Less physics for pre-meds?

The American Association of Medical Colleges has approved changes to the MCAT (the exam required for admission to US medical schools). Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but as far as I can tell the physics community isn’t paying much attention to this. I think we should be, because some standard topics in the introductory physics sequence seem to have moved off the list of topics covered in the exam.

Compare this document describing topics covered on the current exam with this one describing the new one, which is to start in 2015. There are a number of topics on the old list but not the new list, the biggest ones (in my opinion) being magnetic fields and momentum.

I’m not going to comment on whether the loss of these topics will have a deleterious effect on future generations of physicians. I am interested in what effect it will have on the curriculum at universities such as mine. There are some topics on the MCAT list that we don’t cover in great depth in our first-year physics course because we don’t have time (e.g., sound, fluids, geometric optics). Many of the students coming through our introductory course are pre-med students. Will we be expected to dump magnetism and conservation of momentum to make room for these?


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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!

2 thoughts on “Less physics for pre-meds?”

  1. I like magnetic fields as much as the next guy, but sound, fluids and geometric optics sound good, too. Is there a rationale for the set of topics you are currently teaching?

  2. That’s a very sensible question, which I should have addressed.

    The right set of topics in an introductory physics class depends on the intended audience. The MCAT people have actually made generally reasonable choices of topics for pre-med students. The problem at a small university like ours is that we don’t offer an introductory physics course just for pre-meds: the same course is taken by chemistry majors, physics majors, and pre-engineering students as well. We really can’t leave out magnetic fields or momentum for any of the latter groups.

    The obvious solution is to have separate courses for pre-meds. Maybe that’s what we should do, but there are difficulties associated with that. One is simple allocation of resources: even if the number of students taking the various courses doesn’t change, the more “flavors” of introductory physics you have the more sections you typically have to offer. Another problem is that many students fit into multiple categories (especially chem majors who are pre-med). Should they take the course that gives them what they need for advanced chemistry classes or the one they need for pre-med requirements?

    I’m not saying these problems are insurmountable, just that they’re things we need to think about.

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