Physics for pre-meds

Last June,  a committee convened by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute issued a report titled Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, proposing changes to the science requirements for medical students, including both the pre-med and medical-school curricula.  Among other things, this report is intended as input to a committee that is planning major revisions to the MCAT some time around 2014.  As far as I can tell, physics faculty members (including me until recently) tend not to know this is going on.  But since many physics departments earn a signifcant part of their living by teaching premeds, we should probably be paying attention to this process.

The main broad-brush recommendation in the report is to move away from specific lists of required courses and toward “competency” requirements.  Medical schools should no longer say, “Thou shalt take two semesters of physics,” for instance, but rather should require that students can perform  certain tasks.  Part of the reason for this is to remove barriers to colleges that want to implement novel ways of teaching science, especially ways that emphasize interdisciplinarity:

Organizing educational programs according to departmental priorities is a long-standing tradition in both undergraduate and professional education, but some institutions have begun to develop their educational program through an integrated, nondepartmental approach, and it is this approach the committee supports in its report.

That quote could have been talking about UR’s new Interdisciplinary Quantitative Science course.  During the development of the course, one thing we had to pay attention to was making sure that it checked all of the required pre-med boxes, and in particular that it would be evident from the transcript that students had had the required courses.  For instance, since medical schools require two semesters of physics, and this course replaces one of those, we had to make sure that at least one unit’s worth of the course was listed in the transcript as Physics (in addition, of course, to making sure students actually learned the appropriate physics).

Naturally, one of the first things I looked at in the document was how the proposed changes would affect the physics students would take.  One of the eight “competencies” recommended for admission to medical school is

Demonstrate knowledge of basic physical principles and their application to the understanding of living systems.

This is fleshed out with a bunch of “learning objectives”:

  • Mechanics
  • Electricity & magnetism
  • Waves & optics
  • Thermodynamics & fluids
  • Principles of quantum mechanics
  • Principles of systems behavior

The committee’s recommendation is that these competencies replace explicit course requirements such as “two semesters of physics.”  But the above list of learning objectives pretty much matches what’s taught in a usual two-semester physics-for-premeds sequence.  Actually, it covers a bit more than that: we never do “principles of systems behavior”, and quantum mechanics is often left out as well.

So it seems to me that, if these recommendations are implemented, premed students will not end up taking less physics than they do now.  To a good approximation, they won’t even be taking different physics from what they do now.  As far as physics is concerned, it’s surprising how little change the committee recommends.  Despite the report’s words about encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to teaching science, it’s easy to imagine these recommendations leading to physics-for-premed courses chugging along pretty much as before.

Of course, I don’t know if medical school admissions people, and more importantly the MCAT-redesign people, will adopt these recommendations, or how they’ll implement them if they do.  In particular, what actually happens with the MCAT will probably be the most important driver of changes to the premed curriculum.  The MCAT-revision process is just getting started now.  People who care about undergraduate science curriculum issues should certainly pay attention.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “Physics for pre-meds”

  1. “… their application to the understanding of living systems.”

    Interesting. The two semesters of “real physics” I took didn’t apply the principles of mechanics and E&M to living systems. We always operated on ideal springs, rigid bodies, and frictionless pulleys. (Okay, maybe once we had a perfectly spherical horse.)

    I think it’s reassuring that your physics-for-premeds program will not need to change in a significant way. That just confirms that you’re doing it right. (It’s the ones who are doing it wrong who will have to make more significant changes.)

  2. I should clarify a bit: At the moment, most physics-for-premeds courses, if they include any biology at all, do the “application to the understanding of living systems” thing primarily by choosing biologically-inspired problems and examples and grafting them onto the old standard physics curriculum. If people were to try to integrate the biology more thoroughly into the physics, that would be a change in the curriculum. But the way I read the recommendations, it will be possible for physics departments to interpret them as a mandate to keep on doing pretty much what they’re doing, and hence that’s what’ll happen.

    At UR we have taken steps toward the greater integration of biology into the intro physics course taken by biology students and premeds. Aside from the IQS course, which is supposed to weave the disciplines together in a big way, we have a biology-themed “flavor” of our second-semester intro course, which is supposed to do a better job than standard courses of weaving biology into the physics. In particular, the labs have a lot more biology connection than in most intro physics courses (even those aimed at bio students and premeds).

    I’ve never taught that course, so I don’t really know too much about how it works, but it’s a good idea in principle.

  3. Oh, and since Raymond’s a college classmate of mine, I should mention one more thing.

    If you’re talking about Physics 105-106 at Princeton (I forget if you were in that course with me), or even 103-104, then the typical intro course nowadays does A LOT better than that at integrating biology into the physics. Of course, those courses were aimed mostly at physicists and engineers; there was a separate course (101-102, I think) primarily for bio / premed students. I’d be willing to bet, though, that that course put little to no effort into connecting the physics to biology either. (At that time, anyway. Maybe it’s better now.)

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