Readings   • Classes   • Recitations   • Homework   • Quizzes   • Tests   • Labs   • Excuses   • Grading

Class details

MWF 9:05 – 9:55
Clough 423

This class is an active learning experience! Think “aerobics class” rather than “watching a good science program on TV”! In all parts of the class, you will be engaged in thinking about, talking about, figuring out, and learning physics.

Piazza forum for discussion

Problem solving procedures


There are readings in this class, but we have chosen not to use a standard text. In part this is because there is no standard introductory physics text that covers the physics that is most useful for applications in the life sciences. Our goal is to start with what you know from introductory biology and chemistry — and your everyday experience! — and teach you the physics that is most relevant for understanding living things. For this purpose, the course has an online wiki-book. Before each lecture there will be a few (fairly short) web pages for you to read — equivalent to a few sections of a textbook chapter.  For the “Reading Assignment” bucket points, you will be required to answer a few questions about the readings before class (using WebAssign). The readings can be found on the schedule (see tab at top of page) and the questions on WebAssign.

In addition, we will periodically ask you to ask us questions about the readings. There are three purposes to having you ask questions:

  • The first and most important is to help you to learn to read scientific text more effectively. Often, a scientific text may appear confusing at first read. Many students try to solve this by re-reading the material multiple times until it feels familiar. This can lead to glossing over misunderstandings. A better approach is to go through the text carefully, figuring out where you are stuck, analyzing why, and asking the right question. Note that, “I didn’t understand this reading” is not a question but a statement. It will not receive credit for a reading question. You need to identify what it is that you do not understand.
  • Seeing where many of you are confused about a particular reading will help the lecturer decide how much of the material to go over in lecture. If there are no questions about understanding, the lecturer will assume that everyone has understood all the readings and go from there.
  • If you do understand the material, you should still be processing it — thinking about how it relates to other things you know, what the relevance might be to something you are interested in, or what the next step might be. We expect you to be able to formulate a useful scientific question from any reading that you have understood.


The “lectures” will typically begin with a recap of the content of the previous night’s reading with relevant examples given. The rest of the class will be interactive and may include group problem solving, clicker questions, demonstrations, discussions, and other activities.


In addition to the reading questions there will be weekly homework assignments.

You will be asked to do at least 5-10 challenging problems including estimations, explanations, worked out problems, and even some challenging multiple-choice questions. One problem will be written out on paper and will be due at the first class of the week (usually Monday). The other problems will be submitted through WebAssign; the online problems are typically due on Sunday evening.

We do not have sufficient resources to provide full grading of the homework with feedback on all the problems. Problems submitted in class will be graded on a simple 3-point scale. As a result, you will need to go over the solutions carefully and compare to what you have done to be sure you understand. Do not interpret the fact that you have received all the points to mean that you have solved the problem correctly!

Homework and in-class problem solving is where most of the learning in this class gets done! You are strongly encouraged to find a group of two or three other students in the class to work with. Part of our goal for this class is to help you learn how to participate in scientific discussions about problem solving. This is the way real science gets done, both in research labs and in health care environments! It’s best to try some things on your own first, then get together and discuss what you each think. Learn to probe and evaluate each others’ ideas, looking at things from different angles, looking for consistency and correctness of reasoning, not just answers. You are encouraged to work together, but be careful to write up your solutions independently. Don’t construct a common solution and copy it! If two or more submitted answers are essentially identical, neither will receive credit.

Do a careful and complete job on your homework. If you are not earning full credit and looking at the solutions doesn’t help you for next time, check with an instructor and go over what more you need to do.


The recitation sections will be group problem solving. They take place within the scheduled lab period of the class. Typically, you will work through an extended multi-part problem in groups of 3-5. Often these will have a biological context.


We will have graded quizzes in recitation in approximately half of the lab periods. Quizzes will focus on important — and sometimes subtle — fundamental issues (often from the previous week’s material). The point of these quizzes is to help you see where you might still be confused. Clear hints on the topic of each quiz will be provided in class during the week of the quiz.

Tests and exam

We will have three midterms tests and a final exam. Each test will probe how well you have learned to use and make sense of the material. As a result, you will be expected to think on tests. The final exam will be approximately double in length and it will be cumulative.

  • Test problems will not be standard end-of-chapter problems. You will be expected to think, not recall previously memorized information. Questions of the type found on our tests will be included in the homework problems (especially the non-Web Assign paper problems), lab quizzes, and recitation problems. Further, problems from previous tests will be available on Piazza.
  • Tests are not curved – For tests, we do NOT grade on a curve.  This means that someone else’s doing well on a test will never negatively affect your grade. If you all do extremely well on a test, we will give you all A’s for that test.
  • Regrades — Since we go over exams in class, you will be able to get a good sense of how it was graded. If you think the grader misunderstood what you were saying, or failed to give you proper credit, you can apply to the TAs or to the instructor for a regrade by writing a clear description of why you think you should have more points on a regrade form and turning it in with your exam. (Simply asking to “please take another look” will be returned without evaluation.) In addition to grading error, if you can make a case that you made an early error, but correctly carried out later parts that depended on that error, you can request consistency points. Again, you will have to explain your argument carefully in writing. Be sure not to write on your exam itself since this will mean we would have to look up the scanned exams to see what you originally wrote. If you alter a graded exam and request a regrade we will automatically report it as an honor code violation.  Don’t do it!


The laboratories in this class will let you experience and explore the topics of lecture and recitation in the real world. You also will learn techniques that are directly applicable to studying living things, for example how to characterize the motion of an object moving under a microscope.

The lab experiments are different from the traditional “protocol” labs where you are told exactly what to do and expect to get a result that agrees with some theoretical prediction. These are design labs — labs in which your job is to design and carry out an experiment to answer a question.

Each lab experiment will be carried out over two or more weeks to give you time to learn a new technique and to answer a question. An important part of the lab is a discussion at the end where you present and discuss your results to the other members of your class.

For more details and for the lab handouts, go to our Lab page.

Attendance at every lab is required. If you anticipate missing a lab session, try to arrange ahead of time to attend another lab section for that session (for a 1-week lab) or for the entire lab unit (for a 2-week lab). If it is not possible to attend a different lab session, contact your TA as soon as you are aware of your impending absence. Only those with a VALID WRITTEN EXCUSE for missing a lab will be allowed to do a makeup activity at the end of the semester (that will take at least two hours and may involve doing another lab or evaluating data). If you do not have a valid written excuse, you will get a zero for the week that you missed. You may make up a maximum of two excused absences. If you miss more than two weeks (have more than two ‘zeros’, i.e., if you miss more than two lab sessions), you may receive an incomplete or a failing grade for the entire class.


If you have a valid excuse for missing an exam, quiz, or homework, send an email to your instructor to arrange what to do about it, beforehand if at all possible. Specify the date and day you will be (or were) absent and the reasons. Ex post facto (after the fact) excuses will require validation and may not be acceptable. (Wanting to leave early before a holiday is NOT a valid excuse.) You must contact your lead instructor. Your TA does not have the authority to excuse you from any required class activity.


Grades in this class arise from a mix of many different ways to judge your work, NOT solely from your performance on exams. Be sure you understand the components!

The result is a grade that is a more accurate representation of your performance in the class. It also means that you can blow one exam and still get an A if your work in other categories is first rate!  Furthermore, it means that if you do very poorly on any one category — say you don’t hand in any homework or take any of the lab quizzes — it can be difficult to get a decent grade! For details of what the categories are see the Grading Detail page.