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Re: [Phys-l] Premed Requirements Commentary

On 09/19/2006 08:12 AM, Rick Tarara wrote:

Why don't we just quit and go do something else for a living?

Maybe we should, especially if after hearing certain people drone on about
low scores on the FCI (Force Concept Inventory) we actually believe that our
courses are ineffective. ....

OR.....we can turn off the broken record of certain critics

That's (a) absolutely true, but (b) mostly beside the point:

a) There are "certain critics" on this list whom I killfiled years ago,
due to their never having anything constructive or informative to say.

b) OTOH the opinion piece by Dr. Emanuel is in a different catetory.
It raises questions that ought not be "turned off". Indeed it raises
questions that all good teachers should spontaneously ask themselves
every day.

I would say the Dr. Emanuel teed up the issue too narrowly. At many
colleges, enrollments are such that it is infeasible to have "math for
premeds", "chemistry for premeds", "physics for premeds" et cetera.

The broader issue is as follows: IMHO to a first approximation the
required undergrad courses (in math, science, and everything else)
should teach stuff "everybody" should know, whether they are pre-med,
pre-law, or pre-Indian-chief.

My point is that if somebody asks "why is this course relevant" the
teacher should have an immediate, enthusiastic, emphatic answer.

Two _generic_ answers have been mentioned in this thread:
1) weeding out, and
2) teaching "general thinking skills".

These generic answers, while perfectly true and commendable as far as
they go, don't go nearly far enough. They are seriously weak and
1) The weeding-out function can be performed equally well by a relevant
course as by an irrelevant course. Students, downline teachers (e.g.
med school faculty) and everybody else can reasonably prefer relevant
weeding to irrelevant weeding.
2a) Similarly, the "general thinking skills" can be taught equally well
by a relevant course as by an irrelevant course.
2b) Some undergrad science courses have been dumbed-down to the point
where thinking is not a major goal of the course, or is even actively
penalized. (Examples available on request.)

I applied the term "generic" to the weeding-out and general-thinking answers
because they can be applied without regard to the specific course. For
example, you could justify requiring Latin on the same grounds.

Ask yourself how well the generic answers worked out for the Latin

My point remains: No matter who asks, no matter whether the question is
well-asked or not, the teacher should have a good answer to the question
of why the course is relevant.
-- There should be a one-sentence "elevator" summary.
-- There should be a one-paragraph "executive summary".
-- There should be a one-or-two-page systematic analysis.

Terminological note: An "elevator" story is defined as follows:
Suppose you are working at a large institution, and you find
yourself in an elevator with your boss's boss's boss's boss.
You have 5 seconds to explain why the project you are working
on is the niftiest project in the whole world.

On the first day of my first job, my mentor explained this, and
told me I should always have an elevator story ready. I didn't
need to be told twice. I have benefitted from this on quite a
few occasions.

Perhaps it would be even better to say that *after* we have made the
first-order argument as to why the course is relevent, *then* we are
eligible to use weeding-out and general-thinking as second-order
non-specific supporting arguments.


IMHO Dr. Emanuel greatly underestimates the relevance of typical
undergrad physics courses. His remark about the spinning top is
a cheap shot; the spinning top is merely one illustration of a
general principle. The value comes from the general principle,
not from this particular illustration.

OTOH we are still obliged to answer the question of why the course
is relevant. Let me give it a try:
-- The great conservation laws (energy, momentum, charge, etc.)
are directly relevant to practicing physicians, and indeed
to all persons in everyday life. This includes not only the
specifics of the laws but also an appreciation for the value
of applying them when possible. This may be an opportunity
for improving the relevance of some courses, since IMHO not
enough emphasis is placed on real-world applications of the
scaling laws, such as the energetics of car-crashes, and the
basis of the emergency braking/steering question (whether to
stop short or swerve around an obstacle).
-- Scaling laws are directly relevant to practicing physicians,
and indeed to all persons in everyday life. Scaling laws have
been at the core of modern science since Day One (1638) and
remain at the core; I get 40 hits from
This may be an opportunity for improving the relevance of some
courses, since IMHO not nearly enough emphasis is typically
placed on scaling laws.
-- The basic physics of gasses and fluids is directly relevant
to practicing physicians, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) to
all persons in everyday life. This includes air pressure,
partial pressures, blood pressure, gravitational corrections
thereto, viscosity, etc. etc. etc.
-- The basic physics of atoms is valuable as a foundation-stone
in preparation for chemistry which in turn is the foundation
of drug action, biochemistry in general, and other topics Dr.
Emanuel mentions approvingly.
-- The elementary electrical circuit ideas covered in typical
physics courses are directly relevant to a significant subset
of practicing physicians, and indeed to many persons in
everyday life. This includes normal operation (not to mention
debugging) of EKG machines, plus nerve conduction, plus safety
issues whenever wires come in contact with patients (especially
when there is broken skin).
-- et cetera.

In the other pan of the balance, it is easy to identify a lot
of stuff in the typical physics syllabus that is of questionable
relevance. Some of it seems to be leftovers from the "hot topics"
of previous centuries. Some of it seems to be stuff that only
serves the interests of budding physics majors, who are not the
majority of the students (with rare and obviously-exceptional


We, as teachers, should not be the sole judge of the relevance
of our courses.

We should track down alumni (including doctors, lawyers, and
Indian chiefs) and ask them what elements of the course are
relevant to their work, and to their daily lives. I've done
a bit of this, and the answers have been (especially at first)
surprising. For example, the aforementioned remarks about the
physics of driving were not something I made up; I've heard
that from multiple sources.

We should also track down the teachers of downline courses and
ask them what they consider relevant foundation for their courses.

We need to ask these questions, and we need to know the answers
by heart.