Physics and Biology: Helping students understand their ‘connections’

Topic: Helping students understand ‘connections’ between physics and biology
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Physics, Biology
Authors: Shusaku Horibe, Bret Underwood, Peter Timbie, University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Submission Date: June 17, 2008

Executive Summary: The goal of the lesson is for students to develop an understanding of how physics is connected to biology through the building of physics models of biological phenomena.

We developed three versions of the lesson, evaluating Versions 1 and 2 and making changes based on those evaluations. In Version 1 students engaged in model building activities and were asked to develop physics-based models for a variety of biological and physiological facts. In Version 2 significant modifications were made to address difficulties students had in meeting the learning goals of Version 1. In particular, the number of different biological facts students were asked to model was reduced significantly, and more attention was paid to developing students’ model building skills. Only minor modifications were made in Version 3 to help provide more feedback and a clearer framework for model building to students.

We found that students suffered from several difficulties that prevented them from achieving the learning goals: a lack of conceptual understanding; underdeveloped models; and a lack of reflection on the models that they built. The revisions in the lesson were designed to address these difficulties, resulting in a lesson, which provides ample opportunities for feedback to students on the model building process and how it helps to make connections between physics and biology

Links related to the Lesson:

Links related to the Study:

Biology: Human Populations

Title: Human Populations
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology
Authors: Scott Cooper, Anne Galbraith, Dan Gerber, Deb Hanmer, Daniel Sutherland, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse


General Biology is an entry-level course for science majors.  It is designed to give students a background in the fundamental concepts in biology and to prepare them for upper level courses.  We focus on problem-solving skills and the ability to interpret biological data and form models based upon the theories discussed in lecture.

The lesson on Populations is at the end of the course.  In this lesson, we try to tie together concepts we have discussed earlier in the course.  In addition to understanding the principles that impact human population growth, we also want students to discover for themselves that human population growth has a negative impact on the environment, human health and quality of life.

Research Lesson

Students are bombarded with messages from 5th grade about how humans have a negative impact on the environment.  By the time they reach college and we lecture to them on the topic again, you can literally see their brains shut off.   Students in the US are also isolated from many environmental and health issues that are current problems in much of the world.  This can lead to the perception that overpopulation is not a problem because nothing bad has happened yet.

Most of the damage to the environment can be traced directly to human overpopulation.  We want the students to collect and discuss data relevant to this issue and draw their own conclusions. We want students to be able describe how human population levels and consumption impact the environment.

The lesson was be centered around “The Parasitologist’s Dilemma”.  A dilemma facing researchers and health care providers in developing countries is the balance between overpopulation and disease.  When an effective treatment for a disease is found, it invariably leads to an increase in population, which in turn decreases the quality of life for that population, and a decrease in environmental quality.  The alternative is to let nature run its course and keep populations in check through disease and starvation.

Students were assigned a variable to research related to human populations in the United States, France and Tanzania.  They prepared a powerpoint slide containing the data from these three countries and a statement summarizing the impact of any difference on population growth.  These were then projected in class, where the students compared all of the variables to answer some specific discussion questions.


The lesson appeared to be effective in getting students to at least look at and think about the data relevant to populations, consumption and impact on the environment.  Without a good measure of how they felt on the issue coming into class, it is difficult to know if the module changed anyone’s opinions.  Students seemed to be more engaged (at least they weren’t asleep), and we went into some topics in much greater detail than we did before.  Comparing 20 variables in 3 different countries gave us a lot of different questions we could address in class.  While complex, we feel it gave students some idea of the magnitude of the issues facing scientists studying public health and the environment on a global level.

Biology Lesson Study – Human Populations (Final Report) 

Biology: Presenting Evolutionary Theory

Title: Presenting Evolutionary Theory to Introductory Biology Students
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology
Authors: Anne Galbraith, Roger Haro, David Howard, Jennifer Miskowski, Dan Sutherland, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Submission Date: October 2007

Executive Summary: Many of our students come into this introductory biology course with very little background in evolutionary theory. Yet evolution provides the foundation for understanding all of modern biology! At the end of this lesson we hoped that students could
  1. understand and appreciate evolution as a scientific theory that is fundamental to all of biology,
  2. clearly explain how evolution works,
  3. use examples that show supporting evidence for evolution.

