in math and science classes may translate well into biology classrooms as well, according to the researchers. Clickers that require students to engage in multiple choice questions throughout lectures, when used effectively, can improve problem-solving skills. Also, clicker usage can point a professor to topics that her students struggle to understand, allowing her to focus her attention on these problem areas.

The research has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, but you can view it online on the arXiv preprint server. Even the idea of a preprint server, Hoskinson admits, is another area where biologists can learn from physicisits.

"[Biologists] don't have anything like this," Hoskinson said. "I'm a big fan."


If you want to keep up with Hyperspace, AKA Brian, you can follow him on Twitter.


  1. This article tries to provide some commonality between physics and biology. It fails to do so in any meaningful way. There is plenty of physics, but no tangible connection to biology.

  2. In a way, that's the point of the article.


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