Introductory Physics for Life Sciences (IPLS) as a Diversity Course?

Is there a sense in which IPLS courses like Phys 131 and 132 here at UMass, are courses with diversity as a central component? A recent meeting of my Teaching for Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity Fellowship which had Including Aspects of Identity in Course Design as the theme, got me thinking about this question.

The subject of identity and diversity in physics courses, when discussed at all, is often discussed in a very one-dimensional way; the focus is essentially always on making the culture of physics more inclusive and thereby increasing representation in physics. This goal is, of course, critically important. While some of the Laws of Nature, such as Conservation of Energy, may be as close to objective truth as we can possibly get, the manner in which these laws are stated and the questions which the physics community pursues are going to be impacted by the composition of that community. A more diverse physics community cannot help but increase the number of perspectives, increasing both the number of angles of approach to each question, and the variety of questions asked which cannot help but result in better quality science.

Are there other ways in which diversity plays a role in teaching physics, particularly IPLS? If one of the roles of teaching with diversity in mind is defined to be exposing students to different modes of thinking, then IPLS courses definitely meet this definition. As discussed in Meredith and Redish[1], biologists and physicists have very different modes of thinking. A fact I have only truly begun to appreciate after teaching IPLS for three years. Introductory biology courses are often focused on specific complex case studies and talk a lot about how there are exceptions to every trend. Physics, on the other hand is a small set of rules that apply universally (for the most part) and focuses on starting with simple models and adding complications. This difference in mindset is exemplified by one of my students when they said to me, “But none of this stuff actually works right? In biology class, nothing works exactly like we say it does…”

These differences in disciplinary thinking point to an important aspect of teaching, not just IPLS but all of introductory physics: we are teaching them the physics method of approaching problems and, hopefully, to appreciate why such approaches are valuable. Many of the most exciting discoveries are now happening at the junction of physics and chemistry or physics and biology. In these research groups, often biologists, physicists, and chemists work together to investigate phenomena. Could these discoveries be the result of the confluence of problem solving perspectives being brought to bear?

[1] Dawn C. Meredith, and Edward F. Redish. “De- and Re-Constructing Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences.” Accessed April 6, 2015.