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Physics Experiments with Applications in Life Sciences

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Every year about 300 students take the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Introduction to Laboratory Physics course for non-majors. Approximately 55 percent of enrolled students come from life science disciplines such as biology, neuroscience, pre-medicine, and pre-dentistry: understanding physics is important to these areas of study, and this course is a requisite for many of the graduate and undergraduate students.

Even though most people are familiar with physics applications in medicine, such as X-ray machines, MRIs, and surgical lasers, there are many less obvious applications of physics as it relates to the life sciences (e.g., the function of the human eye and ear, the way that blood pressure is measured, and the motion of fluids through cellular walls). However, these examples are usually not included in the traditional set of students’ experiments—a typical introductory lab experiment is designed as a stand alone demonstration of a basic principle without any particular application in mind. It teaches the students about physics but doesn’t show them the relevance to their major or, ultimately, to their future careers.

Through his ACIE project, Physics Experiments with Applications in the Life Sciences, Russell J. Clark, Physics and Astronomy, will develop for use in the introductory lab five new experiments that make the connection between physics and the life science fields. Clark will use the project funds to purchase, among other things, (1) optical models of the human eye, (2) tuning forks for studying the perception of pitch by the human ear, (3) sphygmomanometers for measuring blood pressure, (4) EKG sensors, and (5) motion detectors for studying human locomotion. He will use the remaining funds to develop and build equipment (with the help of the physics and astronomy machine shop) that is not commercially available (e.g., a device used to study osmosis and another to study Archimedes’ principle).

The new experiments from this ACIE project will be developed through summer and fall 2004 and students will first apply them during spring 2005. Clark hopes that the majority of the students taking the lab will find these experiments interesting, and that, in turn, will help them to understand why physics is important to their chosen fields of study. Furthermore, by increasing the interests of the students, these experiments might even make learning physics a little easier.


SEPTEMBER 2004

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