Rethinking introductory physics for pre-health and life-science majors

Ralf Widenhorn
Portland State University

Need: There is a need to reform undergraduate pre-health physics instruction in what is commonly referred to as Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences or IPLS. Traditionally, pre-health students only take enough physics to fulfill requirements for their pre-med or pre-health graduate program, often viewing physics as an irrelevant barrier or “weed-out” requirement necessary for admittance into their clinical graduate programs. We aim to address this lack of student engagement through the design and development of a full-year of biomedical physics curriculum to specifically engage pre-health students and foster an appreciation of the study of physics as both necessary and relevant to their future careers in medicine. Our project aims to transform introductory physics for pre-health students by filling two main needs: 1) provide students with an introductory biomedically related curriculum that stresses the importance of physics as a basic science relevant to medicine, and 2) provide faculty unfamiliar with biomedically related interdisciplinary content with a coherent physics curriculum that can be implemented in multiple educational environments.

Guiding Question: The guiding questions are centered around the aim of the project to develop, implement, assess, and share curriculum with undergraduate physics teaching and education research communities. To obtain data on multimedia curricular implementation we use formative and summative assessments to improve the learning material throughout the project and evaluate learning gains for individual modules as well as the aggregate of all modules. Additionally, we assess the impact of the educational material and in-course instruction on student attitudes. The implementation of the developed multimedia modules and full-year curriculum is being studied in two active learning environments: a small studio-style classroom at Rockhurst University and a large enrollment classroom at Portland State University which integrates active learning group work with short presentations by the instructor. The COVID pandemic led to early results coming from hybrid and online learning environments.

Outcomes: The proposed multimedia educational curriculum includes simulations of physics concepts in a medically relevant context, videos containing interviews with biomedical experts as related to the key ideas covered in an introductory physics course, a written manuscript to integrate videos with physics principles, pre/post qualitative conceptual and quantitative class problems, and formative and summative assessment questions. The format of our multimedia modules is portable and allows us to reach a broader community of educators and give more students access to our educational teaching materials.

Broader Impacts: This project addresses the need for medical professionals that are well-versed in the fundamental physics principles that are involved in every aspect of analyzing functions of the human body, the detection/diagnosis of an illness and the subsequent treatment plan leading to a better prepared generation of healthcare providers. Project modules address the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) pre-health competencies and the MCAT. The design of project multimedia curricula is based on collaboration with a diverse group of biomedical professionals in the design of videos highlighting the relationship of physics to biomedical professions.


Ralf Widenhorn, Portland State University, Portland, OR; Mayuri Gilhooly, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri; Priya Jamkhedkar, Portland State University, Portland, OR; Travis Kregear, Portland State University, Portland, OR; Nancy Donaldson, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri