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Vashti publishes paper about how students seek disciplinary coherence in introductory physics for life science

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle and colleagues published Bridging the gaps: How students seek disciplinary coherence in introductory physics for life science in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: Students in one discipline often receive their scientific training from faculty in other disciplines. As a result of tacit disciplinary differences, especially as implemented in courses at the introductory college level, such students can have difficulty in understanding the nature of the knowledge they are learning in a discipline that they do not identify as their own. We developed a course in introductory physics for life science (IPLS) students that attempts to help them cross disciplinary boundaries. By analyzing student reasoning during recitation sections and interviews, we identified three broad ways in which students in our course meaningfully crossed boundaries: (i) by unpacking biochemical heuristics in terms of underlying physical interactions, (ii) by locating both biochemical and physical concepts within a mathematical bridging expression, and (iii) by coordinating functional and mechanistic explanations for the same biological phenomenon. Drawing on episodes from case-study interviews and in-class problem-solving sessions, we illustrate how each of these types of boundary crossing involves the coordination of students’ conceptual and epistemological resources from physics, chemistry, and biology in distinct but complementary ways. Together, these boundary crossing categories form a theoretical framework for classifying student coherence seeking. We explore how the IPLS course helps our life science students fill in the gaps that exist between traditional introductory courses, by finding and exploring questions that might otherwise fall through disciplinary cracks. By identifying these types of explanatory coherence, we hope to suggest ways of inviting life science students to participate in physics and see physics as a tool for making sense of the living world.

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