We developed a series of PowerPoint slides that began by introducing Charles Darwin as a man by taking advantage of a recent series of articles in the lay press, including magazines such as Natural History and National Geographic. We then went through Darwin’s logic in formulating his theory based on his observations while a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. We emphasized that Darwin’s contemporaries were simultaneously formulating similar theories. We provided evidence of other adaptive radiations besides the famous Galapagos finches such as cichlid fish and the Hawaiian honeycreepers. We then explained the principles of evolutionary theory and showed how they applied to these examples that had just been presented.

After this, we had an in-class assignment in which we presented increasingly useful information about a variety of mammals from which they had to produce a phylogenetic tree showing the relationships among these mammals. First we gave them information about the animals’ habitats and feeding habits. Then we introduced the concept of using skeletons and comparative anatomy and had them re-draw their trees. Then we introduced the concept of using DNA sequences and comparative genomics to show relationships and had them re-draw their trees once again. After this, we showed them the current “real” tree and showed them pictures of the common ancestor for these modern mammals for which fossils had been found recently. Finally, we gave them an out-of-class assignment which required them to use three other articles and the internet:
  1. to find examples of “transitional fossils” which creationists claim are few and far between,
  2. to find examples of “evolution in action” which creationists claim do not exist except for microevolution,
  3. to answer questions about the Hox genes which are conserved in organisms as diverse as fruit flies and humans. In another lecture section, we shared their work with the class.
We hoped that the human approach to presenting Charles Darwin would alleviate the preconceived ideas by some of our students that he was an “evil atheist”. We hoped that by presenting them with a myriad of examples that are not “worn out”, and by forcing them to find even more examples on their own with an assignment out-of-class, that they would understand the theory better and find it more difficult to just toss this theory aside.

Biology and Education: Enzyme Functions and Properties

Title: An Introduction to Biology Lab: Enzyme Functions and Properties
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology, Chemistry, Health, Medicine, Education
Authors: Kama Almasi, Lisa Bardon, Kurt Freund, Isabelle Girard, Eric Singsaas, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Submission Date: August 15, 2007

Student Learning Goals: We have two different types of goals we hope to address in this lesson.  We have lesson-specific goals and we have a few goals that we hope to address throughout the course.  In our course goals, we emphasize improving our students’ comprehension of scientific concepts.  In the lesson goals, we focus on concepts relevant to how enzymes work.

General Biology Course Goals
Students will be able to:

  1. Express biological processes using mathematical, graphical, and visual form with figures.
  2. Improve oral and written communication skills
  3. Enhance collaboration skills
  4. Develop the following basic laboratory techniques: following a protocol, pipeting, measure  volume, timing, data recording, and graphing.
  5. Develop the parts of a scientific report: introduction, methods, results, and discussion.

Enzyme Function Lesson Goals
Students will be able to:

  1. Formulate a scientific question in terms of a testable hypothesis
  2. Discover the importance of enzymes in cellular metabolism
  3. Describe enzyme roles and how they relate to other biological aspects.  Example: How enzyme response to temperature determines where organisms can live on earth.
  4. Recognize and interpret nonlinear responses from their data
  5. Identify and correct misconceptions about biological functions, including: enzymes add energy, enzymes are “alive”, enzymes can “decide”, enzyme reactions are “on/off”.
  6. Define and apply the following vocabulary: enzyme, product, optimization, catalyst, protein, substrate, saturation, rate, and equilibrium.

