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Rethinking Physics Education for Pre-health Students
Rethinking Physics Education for Pre-health Students

Several years ago, Portland State University physics professor Ralf Widenhorn noticed some of the students enrolled in his general physics courses-particularly life science majors and those on track toward graduate studies in health-related fields-didn’t engage deeply with course content.

“I’ve always had large groups of pre-health and life science students in my classes,” Widenhorn said. “Over time it became clear to me that these students didn’t necessarily see the relevance of what we were doing in the classroom to their career paths.”

Widenhorn suspected he wasn’t alone in his observations. Turning to the literature on the subject, he found papers and reports raising concerns about the relevance of general physics courses to students in the life sciences and on pre-health tracks. But why all the interest in the matter in the first place? Well, as it turns out, pre-health and life science majors make up one of the largest cohorts of students enrolling in algebra-based general physics courses at universities. That’s because undergraduate health science advisors often recommend students take these classes, as health professions schools frequently require a demonstrated proficiency in the physical sciences before admission. But, as Widenhorn noted, many of the students he’s spoken with didn’t realize how physics applied to their career goals. Many thought of the three-term course as a “weed out” class—a course designed to be so challenging as to convince some students to seek out new majors with less strenuous scopes of study.

At PSU, there are fourteen pre-health tracks, including medicine, dentistry, medical laboratory science, optometry, pharmacy, radiation therapy, and veterinary medicine, among others. During the 2016–2017 academic year, there were 3,200 PSU students declared as pre-health majors who had enrolled in at least one term of coursework. Many of those students will need to take the one-year, three-course, general physics cycle to continue to graduate programs.

“What I’ve found is that there wasn’t a lot of buy-in from students coming into the general physics cycle,” Widenhorn said. “Most were just there because it was something they had to know if they wanted to pass the standardized tests they’ll need to take to get into graduate school. So, I began thinking that if I could show them how the course materials were relevant to their field of study, I might be able to change their level of engagement.”

To that end, Widenhorn has received several grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) supporting the development, evaluation, and dissemination of innovative approaches to teaching general physics to students on pre-health tracks and life science majors. Leveraging that support, he’s created a semi-flipped classroom model where course materials, pre-lecture and laboratory activities, group discussions, and guest speakers all focus on helping this cohort of students understand how physics is not only a subject they’ll need to know to get into graduate school but is also relevant to many professionals working in medical research and healthcare settings.

In support of that model, Widenhorn, working in collaboration with educators, physics and biomedical researchers, education researchers, and medical practitioners, has created an engaging YouTube video series ( that combines interviews with experts in medical fields with images and clips of biomedical devices in clinical use. The videos, which cover topics including MRI, LASIK, PET, ultrasound imaging, laparoscopy, endoscopy, and others, are designed to better prepare students for advanced studies and careers. The content helps students establish a practical link between topics covered in class and their application in the professional world. Widenhorn has also developed a series of biomedical physics labs with accompanying learning materials that further emphasize the link between physics and the life sciences by demonstrating how principles of physics are relevant to modern medical technologies and practices. In addition to this work, Widenhorn has created a new physics course at PSU, Physics in Biomedicine, which is offered during the summer and follows upon the introductory physics students learn during the one-year general physics cycle. More information is available at Widenhorn’s website:

“We’re not changing the physics students learn in the classroom, nor are we making the materials any easier,” Widenhorn said. “What we’re doing is developing course materials and curricula that connect the principles of physics they’re learning in the classroom to their application in medicine.”

While rethinking how to teach general physics in his courses here at PSU, Widenhorn has also worked alongside and shared ideas with colleagues around the country to address concerns that students don’t see the relevance of physics to the life sciences. With the support of the NSF and in collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers and physics faculty from colleges and universities around the country, Widenhorn is developing the Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences (IPLS) Portal, an online, open-source peer-reviewed platform for creating and disseminating instructional materials. The IPLS Portal will help educators around the country share ideas and contribute to the continued improvement of physics education for pre-health and life sciences students. And working with PSU’s Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, he is seeking partners that can support the broader distribution of some of the award-winning educational tools he has developed to demonstrate principles of physics and their applications in medicine and life science research.

“This work is all about our students,” Widenhorn said. “And we’ve received positive feedback from our initial evaluations of the materials and from students that have taken the courses. We want to give our students the best education possible and prepare them for success while they’re here and after they’ve left PSU. I can see PSU becoming the school of choice for students interested in health and medical science fields and a national leader in the development of innovative curricular materials for physics courses for pre-health students.”