Findings and Discussion: The lesson was a (3-hr) laboratory exercise on enzyme reactions. Students used simple materials tomeasure the rate of oxygen production from hydrogen peroxide in the presence of catalase, extracted from potatoes, which catalyzes this reaction. Once the students learned the basic measurement, they were asked to vary the concentration of enzyme, concentration of hydrogen peroxide, the temperature, and add an inhibitor. Students were asked to graph their results (e.g., relationship between temperature and oxygen production rate) for each experiment and to answer questions about the experiment, procedure, and results at each stage of the experiment. At the end of class, groups were asked to share their results with the class and discuss any differences between their results and other groups’ results.

As a result of information we gained during initial observation of the lesson, we substantially revised the protocol and lesson plan. In observations during labs using the revised protocol, we observed substantial improvements in students engagement with the material: student use of terminology increased, discussion of the topic material increased, student-instructor interaction increased, and attention to procedural details decreased.

The process of lesson study demonstrated to us, in a very dramatic way, how ineffective we are in assessing our lessons while we are teaching them. Although we were familiar with the end results of the unimproved lesson, we had not been able to determine the source of difficulties. Only when we were allowed to serve as observers – and not as instructors – were we able to devote the attention needed to listen to student conversations and understand the challenges. Afterwards, it was surprisingly easy in our group to generate ideas to address the inadequacies of our design.

The practice of teaching without observation or reflection now seems absolutely absurd. However, we have all agreed that our current teaching loads prevent us from applying our lessons from lesson study in any practical way.

Biology: Understanding Antibiotic Resistance

Title: A Case Study-Based Approach to Scientific Literacy: Application of Science Concepts and Lab Techniques to Understanding Antibiotic Resistance
Discipline(s) or Field(s):
ors: Elaine O. Hardwick, Kim L. Mogen, John Wheeler, University of Wisconsin-River Falls
Submission Date:
May 2009

 The theme of the lesson study was the concept- and lab-based investigation of antibiotic resistance.

Learning goals: Students will be able to:

  1. explain the basic scientific concepts related to the study of antibiotic resistance.
  2. describe the methods used to investigate bacterial antibiotic resistance.
  3. relate their overall knowledge of antibiotic resistance based on application of concept- and data-based knowledge and experience.

Instructional design:  The problem-based lesson study employed a case study framework where students role-played as public health interns investigating a community outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacterial species E.coli. As described in the Learning goals, the three major aspects of the lesson study, conceptual knowledge, collection and application of data-based knowledge, and communication of overall knowledge, culminated in an oral presentation of each group’s project. In addition to meeting campus general education requirements, the collaborative group format of the project addresses one of our departmental program goals (Appendix 3) and was primarily assessed in a narrative fashion (Appendix 4) by individual students at the end of the project.

Our approach was straightforward in that both lecture and lab sessions introduced, discussed, and reviewed biological concepts related to antibiotic resistance and application of the scientific method process to “solve and explain” the issues set forth in the case study. The focus of the lab was to approximate standard microbiological methods used by public health professionals to test antibiotic resistance of E. coli. Lastly, students were evaluated on their overall knowledge via an oral PowerPoint presentation.

Major findings about student learning: The majority of students were able to clearly communicate their understanding of antibiotic resistance using the case-study framework. Having the case-study allowed students to research similar published studies to formulate hypotheses, compare data, and discuss outcomes of their “internship”. Application of standard methods used to collect data about antibiotic resistance of E. coli was completed in collaborative groups where students (in both lesson study sessions) were successful in explaining and applying their data to the case-study scenario. Students were able to utilize the strengths of group members to compile their project data and researched background information to present their projects in a PowerPoint format in language understandable to peers and instructors. Upon the second iteration of the lesson, instructors were able to implement the student suggestions (from the initial lesson) to improve student comprehension of concepts and facilitate collaborative groups via additional in-class time set aside specifically for the project. Student self-assessment of the project through a narrative format revealed positive changes in student comprehension with respect to previous misconceptions regarding, for example, differences between bacteria and viruses and human resistance to antibiotics. Students were clearly able to articulate basic information about antibiotics, E.coli, and the impact of these topics on their personal lives.